The Value of a Work-Study Program

By Chloe Burns, Tallgrass Network youth outreach coordinator

(Photos not taken by me are courtesy of Spencer Smith.)

One of our afternoon rides.

1. What is a work-study program?

A work-study program is a type of course offered by select Savory Hubs.  

They can be general or specialized to fit your interests, depending on the hub and the people involved.  Lengths of stay can also vary, many ranging from two weeks to a month at a time.

2. Where did you go and for how long?

A small dust storm, blown in from Nevada.

I went to the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, located in the Great Basin area of Northern California.

I stayed there for two weeks with the Smith family -- other students of theirs have stayed in a cabin off of the grounds, but I know the Smiths quite well so I stayed in-house.

3. How much time was devoted to Holistic Management training?

This is where the personalized part of the program was a factor.  I had already taken many of the in-person courses offered on our own hub, and was scheduled to take more once I returned home, so I didn't take any official courses while I was in California (although I think past students had taken some during their stays).  However, I was able to travel with Spencer to a talk and two consultations he gave about Holistic Management, where I listened to other perspectives on the practice and got some new figures and data that I hadn't known before.

The cattle were quite comfortable with our continued appearances. 

Every day on the ranch, we checked the herd and inspected the various pastures to evaluate recovery time and overall progression of the pasture, and to discuss where the animals would be moving next. I learned about how the ecology of the Great Basin differs from that of Eastern Kansas, and how that affects the way they manage it. I also learned about soil succession and how the fungal-to-bacterial ratio in the soil can determine what is able to grow there. While Eastern Kansas tends to shift toward fungal-dominated soil, which can prompt woodland-type ecosystems to grow, the Great Basin shifts towards bacterially-dominated soil, which prompts more shrubby growth.

4. Did you learn any other skills while you were there?

Yes! While each of these skills will take some more practice to gain mastery in, I learned how to rope and brand cattle, trim horse hooves, doctor and gentle an injured colt, and weld.

All of these skills were a blast to learn, but I really fell in love with welding, which means we can now hire in-house for welding projects that pop up from time to time.

5. You actually branded cattle?

With an iron, yes. California has branding laws, due to the fact that people operate on massive areas of land and can be vulnerable to cattle rustlers. (That's right -- just like the old west. Except now they have portable trailers.) Owners brand the cattle when they're young, and although it does hurt for a few seconds, as soon as it's done the animals jump up immediately and walk off. And the mark is permanent, so once is the only time they have to endure it.

I hadn't intended to brand cattle; I showed up to the branding with a camera to take pictures. Then, one of the men who was running the branding came up to me, took my camera, and handed me a hot iron.  I don't know how many calves I branded, but I'm told that over five and you're called an "Ace," so I can add that to my resume.

6. Was it critical that you already knew Holistic Management before you went?

Our consultation of a small-scale farmer's operation.

Again, the program was fairly personalized.  I came in with a pretty good understanding of Holistic Management, but a lot of that knowledge came from hands-on work at our hub in Kansas. I definitely think you make the most out of your time if you're already familiar with the method and the basic principles, but by no means do you have to be an expert. Getting to see how decisions are made and played out in person really helps connect the thoughts with the actions and the results.  In short: I would have gotten something out of it no matter my level of knowledge of HM. You have to start somewhere.

7. Was it critical that you had hands-on farming experience?

All of this being said, if you've never touched one, I don't recommend jumping on a horse.

This question is a bit harder to answer, because I grew up working on a farm, so there are many things that are second nature to me.  I definitely used a lot of my previous knowledge about animals and infrastructure, but that doesn't mean I didn't still get to learn new ways to do things. The best way to answer this is to spin it a bit differently: If you don't have deeply ingrained knowledge of what it means to work on a farm, don't let that discourage you.  Just be vocal about it.  Ask questions, make it clear what you know how to do and what you don't.  As someone who has been on the other end of it, I can say that I would much rather have someone inexperienced who asks questions and is aware of their limitations rather than have someone who is phoning it in.

8. What is your advice to students for getting the most out of your work-study program?

I would say to definitely document your time there.  The location of the Jefferson Hub was absolutely beautiful, and far different from anything I'm used to.  I took my phone with me everywhere (even carrying it in my bra for the treacherous horseback rides when it threatened to slip out of my pocket), even though there was no service for an AT&T customer, just so that I could use the camera.

Along those same lines, try and fully immerse yourself in the work.  This is the same advice people give to study-abroad students, and it's important to take it.  If you're spending your time getting caught up in what's going on at home, you won't be fully involved in your work.  I still talked to my family and posted pictures of the place to Instagram, but aside from a few hours in the evening, I was cut off from home.

And lastly, be vocal about what it is you want.  Spencer gave me a lot of opportunities to choose what I wanted to do (most of the time I chose welding), and when I left I felt like I'd really learned a new trade.  It's important to let your teachers lead, but it's also important that you get out of it what you invested.

9. What advice would you give to farms who want to host a work-study?

Don't be too intimidated.  Of course I say this assuming that I was a good house guest and that I wasn't underfoot at the ranch while I was there, but ultimately if you're clear about what it is you expect out of your student and you keep up that communication, the whole process is pretty painless.

Be prepared to learn from your student, too.  Although I can't speak to exactly what Spencer learned from me while I was talking his ear off, we did have a lot of conversations about the differences in our regions and how we work on our hubs.  It's a great time to interact with people who come from different contexts and deal with different challenges.

10. How will this inform your future career?

This question is hard for me no matter the subject, because I try to stay extremely open-minded about my future.  However, I will say that I learned a lot about myself during my study.

A picture of me on the last day I was there, posing with the wire-roller I welded.

I learned that I do really well with a daily schedule that revolves around physical work.  I enjoyed the daily creative problem-solving, the continuous learning, and just being outside and gaining new experiences.

I also got more experience in visual documentation.  As a film major, I'm interested in people's stories and how best to share them with the world, so getting to do that, even just on the side, was a blast for me.  I also did a bit of creative writing while I was there, although that was mostly just for fun.

I don't know if I'm going to move out west and become a cowgirl, but I do know that I want to travel and work toward a greater cause.  Traveling with the Savory Institute to work on hubs and combat climate change, therefore, is a definite option.  My work-study program didn't just give me a good experience on my resume; it also presented me with a bunch of options for work in my future, should I choose to pursue them.

Learn more about the Jefferson Hub here. (For best viewing results, watch in HD.)