Leila Watkins has known she wants to pursue agriculture for as long as she can remember.
So this past summer, she spent her days fencing and herding cattle and goats out on the McAfees’ family farm in Lewis, through an internship offered by the Southwest Conservation Corps. It was physical labor, but she loved every second.
“This internship that I did over the summer, it really just drove that home, that’s what I want to do with my life,” she said.
The idea for this particular internship came about through the Montezuma Inspire Coalition as a means of offering “progressive successive opportunities,” said Teresa DiTore, youth programs manager for SCC, a MIC partner. It was primarily funded through Great Outdoors Colorado, although the McAfees brought Leila on a bit earlier on a contractual basis.
Chuck McAfee was especially keen on giving a young woman the change to assist with ranching operations on their 2,300-acre parcel, where they now focus on growing grasses for grazing.
“I think it’s an opportunity for young women to learn more about ranching and farming,” he said.
Leila had been around livestock and cattle since she was young, helping out around her uncle’s ranch in Mancos. Matt Keefauver, the principal at SWOS, approached her last spring about the internship opportunity, and after interviewing with her new employers, she got the job.
Although the internship gave her a lot of autonomy and responsibility, Leila also was able to learn from two other ranching pros: Sheldonna
Zwicker and Sarah Bangert. Their day-to-day operations varied, ranging from working with Sarah’s goats to herding cattle and fencing with Sheldonna. Sometimes they would work on foot, while other times Leila could be found on horseback.
Leila was hard-working and resourceful, Sheldonna said. Serving as a mentor also made Sheldonna realize the value of passing on skills — even those that can seem like second nature to a seasoned rancher.
“They’re skills they can take somewhere else,” Sheldonna said.
Leila also helped Sarah monitor utilization cages, small wire enclosures that allow farmers to evaluate plant growth and soil fertility without fear of deer or other grazers destroying the crop.
“It was definitely a little drier this year than what past years’ data has shown,” she said. “And so I learned how to look for that, and what to look for, like look for the coverage, the different kinds of plants that are in the cage that are doing better than others.”
Sarah Bangert, who does environmental consulting along with running a goat grazing business, said that Leila’s drive and ability to self-manage were crucial.
“Both of us do a lot of work by ourselves, and so really what we need is someone who can come in here, we can give them a task and they can use their deductive reasoning to get said task done,” she said. “Even if it’s not a system that’s totally spelled out in a manual, they can still figure it out. And Leila was definitely that person.”
Finding ranching and farming opportunities for young people is especially critical at this juncture in time, Sarah said.
“The agriculture world is facing basically an emergency, where the average age of a rancher is over 65 years old,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to continue to support a growing human population and grow the food that we need if the younger generation can’t get into ranching.”
Leila’s now in her senior year at SWOS, and continues to work part-time at the McAfees’ farm when she is free. She’s planning on someday pursuing equine science.
“I want to be able to help other people get through the things that life brings, using pet therapy or animal therapy, but mostly using horses because they really, really do help,” Leila said. “I want to pursue that as a career and pursue horse work as a career.”