I first meet Randy Ramsley on a clear morning in Utah, the kind where I want to stand half in sun and half in shade. My classmates and I have been bouncing along dirt roads for days in the van we have christened Jedidiah Smith. The Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) logo magnetized to Jedidiah’s side is caked with red mud. Today, we are grateful to be driving on the only paved road in this part of Utah. We pass a tall, hand-painted wooden sign reading “Mesa Farm Market,” and instructor Ryan brings Jedidiah to a stop. My classmates and I tumble out and ogle at the rare green landscape that lays between us and the bare mesas. This is Randy’s farm.
A man in his 60s with a thin frame, grey t-shirt, and white hair in a ponytail greets us inside the market building. The smell of freshly baked bread wafts across the counter, but Randy shepherds us back outdoors for a tour of the farm before we are allowed to indulge. He introduces himself as a farmer, but we soon discover that he is much more than that; Randy is a philosopher, physicist, storyteller, and caretaker of the land.
Three years later, I talk to Randy again, over Zoom. His white hair whisps from under his faded WRFI ball cap, and he is eager to talk. Our conversation ranges from the Age of Aquarius to Chinese oracles to kidding goats to the collective unconscious. Just as in 2018, I am struck by Randy’s self-awareness and presence. 25 years of working this land have taught Randy the importance of connecting with the natural world, both for growing food and for personal fulfillment. His connection to the world brings him joy.
When Randy began farming, he had a plan to make the land produce food for him, but he quickly learned that connecting with the earth could not mean forcing his will on the land. Randy tells me about failed cover crops and the observation he made one autumn day while walking his irrigation channels: wild growing yellow clover, a potential cover crop. In this moment, Randy realized, “It’s not a question of what I can make this land do, it’s a question of what this land wants to give me.” The next season, he planted the yellow clover as a cover crop, and it grew like wildfire, enriching the soil. Once Randy listened to the land, he could work with the land to produce food.
As Randy learned more about what connecting with the earth meant in practice, his vision of the farm morphed; organic produce changed to food as medicine and then food as nourishment for life. Today, when customers visit the farm, Randy offers the food triad: food, oxygen, and the chance to live through our senses, or be present. Although I remember enjoying fresh bread, homemade goat cheese, and vegetables picked from the garden upon my order, the highlight of my visit was observing Randy’s way of engaging with the land.
Meeting Randy in 2018 was part of my introduction to slowing down and listening to the land. During the remainder of the two months on my WRFI course, I backpacked the canyons, canoed the rivers, and met residents of the Colorado Plateau. I learned to embody an attitude of I-want-to-be-right-here-right-now, instead of I-want-to-travel-everywhere. I tell this to Randy, and he says he sees this reflected broadly in WRFI programming. “That’s one of the things I love about [WRFI],” he remarks. “You actually do take the time to sit down in your travels. You do contemplate the nature of the Colorado Plateau.”
In the past year, tourists escaping COVID-19 lockdowns have flocked to the Colorado Plateau; many of these tourists have yet to learn the lesson I learned on my WRFI course and Randy learned through farming. “I think what people are seeking is this inner peace,” laments Randy. “They think they’re going to go out and take it with all this gear and all this stuff and jam it into a weekend.” When people come asking where they should go to take the stock landscape photo, he wants to tell them, “Maybe you should just walk out there a half mile and sit down and see what happens.”
The photo-seeking tourists frustrate Randy and the increased tourism has been destructive to natural areas on the Plateau, but Randy remains optimistic. If the tourists learn to care for and listen to the land, they will experience the fulfillment that Randy has come to know, and perhaps teach others what they have learned. In the best case scenario, COVID-19 could be the catalyst for an age of awareness, consciousness, and enlightenment. Randy references the song, “Age of Aquarius,” by 5th Dimension. I have to look it up.
For more about Mesa Farm Market:
Renne Baldwin is a graduate of WRFI’s 2018 Colorado Plateau course. She is pursuing a Master’s in Geography at the University of British Columbia and is enjoying learning about the history and ecology of the Pacific Northwest.