Hands-on learning at the Flagstaff Eco-Ranch

By: Makenna Lepowsky

It is almost spring and budding plants are sprouting from the soil. With the first sign of spring, local farmers can begin to replace snow shovels with rakes and bags of soil. For the Flagstaff Ecoranch, springtime signals the time to put down the first layer of dirt in the garden bed. Seeds of sage, elderberry other plants are then packed away in cool, damp soil to begin harvest.

At the Flagstaff Ecoranch, the garden beds will soon be ready for harvest as snow is beginning to clear. (Photo: Makenna Lepowsky)

Jeff Meilander is the founder of the Flagstaff Ecoranch. His devotion to nature and agriculture has led him to travel around the globe to study eco-diverse regions such as South America, the Czech Republic, Patagonia and Chile. Creating the Ecoranch has allowed Meilander to successfully integrate his experience, passion and knowledge of agriculture into an educational program.

Much preparation is still needed in the coming months, and the Ecoranch encourages all the help they can get. The ranch offers an internship through Northern Arizona University (NAU) for anyone interested in earth sciences and agriculture.

A student can also intern at the Ecoranch to complete a capstone: a multifaceted course, which can serve as an experiential practice to prepare a student for his or her career.

“We do a lot of programs where volunteers come out and we get them involved with the projects we’re doing,” said Meilander. “When we work with interns or capstone students rather than being like, ‘hey here you go intern write up some papers and answer emails and do these monotonous chores that we don’t want to do,’ instead we say, ‘let’s collaborate and let’s find out what your interests are what your passions are and let’s figure out what we need in our development and align those things together.’”

Entering onto the property, guests are greeted by chickens, and a sign that reads, “The Flagstaff Ecoranch,”which hangs from the chicken coop. (Photo: Makenna Lepowsky)

Farm work and curriculum vary. In the spring and summer, interns often work outside and can learn to manage plant harvest, bee hives, livestock or composting. Workers may also forage for herbs to make into honey and other cultivations.

On an overcast day at the Flagstaff Ecoranch, the chickens huddle together in the corner of the fenced yard, outside of the chicken coop, Feb. 22. (Photo: Makenna Lepowsky)

In the fall or winter, work is focused towards property management, such as water efficiency, waste reduction, rebuilding ranch infrastructure, insulating chicken coops, building raised garden beds and more.

John Christ is an NAU alumni who previously interned at the Ecoranch. Christ accredits much of his abilities to the formative and hands on internship he had at the Ecoranch.

“When I got out to the Ecoranch, I was doing a fall internship so it was a little different in the sense that I wasn’t necessarily managing plants …,” said Christ. “I took care of common ranch tasks like building gates and fences, securing places where certain chickens could get out and predators couldn’t get in. I specifically took care of insulating the chicken coop to increase egg production … so that was a really hands on experience being inside the chicken coop, pretty much just making it that much more of a livable space for the livestock.”

Christ notes that the hands-on experience one can get when working at the Ecoranch is crucial for a career in agriculture.

“I think it paramount. I mean you can sit in front of the textbook all you want but until you get out in the field you don’t really realize the intricacies of everything,” Christ said. “It’s a per-site basis [farming] and it’s extremely experiential … If you’re going to be in this industry, you got to be in the field.”

At property’s edge, a rustic mailbox lists the address of the Flagstaff Ecoranch, ensuring guests they have arrived. (Photo: Makenna Lepowsky)

The Ecoranch is one man’s passion developed into a place of learning. As spring approaches, the approximate 1.6-acre land that makes up the Ecoranch will begin to prosper, as will the Ecoranch interns as they learn about sustainable agriculture.

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