Lighthearted Advice for New Apprentices

Lighthearted Advice for New Apprentices

by Denise Mc Keown, 2018 Rancho Mastatal Apprentice

NOTE: For those of you not proficient in Denise’s North Irish humor, this article is written with tongue in cheek about the Ranch’s 11-month apprenticeship.

Arriving in the jungle was quite a shock, especially when they called the time of year of our arrival the “dry season”. Moisture seemed to pervade every orifice. Sometimes that was a good thing, but mostly I’d argue that it was not. Still, the vegetation thrived, as did the bacterial and yeast colonies that fill every niche of life in this ecosytem. As apprentices we learn how to wield these little microscopic buggers for our own benefit in a process colloquially known as “fermentation”. Sandor Katz, the well-known author of Wild Fermentation and other great books about food refers to this process as the place where “life meets death”. He suggests that the best tool for informing you at which point you arrive to a nice fermentation equilibrium is your sense of smell. Here at the Ranch that equates to anywhere along the continuum of “rico” to “bury it deep in the compost”. Piece of Advice 1: When the stinks right, eat it.


The tropical woods that we are afforded to work with gave me a special type of masochistic pleasure. I could lovingly carve some poor joinery with inexperienced hands only to awake the next day and see my piece, bowed four ways from Friday, writhing and distorted. It’s a fun feature of fast growing tropical wood and a never ending learning curve. Piece of Advice 2: Don’t forget that two people test all your furniture so embrace the process of “practice”.


Upon arriving to the Ranch I was staggered by its feats of natural building, much like the adobe bricks that I made at the start of my apprenticeship. Yet the result of the adobe's’ non-conformity, as I liked to qualify their shape, meant that they had to be rendered back to the earth from once they came. Piece of advice 3: Do it right or do it again.

“Ag” is not an abbreviation for agroforestry or agriculture around here as it is commonly thought.  Instead it’s what you will say and feel when your knee-deep in the orchards. It’s also what you’ll exclaim when you taste the fruits of our labor and that of many others before us. It’s a different world in those food production systems; miracle fruit, mangosteens, ice cream beans, cashew apples, rambutan, vanilla and black pepper. Prepare to have buckets and wheelbarrows of fun helping the fruit trees to thrive. Piece of Advice 4: Don’t touch the cute caterpillars and watch out for snakes.


You’ll really dig Zone 1.  Take care to nurse and propagate the work we started. Remembering that sometimes it’s overwhelming and that it will be your job to swing that ‘whelm’ towards the food and flowers and not the weeds. Piece of Advice 5: Learn to fill a nursery bag the right way from the get go.

I wish I could tell you that “Chester the Molester” was just a cute nick name, but “molestar you” he will, which is fine as he’s just one of the Ranch’s cat. The less said about Max (short for “Maximo Gordo) the better. “Lola” or “Lolita” is just like the story, a young pup who’s only companion is a male dog several times her age, the elder which we call Jack. They all protect the Ranch from motorbikes and people with umbrellas and hats. Piece of Advice 6: Don’t f**k with Chester.


The core team might be the only thing in the tropics not trying to kill you.  This is because they have enough to do. While it might feel like you’re doing some of the shittiest jobs, pun intended, it’s nothing compared to the effort put in by the “tico” team. If you make it through the first three months, you’ll be capable of the rest.  If you do it without any holes in your clothes, then you’re not really doing it. Or you have some fancy-assed clothes. Piece of Advice 7: Remember that “ticos” can always do it faster and better

The tropics will jolt you in the same way they will your electronics, leaving you somewhat reeling and occasionally frozen in time when asked to do more than one task at once. You’ve been forewarned now, so come prepared for your life to never be the same again. Last Piece of Advice: If you care about it, leave it home.