Conservation fellow comes home, continues agricultural education

Farm and Food

Cait Caughey contributed to this story.

In an effort to help save her family’s ranch, Elle Worley traded her life in a concrete jungle for the wide, open spaces of the Nebraska Sandhills.

In 2021, Elle returned to her mother's hometown of Dunning, Nebraska, and began working at her family’s operation, WM. Zutavern Cattle Co. Last year, she wanted to grow her agricultural skills beyond her backyard garden, so she expanded her garden into a small farm.

“My favorite thing about it is being outside,” said Elle. “I love animals and caring for them, and I enjoy the hands-on physical labor of ranching and farming.”

Elle grows vegetables including squash, peppers, tomatoes, medicinal herbs, and native pollinator plants. She also has two goats, as well as cows, which she grazes rotationally.

While growing crops in the Sandhills has given Elle some challenges, it has also provided opportunities to discover new things about the land she calls home.

“It has been a big learning process here on the farm,” she said. “The sand and the wind are two really interesting factors to learn how to navigate here in the Sandhills.”

To educate herself more in different agricultural practices, Elle applied for and was accepted into the Center for Rural Affairs Beginning Farmer Conservation Fellowship Program. Applications for the 2024 season close on March 1, 2024; more information can be found here.

The program began in 2022 with eight individuals, plus mentors. The second cohort began in February 2023 with eight beginning farmers, including Elle.

She believes conservation practices are important for all farmers to understand, and feels her experience in nursing school prepared her in some ways for the basics of farming.

“In nursing school, they are always pushing handwashing, handwashing, handwashing, and that can at times seem so simple, but in farming it is so important for us to start with the basics too,” Elle said. “You have to start from the ground up. If you do not have good soil or good practices in place, what you’re doing will not be sustainable or healthy. I think if we can take better care of the soil and the plants, then we can take even better care of ourselves.”

Program fellows design and implement a conservation project on their own farms or land they are farming. They present their findings at a farm tour to their mentors, project partners, and other beginning farmers.

Elle’s main focus for her project has been tending to the soil. She began by placing aged horse manure in her garden to help feed and build up the soil.

“It is really neat to weed the garden at the end of the season and see how the soil structure and quality has improved,” she said.

During the fellowship program, Elle was able to work with a farmer mentor, and was extremely grateful for the opportunity.

“Something my mentor told me at the beginning of the season was that farming has its ebbs and flows,” Elle said. “You can’t get down on yourself when things do not go your way; you have to just roll with it. My mentor is super open about mistakes she has made and things she has learned from. Whenever I have a question, I can text or call her, and it is a totally nonjudgmental space.”

As part of the Beginning Farmer Conservation Fellowship Program, Elle had partial support to attend the American Herbalist Guild Conference. This experience ignited her interest in growing more medicinal plants and helped her hone in on what she really wanted to do going forward.

“One of the things I am most excited about this winter and going into next season is making medicines,” she said. “Since going to nursing school, herbal medicine has always been an interest of mine, and it's something I can offer to the community.”

Next season, Elle’s goal is to participate at a farmers market in town. She wants to grow basic vegetables and strawberries because the grocery store is far away and there is limited access to fresh produce.

She has enjoyed using her goats for cleaning up, stimulating grass regrowth, and for soil health, and she wants to continue in that direction.

“Even though I came into my first growing season with a lot of grand plans, my best takeaway this season was learning to roll with the punches, because that is what you have to do,” Elle said. “I am open to whatever the flow is and seeing where things go.”

Be a 2024 fellow! Visit our webpage for more information.

The Beginning Farmer Conservation Fellowship is a program of the USDA-NRCS under agreement number NR223A750003C004 Conservation Outreach: Equity Conservation Cooperative Agreements.