A question and answer session with our former intern, Walker Kehrer.
Q: When did you work at TomKat, for how long, and what was your position?
I worked at TomKat Ranch from June 2014-October 2017. I started off as one of the first interns and I changed positions as the educational program grew. I became the first apprentice and then the first Journeyman. Each position had its own rewards and challenges and I loved every single one of them.
Q: How did you find out about TomKat Ranch?
I was doing a Master’s degree at Stanford University when TomKat Ranch decided to offer their new internship program through the School of Earth Systems at Stanford, where I was studying. The internship was really intriguing to me even though I had no background in ranching. So, I applied for the internship and was lucky enough to get it! And the rest is history.
Q: How did you get involved in agriculture/ranching in the first place?
I studied a couple of food classes at Stanford, but Stanford is not an agriculture school–it was very minimal. It wasn’t until I arrived at TomKat Ranch that I got involved in agriculture and ranching. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles and was an athlete growing up, so I had never been exposed to farming or livestock. Within a couple days of being exposed to it at TomKat, I fell in love with this space and I knew this was going to be my career path.
Q: What was your favorite memory at TomKat?
I have 2 favorite memories that are very different. First, to this day I always think back to the first day I showed up in tennis shorts and tennis shoes and was told I was going to join in a cattle drive. It was the first time ever being around cattle so I had no idea what I was doing. I was walking behind the cattle as we went up the hill when one of the interns asked me to get the cattle out of the trees. I asked: “What do you mean go get them? Aren’t they going to run me over? I have no idea what I am doing.” But I did it and even though I was scared out of my mind, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Second, after one of the most influential mentors in my life, Mike Giannini, passed away in November 2015, I loved how our whole ranch pulled together in a very special way, especially our interns and apprentices. We were asked if we needed a new ranch manager right away to handle everything that needed to be done at the ranch. We decided we could handle it because Mike would have wanted us to run the program. With the incredible help of outside mentors, we took the program to new heights and learned more than we could have ever have imagined.
Q: Who was the most influential person during your time at TomKat Ranch?
This a hard one because everybody on the ranch had a profound impact on my life while I was at the ranch. From Ranch Director, Wendy Millet and Special Projects Manager, Kevin Watt giving me my first shot and always believing in me to having fun with Sales Associate, Nikki Waldron in the freezer to learning so much from Food Advocacy Manager, Kathy Webster about the meat industry to building incredible structures with Ranch Carpenter, Dago Hernandez.
I have to choose 2 people though that were the most influential so here is what I would say: Mike Giannini was one of the best mentors I have ever had. I wasn’t so sure about him when I first met him but the way he bucked the trend of conventional agriculture in his family and the general way that he approached life was truly inspiring. I learned so much from him and turned down a job in Hawaii in 2015 because I wanted to learn more from him. His life was cut way too short and to this day I still miss that smile of his. I charge on knowing that he would be proud of what I am doing and know he is looking down upon me with that smile of his.
The second person is Jake Tommerdahl. Jake was the Stanford intern the year after me at TomKat. At first, I don’t think I really liked Jake because he seemed cocky, but boy was I wrong. He’s a super smart and humble person who has challenged me throughout my career. When Mike passed away, Jake and I were the ones that took over managing the land and livestock and even though we sometimes had a tense relationship, I could not have done it without him. Our relationship is one that I treasure because he continues to challenge my thoughts and opinions and keeps me on my toes. We talk often to check-in on each other and hold each other to the promises we made at the ‘Ranching for Profit’ course. I hope to continue the friendship for a long time as we continue to try to change the face of agriculture in the U.S.
Q: Where are you and what are you doing now?
I now in live Minneapolis, Minnesota and work for a branded, grass-fed program called Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed. We buy 100% grass-fed animals from farmers and then sell the meat at natural food stores and co-ops all over the U.S.
Some would ask why I would move to such a cold place after living in California for 27 years. I have already survived one brutal winter, so I know I can do it again, but I am here mainly because I very much believe in the mission and direction of Thousand Hills. Matt Maier is a brilliant businessman, but on top of that, he is building Thousand Hills as the brand the public can trust in a time when companies in the grass-fed space are not truthful about their labels. Our brand is now AGA certified, a choice which required us to certify over 50 farms across the US. We are also now a Savory Hub for the Upper Midwest as we continue to try to get more and more producers managing holistically.
I personally source all the cattle for the company and get them AGA certified which means coordinating cattle for our 4 processing plants in all corners of the country. We purchase from producers who produce as few as 20 head of finished beef a year or as much as 1,000 head. It’s truly the best part of my job when I get to visit these farms and discuss their operations in person. These isolated farmers have so much knowledge to offer and are often not heard because they are so isolated. I also try to improve the quality of beef by getting our producers to produce animals that marble better on the USDA grading scale.
Q: How has your TomKat experience shaped where you are/what you are doing now?
TomKat Ranch–plain and simple–is the entire reason I am where I am today. If I had not worked there, I do not think I would have gained the passion I have for regenerative ranching and grass-fed beef. I am on the path I am on because I fell in love with this industry during my first couple of days at TomKat.
Today, I am in a position where I can directly impact farmers’ choices to plant corn or convert their fields to pasture to raise grass-fed cattle. We all know the issues in our current conventional agricultural system. I want to see all corn and soy fields converted to pasture, raising 100% grass-fed cattle within my lifetime. We are talking 220 million acres in the U.S. alone. It is a daunting task, but it must be done.
None of this would have happened if I had not worked at TomKat Ranch.