New Agrarian Voices

Learn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.





Olivia Fitzgerald, APPRENTICE, Indreland Ranch, Montana

Final Reflections
November 2022

On the ranch we often talk about how if there was a “How to Ranch” book, it would be a bunch of flow charts that would all result in the answer “it depends”. Even though I’ve learned so much through this apprenticeship, trying to write it down has been a struggle. I’ve learned a lot of very tangible skills like how to milk a cow, how to build polywire fence, and how to run a squeeze chute and head catch. If I sat here long enough and thought a little more, I could probably write down most of those skills I’ve learned. The reason I wanted to do this apprenticeship was to see things from the perspective of the rancher and understand what it takes to ranch regeneratively. I expected to learn a lot of these tangible skills and to work long hard days. It’s the more abstract, bigger picture lessons I’ve learned that I wasn’t expecting and that gave me the understanding I was hoping for. 

Before working at Indreland’s, I was working for the NRCS and an eager regenerative ag supporter. I read Nicole Master’s and Gabe Brown’s books, watched any webinar I’d come across that had to do with regenerative ag, and subscribed to Understanding Ag’s and Kit Pharo’s newsletters. I ate it all up and felt so inspired and passionate about regenerative ag. I had the mindset that it was all so simple, if people just followed the 6 soil health principles, they could solve all their problems and produce nutritious food for the consumer. It was so black and white in my head. Shockingly, things are not that black and white. After working on a regenerative ranch, I understand that there are still problems and its still a lot of work and it looks nothing like the pie-in-the-sky ranch I had in my head. Now that I’ve been in charge of grazing our sale bulls, I get why people aren’t doing multiple times a day moves. I learned that it does in fact take longer than 10 minutes to put up a new fence and that when it’s 95 degrees out, building (and taking down) a couple fences a day isn’t all that inspiring. To summarize, regenerative ag, although the work may be different, is still a lot of work and there’s still only 24 hours in a day. 

Another lesson I had to learn was that nature and agriculture cannot be planned and put into neat little boxes. Coming from a background in mathematics and modeling, my brain has been trained to think of ways to put things into these boxes and try to predict what might happen. The more time I’ve spent with the animals and in nature, the more complex it becomes. A person could spend hours running calculations and building models and forcing ecosystems into numbers, but there is nothing that can replace observation. Simply walking around the pasture and observing what the cattle have eaten and how they are acting, or the lay of the land and where water wanted to run was always well worth my time. I was lucky enough to have mentors that understood the value of observation and encouraged it. Learning to slow down and take the time to just walk and observe took a while for me to figure out but is a skill I’m so grateful to have now. 

I wouldn’t feel right about this reflection if I didn’t mention our milk cow Rosie. I’ve learned so much from spending time with her. I started off being terrified of her and the first time milking her by myself was the first time I cried at work. Working that closely with that smart of a critter taught me so much about stockmanship. I learned the importance of having respect for the animal while asserting dominance. Trying to be assertive with a 1400 lb cow with horns was definitely a challenge. It also made me think a lot about presence and energy and the role those play in stockmanship. Knowing that she was 100% present when I was with her, reminded me to be more present and try to understand how my energy might affect her. The second thing she taught me was a new appreciation for food, which ultimately directed me towards what I want to do in the future. The entire process of milking, from going and getting Rosie, to cleaning the final container, usually takes about an hour and a half. The most milk I’ve ever gotten in one go is about a gallon. The gallon of milk that took an hour and a couple hand cramps to get tastes a lot different than the gallon you buy at the store. Sure the quality of milk is completely different, but the appreciation you have for the milk you worked for and when you know the cow it comes from is way different. Once I knew what it took from me to have a glass of milk, I understood that every piece of food you eat was the product of someone’s work and something’s life. The simple act of milking a cow gave me a whole new appreciation for food. I’ve been interested in nutrition for a while now but this interest and appreciation in food was new.  It helped me to decide that that is my niche in this agricultural space and that it is also a hole in this space that needs to be filled. Food is an amazing thing and it’s something we all have in common. It has the power to heal our body and minds, the planet, and foster relationships. 

This is only a fraction of what I’ve learned these last eight months but it’s what I could fit within the word limit and what I thought was worth sharing. This apprenticeship gave me the understanding I was looking for but not expecting. It’s something I could have only gained by coming here and actually doing it. What I have learned here has completely changed my perspective and pointed me in the direction I want to go in the future. It also brought me to some amazing people who have been very instrumental in my growth.

May 2022

Since I can remember, I’ve had a deep love and connection to animals and the outdoors. This love has been evolving ever since and has taken many forms. Some time around middle school I became interested in the environment and “saving the planet”. I started doing things like collecting cans to recycle and picking up trash along the roads. My love for the earth continued, guided primarily by nice looking instagrams and Netflix documentaries. This eventually led to me getting a degree in ecology and being vegetarian for a couple years. It wasn’t until I got a job with the BLM through the Montana Conservation Corps that I finally gained direction. During my time there I gained a new appreciation for the prairie and those who steward it. I attended range camp where I was immersed in new ideas about conservation through agriculture. It opened my eyes to the power of grazing as a tool for conservation and building soil health. 

Since then, it feels like I’m slowly putting pieces of a puzzle together. So far, the pieces I’ve got together paint a picture of connection. Man kind has a role in the ecosystem; a notch carved out that only we fit in where we can live with Mother Nature, rather than trying to separate ourselves. Rekindling this connection through regenerative ag has the potential not only to heal our ecosystems, but to heal people physically, mentally, and spiritually. 

While I have not found exactly what I want to do for a career, I know I want to work in regenerative ag to educate and connect people with nature. Understanding  the point of view of the producer is such a critical piece in the puzzle. I want to know what it takes to make it happen; all the ups and downs. Having this understanding will help me to connect the consumer back to agriculture and our planet.

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