New Agrarian Voices

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





Tyler Lu, APPRENTICE, Milton Ranch, Montana

November 2023

One of the most memorable learning lessons I got from Doug and Anna at Vilicus Farms, was how to drive a manual vehicle. Well, it was a big ole’ fuel tanker on a two lane dirt road in the middle of the going to a tractor. Learning about the state of and scale of commodity crop farming from both Doug and Anna. My first year as an apprentice there, I realized what mid to large scale farming looks and feels like. Which I can now safely say, I rather not continue in that part of the agricultural industry. But I do miss at times, sitting in a swather and screaming “MacDon swather!” to co-workers as we pass each other on the field. 

After a session up in the Hi-line, I wanted to take a second year in the program but not at a farming operation. Therefore, I ended up in Roundup at Milton Ranch with Bill and Dana. I still wanted to learn about cattle basics, grazing, and land management with key stake holders, and you know live out that wild western big land cattle dream people think about when they are in Boulder, CO working at Wholefoods as a butcher for a winter in-between sessional positions in ag positions as most people do kinda way. Honestly, reflecting back on this past session at Milton ranch I got that, but I’m still wanting to learn more and work on finding a sense of place. I am planning to stay after this apprenticeship with Bill and Dana. I hope to continue my learning here and about working with heifers who are about to calve this upcoming calving season, as its going to happen. But I am interested in obtaining more information on working with yearlings and just handling them more frequently. Since everyone keeps telling me they tend to be a wild card or difficult to handle/work with. 

There have been so may moments that were difficult at the moment but funny to think about now. For one, if I did not spent time at Vilicus Farms I would have never taken on a ranch truck project. This hideous red flaking 1990 Ford ranger was sitting at Milton Ranch where I worked days and days on pulling out the transmission and engine covers to fix up and repaint. Ryan, one of my co-workers here spent many days with me just struggling to maneuver around the ground with me and wondering why in the hell did I want to do this. But now the trucks name is Cilantro after its paint color called fresh cilantro and is still waiting for a new transmission. Or one of the first days I got to the ranch and Bill sent me off to make a new split for the cows. The cows were all along the electric fence and without really thinking about it I dropped the line to get the truck across… That was a big mistake, since I turned around all the cows bolted across the pasture like they had never seen feed in their life. Within this last year I have spent a considerable amount of time with Wade, one of my neighbors. Wade has been a tremendous help on my journey in being able to ride a horse and expanding other cattle operations. I can safely say now I can ride a horse and move cattle around. A funny story from one of my horse ridings with Wade happened recently. We had to cut out the bulls from the cow herd that escaped. I get a call around 1ish about the plan on cutting the bulls out that afternoon. Well, there’s a saying here that’s a joke but it’s true at times and that is WOW (Waiting on Wade). I finally meet up with wade around 4ish and we set off on horseback from his place to the cows. All was going great until the light of the sun begins to turn this orange red and the air became a bit cooler. At this moment we are trailing the bulls out towards some corrals. Then the sky got this dark blue green hue with the shine of Waning Gibbous of the Blue Moon. The bulls must have sensed that we could hardly see and were somewhat lost in this pasture as they kept increasingly shooting back past us and us scrabbling to try and ride our horses in the dark. It took about five or six hours for us to get 5 bulls back into the corrals with them jumping over fences and us pull down fences to get the horses over. 

I think the most memorable and most challenging things I came across this year was deciding on getting Sage my puppy. I honestly was and still am a little bit nervous about if I could train her well or if she was going to be a puppy that matched my life. You know the basic worries of not owning any responsibilities to having a whole other life to provide for in a meaningful way. With all those worries, I went ahead and ended up picking out this rambunctious little border collie that likes to be wild and not really touched. This winter I plan to do a lot of training with her on some sheep that the Miltons have. But to wrap this up, I have enjoyed my time as an apprentice at two different places and have learn may hard lessons along the way. But without them I don’t think I would have been able to enjoy my time as an apprentice as much.  

2nd Year: My Land Ethic
April 2023

When I first think of what land ethics is, I think about the different societies’ involvement with the land they are on. How people live, work, play and socialize with each other in their current place. I mainly think of what people goals are for the land or what they may extract out of for their own livelihoods. But how is that ethical? If one side is the only one benefiting from this transaction. I believe that humans are just one part of this landscape, however we choose to interact with it. Therefore, for us to be stewards to the land that partakes in land ethics we must observe and learn from non-hominid forms interacting with each other and their landscape too. This unspoken interaction dictates how organisms congregate around nulls, streams, windbreaks, food sources, and annual breeding areas are some examples. To me learning to be a steward of the land is an understanding of how to promote thriving ecosystems around us and our imagined property lines. The invitation of different stakeholders, neighbors, state and non-state agencies, or rural and urban boundaries into spaces that production-based landscapes are needed. In return we can then figure how to involve more consent and dynamic participation-based operations that occur, that benefits both the stewards and the land itself. This to me is what land-base and regenerative agriculture is. With my participation as a second-year apprentice, I want to hone in on rangeland management while also balancing how involving different key players (neighbors, non-profits, state or federal agencies) to better my understanding of stewardship on the big picture ideas. While working on my day to day livestock handling.

Final Reflections
November 2022

I came to North Central Montana having worked as an apiarist, raising, and processing livestock, and managing a vegetable farm. Much of these experiences have been in arid climates and a whole lot smaller in scale. Everything I learned about the agricultural industry has been placed in a niche field of small organic farms across California. Coming out to Vilicus Farms and living closer to Canada, felt as if my knowledge and familiarity with agricultural work has started over. 

The week before I came out to Vilicus, Paul sent me images of everyone working in t-shirts. I was sort of expecting and being in a very dry hot climate. I was mistaken… the first day I arrived, it was bitterly cold and the wind whipped dirt against my face and hair. The sight of vast yellow wheat fields was hidden behind a wall of yellow/brown dust as everyone hurried to put seeds into the ground. As the long days went on, I learned how to drive a manual vehicle, weld, back up a trailer, and operated a tractor with various implements. In all my time as an agricultural laborer or manager, I sought out ways to avoid or changed my practice to not have to use heavy machinery. However, I realized very quickly that that would not be the case here. Almost everything in the region required traveling a long distance and moving ridiculously big heavy metal. The biggest realization from this farm is, how little I knew about commodity crop farming and the system that it was placed in to keep certain practices afloat. I watched semi-trucks drive in unloading seeds to be planted and loaded back to be taken to grain elevators. Which, much of the grain would be valued at such a minuscule amount compared to how much time and inputs were put into the lands. It was watching the spray rigs riding up and down the fields on our neighbor’s land which made me realize how much organic grains are being produced in the industry. Seeing the complexities that surround trying to grow organic grains without inputs has changed my mind about the use of synthetic inputs. The cost to the land and the people who work the land were being harmed by all the herbicides and fertilizers being used. At the same time, I watched the farm struggle to grow its grain due to the weed pressures and the battle of unpredictable weather patterns. I am still struggling with the idea that synthetic inputs are useful or not. However, I do agree with Doug, Anna, and other co-workers on the fact that tillage is less harmful to the land when utilized at the right time and the amount is better than the constant use of inputs. Given that, tillage may stop at your fence line.

I plan to continue expanding my knowledge on mid to large-scale working lands. I am still in search of how to further blend the two fields of ranching and crop operations together, but I am leaning towards working with livestock. I don’t think I would want to work or manage an operation that is 13,000 acres, like Vilicus Farms. Experiencing the complex nature of a large-scale operation has given me insight into how much knowledge it requires to own, maintain, and train others on the equipment needed for a large-scale operation has somewhat pushed me back towards smaller operations. In addition, conversations with others on the farm seeing a custom grazing have made me reconsider if I even want to own land at all. I am particularly, interested in learning more about the basics of managing perineal grasses and grazing to improve or maintain them. During this, apprenticeship I realized how much I love animals and missed the daily interactions with them. I wish to find an operation that has cattle, sheep, hogs, and some sort of annual crop system. 

There are many highlights to my apprenticeship. I loved waking up and knowing that I would be doing something outside. Moreover, my participation at this farm meant that I have had the opportunity to enhance and broaden my skill sets which brings me closer to my dream as a manager or owner of an operation. The many long workdays and late-night conversations with co-workers and other interns have challenged my ideas surrounding this industry, which I think has been positive. The biggest highlight during my time here is the opportunity to refine my holistic goals and why I want to be in this industry. My participation within arid western landscapes means more to me than just a dream but now a stance of reclaiming and invitation; given the history of those who have been used as a labor and excluded from land and knowledge access. The challenges I faced here speak to the broader systematic context that this industry lives in. I have hesitation in my interaction with the community the farm exists within. For the past two years, I have been challenging myself to be able to fully express my identity as a nonbinary BIPOC person in this field of work. This discomfort and unsettling unknown of whether I should be in “Rural America” is difficult because I did not truly know if I am accepted there or not. At the same time, with the spatial distance from the broader community of Havre, I found myself longing for more interaction with other people other than co-workers. The other challenge that I encountered that I did not expect was how much this work consumes your mental and emotional thought. When I found myself with others, I found it challenging not to talk about the industry or work I have been doing. It was a struggle to find things in common to talk about or relate to if they were not engaged in similar work. Not growing up in an agricultural town or family the idea of the “lifestyle” to me is baffling. To give oneself entirely and forget the rest of their life experiences or ideals is something I do not agree with. I believe that it is crucial in our conversations and debates that we must ask ourselves and act on how we are going to encourage, empower, and support young people, BIPOC, and queer folks to reenter back into these landscapes and begin to promote a new “lifestyle”.

May 2022

I came to Vilicus Farms midway through April. The air was dry like California but the temperature was drastically colder. Since arriving at the Farm I have been blown away by the rolling hills and with the absence of any trees have felt much like being near an ocean. I even sometimes spot a segals here and there. I began my time at the farm at one of the busiest times and has provided me with ample opportunity to learn and ask questions. It has been exciting to learn about the team’s drive and commitment to organic crop productions and their other interests besides agriculture. 

I was not born into the agriculture sphere. I sought a career in agriculture after I began an apiarist apprenticeship in San Jose, CA. From this I discovered the wonders of working with livestock. Also, I discovered how livestock may work with you and for the land itself. I am particularly interested in food sovereignty and how the next generation of ranches and farmers may challenge norms and reinforce the need to diversify the landscapes, production models, and social inequalities within our agricultural systems currently. 

I hope to learn more about how farming at a large scale crop operation is like and the complexities involved. Furthermore, I want to dive into the intricacies of how Vilicus Farm is beginning to introduce livestock grazing back into their cropping system. My long-term goal is to own or operate a midscale dryland crop and cattle operation that revolves around BIPOC ranchers and farmers. The enterprise I envision is one that does not fully separate itself from non-production fields, in a sense blurring the line between a wild area and working/production area. To that effect, I want to learn more about how farming and ranching may merge what is forested wilderness into what is actively worked on. After serving a year with AmeriCorps, I want to take the leap into furthering my understanding of mid to large scale farming operations. My personal goals are never ending; I am always seeking ways to enhance my understanding of how to plan and implement grazing and record keeping, but I am searching for a more tangible outlet to work through these thoughts and plans. In the coming years, I hope to challenge myself and ask more questions so that I may continue to learn and grow in my journey to become a future rancher.

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