New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Benjamin Clark, APPRENTICE, Vilicus Farms, MT
First Month Reflection
My interest in agriculture began soon after I started studying capitalism and resources. I remember watching documentaries while in High School about the advent of the peak oil crisis, the middle eastern wars, and other such informative topics relating to human energy consumption and the climate. As I became more aware of the nature of our societies relationship to fossil fuels, my attention soon turned to agriculture as both a source of the problem, and also as its possible solution. At the start of my journey into food production, I originally intended to learn enough about farming and the food system to raise my own food and opt out of the industrial system. However, as I grew more knowledgeable and gained hands on experience at working farms, I realized that I had a bigger role to play.
Working with food and soil began to change me in ways I didn’t understand. It began to be more about having a good day, working alongside passionate people, and doing work that I enjoyed and believed in – not just learning how to be self sufficient. As my relationship to the work of farming evolved, I also began to see the larger political picture of how we got to where we are as a country and global society, and the roadblocks that keep us as from adopting more sane methods of sustenance. I see farming now as a political, social and radical economic act. It is a way to lead communities and shape conversations about human society and our relationship to the natural world and to each other. It becomes a more pressing issue every day to fight against climate catastrophe, produce actual health with our food system, and to redress the environmental wrongs we have perpetuated on the world around us. I believe that all these things can be addressed through conscientious farming practices that include the natural world, and have a healing impact as opposed to an extractive impact on the beautiful planet we all inhabit.
My hope through taking this apprenticeship is to broaden my perspective on how to take regenerative practices and implement them on a scale that matters. How can we take important land stewardship values to a larger scale and not let the economic stresses of a global capitalist food economy destroy them in the process? I hope to learn not only the practical skills and knowledge associated with farming grains and pulses organically on large acreage, but also to develop a vision for reintegrating livestock and crops into a food system that mimics actual natural processes, does the least harm possible in terms of fossil fuel dependence and resource extraction, and promotes a healthy society at large while also fostering local community.
I hope that in the future the documentaries young teens watch are not about how we’ve put our planet in peril, but instead about how we learned to solve global problems, how we’ve regenerated the life force of our landscapes, and how we have collectively gained some wisdom as a species in the process.
“It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to…” Looking around, somewhere 45 miles north of Havre, Montana, surrounded by endless wheat fields and short grass prairie, I reflect on how true the advice Frodo received was. I’ve worked in agriculture for the past five years, however this year it has felt like starting all over again, somewhere completely off the map of what I had come to know. Gazing across this landscape, I began to understand something fundamental about working with nature-how the land plays an active role in shaping not only events that happen around me, but also events that occur within me.
I wouldn’t have understood how the land can limit one’s worldview if I hadn’t moved out to Hill County, Montana from New England. The change in environment is dramatic-compare 40+ inches of yearly rainfall to a mere 11 inches, only 4-5 of which happen in the growing season. Compare green hillsides to dry yellow oceans of wheat, stretching clear through entire counties. Compare the crowded towns of Massachusetts to vast empty country, with townships thinly strung together by miles of empty highway and railroad. And here, of course, the limitless expanse of bright blue, cloudless sky, unimaginable to the eastern mind whose horizon is clogged by forested hills, apartment buildings, strip malls, and city skylines. Arriving in this expansive country takes some adjusting to, not just environmentally, but in one’s entire attitude.
Farm apprenticeships can stretch you to your limit, and then stretch a little further, exposing more of you than you thought existed. Moving out to the west to take this apprenticeship proved once again how this expansion can happen, however the scaling difference of environment demanded an equal scaling of personal growth. I was aware only intellectually of the immensity and complexity of the food system created by our species on this planet. Here, however, was daily exposure to those imagined realities; tanker trucks of pesticides and fertilizers moving up and down the county roads, semi trucks of winter wheat being delivered to towering grain elevators, cattle haulers and hay shipments bearing “Wide Load” signs moving across the expansive prairie, and a radio dominated by reports of the global market conditions. The world became much more difficult to think of in small pieces. These big considerations of the world’s food supply are glimpsed briefly through the mundane, however, so as to keep any single individual from feeling overwhelmed. There’s always the bolt bin that needs organizing, the service truck to stock and organize, and acres of organic grain to plant, nurture and harvest- tasks that help stop the mind spiraling from the immensity of what humans are engaged in on this planet.
My apprenticeship at Vilicus was invaluable for helping to weave the “Big Picture” into the small details of a day on the farm. Often I had been frustrated by the small scale of organic farming in New England, and felt I wasn’t doing enough to bring about significant change. Working on 10,000 acres of land, however, I realized how vast the agricultural scope was and how little was being managed organically- that any size organic farm was “too small”! With total US cropland approaching 254 Million acres, that is an incredible amount of “managed land” to contend with. But as the saying goes, you eat an elephant one bite at a time. And every bite matters, especially the one you’re chewing right now. The bolt bin that demands organizing, this tire that needs changing, the grain truck that needs cleaning, those grease zircs asking for lubrication- all moments of importance. Without those small moments, the equipment won’t run, the ground won’t be worked, the seeds won’t be planted, the crop will never be harvested and sold, the farm won’t be viable, and the acreage that could have been managed with care and stewardship would instead be exploited by agribusiness to increase profits and further degrade the ecosystem. The same small moments and tiny decisions that add up to a day that goes well, or a day that goes poorly, are the same small moments that add up to healthy land, a healthy population, and a stable climate. Our job as land stewards is to pursue the best practices we know how, one acre at a time, until the land we all depend upon is cared for to the very best of our abilities.
As these realizations unfold, the summer warms, the plants grow and my experience and identity grow with them. With my horizons no longer obstructed by towns and the crowds of the east, I start to see my own time and place in life differently. Agriculture has a way of blurring time, marking it with seasons instead days, and measuring people by the generation instead of the individual. My generation faces the unique challenge of learning land management while the climate changes rapidly around them, and when the wisdom of mentors and elders may no longer apply. What is a normal year now? How can we learn frost dates and seeding times when seasonal regularity is fading, replaced by violent and chaotic weather? My generation is growing into adulthood on a planet flirting with ecological collapse, and with the clarity of scientific certainty that what we do here and now absolutely matters. I am thankful to this apprenticeship for bringing me alongside individuals who understand the severity of our situation, and who dedicate themselves to sharing and inspiring in others a vision of land management very different from the “conventional” viewpoint. Alongside the hard skills of driving equipment, fixing breakdowns, studying the soil and understanding the life-cycles of plants, I have also learned to see the land not just as it is now, but at how it will be centuries from now if we care for it-for the animals, for the plants and for the people it nurtures.
Looking out across the horizon, it is easy to conclude that the prairie landscape is monotonous, just one shade of golden brown rolling onto the next. It would be just as easy to look across at the moments of a farm season and see that same monotony. At sunset on the prairie, and at the close of this season’s apprenticeship, something much more complex is revealed. The falling light casts shadows that highlight the texture of the plains, turning them into rippling carpets impossible to capture with a brush or camera. Likewise, the seasons’ end casts its perspective backwards, to the high points and the warm summer nights, the scrambling moments that somehow kept the farm on time with the seasons, the delicious meals, the camaraderie forged by flat tires, and the constant flow of lessons from mentors, coworkers and weather. I am grateful to have traveled here, and to have learned of the deception behind that monotony. Sometimes, when looking at something so vast, like the sky of Montana, or the prairie and wheat fields stretched from horizon to horizon, or the magnitude of modern agriculture, I feel like I am disappearing, so small is my individual piece of space and time. I believe now that my time on this land and planet is more than just a drop in monotony, and that the people alongside me, both from my generation and the generations which we learn from, are the small nails for want of which the shoe was not lost, the horse was not lost, the rider, the battle, and the kingdom was not lost, and hopefully, the planet not lost.
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