New Agrarian Voices

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





Charles Abbott, APPRENTICE, Indreland Ranch, MT

First Reflection – 2nd Year

When I started skateboarding around the age of ten, the entire urban landscape transformed for me. Benches, curbs, or ledges, virtually any features made of concrete, were no longer inanimate chunks of crushed rock formed for the purpose of urban infrastructure. Instead they became opportunities test myself against. Through hurling my body over and over onto hard pavement, I gained a new lens through which I viewed my environment and in turn, a new whole new familiarity with it. The process was often painful but through repetition I learned to interact with the pavement in a way that flourished creativity and grace of movement. With each slam across the pavement, my resilient little body was becoming keenly aware of each crack, pebble, or bump in the pavement. Each fall increased my awareness of myself, the skateboard, and, very much so, the pavement beneath me but that awareness allowed me to eventually move across the urban landscape with creative grace and understanding that I had not previously had. 

When I consider what my “land ethic” is, I am brought back to the way skateboarding changed the way viewed and lived in my environment and the ways agriculture, specifically regenerative agriculture, is doing the same.  I heard a line from a poem by David Whyte the other day, “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.” My desire to know land, to be familiar with it, is one of the things that led me to agriculture in the first place. Now that I’m actively engaging in agriculture, I feel as though I have woken up but in that awakening, I have become aware of how disconnected from land I truly am.

My apprenticeship through the New Agrarian Program has been one of the most humbling experiences of my entire life. My sheer lack of knowledge and skills required to operate a ranch and grow food has become increasingly clear to me. However, knowledge and skills can be acquired and, to that end, I have had the opportunity to learn from inspiring and incredible land and livestock managers. What is perhaps often more humbling is grit required to live in this landscape and grow food in it. The winters are long and harsh, the summers hot and dry, the wind is demoralizing, and other than a good dog, companionship is often scarce. When I consider these things, I am brought back to the peoples who lived here long before I did. They were here without the modern conveniences that I heavily rely upon. They did not have grocery stores or two day shipping. While I am glad for these conveniences, I am afraid that they have numbed me in ways that make connection to the land much more difficult. The indigenous peoples of this land were forced to be connected to land because from its soils, they received their sustenance. 

A friend I used to play country and bluegrass music with always used to say “play one we know.” I believe the land calling us to do the same. The land is constantly playing a song that most of us don’t know, but if we can listen close enough, we can begin to harmonize with it. The process of learning to live with land in this way is no small feat, and a process I have only just begun. Like my ten year old self I am slamming hurling my body towards the ground in an attempt to know land in a deeper way.

Final Reflections
November 2021

Roger Indreland drives his four-wheeler around the ranch at an average speed of 7-8mph. Sitting side-saddle on his red Honda Rancher, with two dogs perched behind him, he makes his way across pastures he’s traveled across nearly his entire life. Suddenly, he whips the four-wheeler around and circles back around. Pulling his four-wheeler to a halt, he hops off, crouches down, and plucks a plant. As I pull up and shut off the four-wheeler that I’ve been following him on, he tells me, “This is birdsfoot trefoil. I’ve never seen this here before.” I’ve had countless moments like this with Roger over the last ten months. Those moments play the most significant role in my decision to stay here on the Indreland Ranch with Roger and Betsy for another year.

Setting up portable electric fence, calving, branding, low-stress livestock handling, innovative business models and enterprises, or any number of the many other ranch skills that can and ought to be learned by someone pursuing a life in regenerative ranching could honestly be learned anywhere. Roger and Betsy have taught me plenty of tips and tricks for accomplishing many tasks on the ranch. Still, there are two areas where the space to learn with a bit of guidance has been more significant than the teaching of hard skills- irrigation and soil health.

Flood irrigation was new to me almost entirely. Growing up in the suburban midwest and working on landscaping crews for years, I was well acquainted with intricate PVC irrigation systems with sprinklers and drip lines, but I had not encountered flood irrigation, a form of irrigation that is thousands of years old until I was handed a pair of green Lacoste knee-high rubber boots, a shovel, and an assortment of dams made from tarps and long poles. As he often does, Roger pulled out a small note card and drew a series of squiggly lines. He gave me some context for where he was talking about and then took me out to show me how to set a dam. My context for what we were talking about as he explained the different sets, placements of dams to cover areas of pasture with water was very small. The basic mechanics made sense to me, but as he rode away and I began to try it for myself, I realized there was a lot I didn’t understand. 

One of the first principles I was taught about flood irrigation was to know what your water is doing at the headgate, where the water was flowing onto the ranch. Of course, I didn’t start to grasp why I needed to know what water was doing until I had called Roger several times to ask questions about a problem I was having. He would promptly ask, “What is your water doing?” After enough instances of being embarrassed by not knowing what, in fact, my water was doing, I began to check what was my water was doing every single time I drove past a couple of key headgates that led water onto the ranch. I would check them as I drove in the morning, anytime I happened to pass during the day, at the end of the day, and even on my days off. The more aware I was of what my water was doing, the more effective of an irrigator I became. 

While there is no doubt that the mechanics of my irrigation work were improving, my ability to set dams in ditches was not what was making me a better irrigator. What was making me a better irrigator was my increasing ability to observe the water, the land, and the effects of where I chose to set my dams. Irrigation can be incredibly time-consuming. Much like cattle, irrigation doesn’t necessarily follow the standard American workweek of a 9-5, Monday through Friday. As I got better at irrigation, I stopped thinking about work as something that I clocked in and out of and instead built my days around irrigation sets. Sometimes I had to switch dams as often as every 30 minutes; other times, I could put in a set that would last a couple of days, but that was all dependent on whether or not I knew what my water was doing. 

As I spent the hot summer days standing in irrigation ditches, the line between my work and leisure time became a lot fuzzier. I gained more and more of Roger and Betsy’s trust, and I began to make my own schedule based on what my irrigation was doing and the tasks I needed to fit in between, such as moving around a herd of yearling bulls I had been given the responsibility of grazing. I would often try and start my days as early as possible. One, to beat the heat, but also because it gave me more opportunities to irrigate effectively while still doing intensive adaptive grazing with my herd of yearling bulls. This new schedule had me in and out of work all day long. This required an entire change of attitude about the time I was spending. I no longer looked at the process of irrigating as only work; it was also leisure. A hike with my dog through a pasture next so a stream with a clear view of the Crazy Mountains was not too far off from what I would have chosen to do in my free time if I were working a traditional 9-5. This change of attitude towards work-life balance and integration of leisure into my work gave me something truly incredible; I was able to slow down. 

I have always done things fast. I eat fast, talk fast, walk fast, run fast, I like to work fast, essentially- if it can be done fast, that’s the way I like to do it. As I learned to slow down, enjoying my time spent below the Crazies, I began to observe more. Not only was my irrigation improving, but I was spending more time looking at grass, bugs, soil, water infiltration, topography, plant diversity, wildlife diversity, weather, and soil. My grazing became more refined as I more closely observed what the cattle were eating, when they were eating it, how much they were eating, what they ate first, and so on and so forth. I would have never been able to make the number of observations I made if I had not taken my time and walked through our pastures with leisure. I do not mean to imply that I was mozying through my work lazily or trying to justify long workdays to myself by calling it leisure, but rather that the line between my work time and leisure time was harder to distinguish.  It was the process of flood irrigation and slowing down to become good at flood irrigation that taught me to really start observing.  

All of these observations I have made over the last ten months are by no means perfect. Most of the time, I had no idea what I was looking at, what I was looking for, why what I was looking at was the way it was, or really much else. I’ve never considered myself much of a scientist, and I still don’t, but these observations gave me something to bring back to Roger and Betsy, or any of the incredible consultants they bring to the ranch regularly, and start a conversation from which I could really begin to learn. I have learned that soil health and the journey towards soil health is not a quick journey. It takes repeated observation over time, perhaps very long amounts of time. That is why I will be staying on with the Indreland’s for the coming year. So that when I’m driving my four-wheeler or walking across pastures next summer, I can be the one to spin around, seeing something I had not seen there before. This first year of apprenticeship has been a great exposure to regenerative ranching. I am excited to continue to learn from Roger, Betsy, and their livestock, the land, and the community of regenerative-minded ranchers and ranch hands in the Big Timber area. 



May 2021

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly got me interested in agriculture. I’ve written and rewritten this  essay several times over the last couple of weeks, and I find myself telling an almost entirely  different narrative each time. Perhaps the lack of clarity about what got me to where I am today  is because agriculture was never presented to me as a realistic option for what I would do with  my life. 

Growing up in suburban Wichita, KS, I was surrounded by agriculture but lived a life completely  disconnected from it. In high school, we were consistently given aptitude assessments and career  tracks, but I don’t remember agriculture ever being an option. I do remember being lost as to  what I would spend the rest of my life doing. I never saw myself as an engineer, accountant,  doctor, dentist, businessman, or any other career track that would replicate the middle-class  suburban life of my parents. I remember my senior English teacher using me as an example of a  renaissance man, and while the compliment made me feel good, it didn’t give me much direction  as far as a career. So, after high school, I went to bible college in Spokane, WA. 

I had plans to become a missionary or something of the sort, something meaningful and exciting.  But after just three semesters, I dropped out, realizing I was more interested in traveling the  world than proselytizing. I moved back home to Wichita, where I got a job on a landscaping  crew. There I worked for a man named Lyn Hiebert, or as he’s known by anyone who’s had the  pleasure of working for him, “Boss.” Boss taught me how to work hard, dig holes, operate  equipment, back a trailer, fix things without much more than a pair of channel locks and little  elbow grease, and he also taught me that manual labor was as much of a creative endeavor as any  form of art. Boss was also much more than a boss. He was, and is, a mentor and a friend. 

Crammed into old pickups, shoulder to shoulder, driving from job to job, the ragtag group of  young men working for Boss spent many hours discussing life, religion, politics, science, the  environment, music, art, and much more. I enjoyed landscaping, and I was good at it. The  opportunity to use my body and mind to solve problems and interact with land brought me joy  and purpose, a perfect combination for a renaissance man. Still, I went back to college to finish  my education at a small liberal arts school north of Boston, feeling that finishing college was  what was expected of me and what I ought to do. 

I completed a degree in communication arts, but essentially, I just took film and philosophy  classes that interested me while spending more time camping with my friends than ever studying.  I hadn’t set myself up for a career of any kind. After graduating, I moved to Asheville, NC, where  I began working for another landscaping crew. In college, I had developed some pretty romantic  ideas about the environment and agriculture. Mowing lawns, spraying chemicals, planting small  shrubs and pulling weeds in housing developments and strip malls left me pretty unsatisfied.  When a friend of mine suggested I go out west and work fighting wildfires, I didn’t have to think  twice about ditching my landscaping job.

For the majority of the next five years, I worked seasonally on various private and federal fire  crews. I enjoyed the work a great deal, and it provided me with plenty of time to ramble around  the country during my off-season. During the time wildland fire afforded me, my interest in  agriculture grew beyond the romantic ideas I had developed in college. I began to see  regenerative agriculture as the best possible solution to the ecological crisis but also my own  physical and mental health. I was exhausted from my rambling lifestyle, yearning to be in one  place long enough to see the seasons change. 

Finding my way to agriculture has felt somewhat like trying to retrieve a sock out of the mouth  of a stubborn and playful puppy. But to quote the 1979 film Stalker by the great Russian  filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, “Here we are… home at last.” Through the New Agrarian program,  I have found a set of mentors, much akin to the mentorship I experienced with Boss. I see this  first year of an apprenticeship as mostly an exposure. I hope to learn a great deal about grass,  livestock, and how to make a profitable living in agriculture. I hope to watch the seasons change  and spend time getting to know the land. After only a couple of months of being here in Big  Timber, I am confident that Roger and Betsy Indreland and the perfect mentors to guide me in  my pursuit of agricultural life. 

“Perhaps the fundamental damage of the specialist system- the damage from which all other  damages issue has been the isolation of the body. At some point we began to assume the life of  the body would be the business of the grocers and medical doctors, who take no interest in the  spirit, whereas the life of the spirit would be the business of churches, which would have at best  only only a negative interest in the body.” 

– Wendell Berry The Unsettling of America

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