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

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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