New Agrarian Voices

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





Jennifer Kieffer, APPRENTICE, Land of Grass Ranch, MT

Final Reflections
November 2021

It has been roughly three months since I finished my apprenticeship at the Graham Ranch in Conrad, MT.  In those few months I have slowly assimilated back into my former suburban lifestyle, enjoying frivolous conveniences like watching t.v. and wearing shoes that aren’t hiking boots.  Re-entering a life that does not revolve around agriculture feels a bit like coming back to the U.S. after living in a foreign country.  In some ways, it is nice to be back home.  But in other ways, it feels wrong to pack away all of my newly acquired skills and knowledge.

It really hit me how much I learned during this apprenticeship when I began talking to folks at school about our summers.  Some of the things I did on a daily basis, like feed hay with the tractor or work on remote projects by myself all day, shocked them. When I first arrived at the Graham Ranch, I guess hearing that’s what I would be doing shocked me too.  Slowly but surely, without even realizing, I grew more and more proficient at my daily ranching tasks.  Looking back now, I have a fond memory of the first time I took the tractor out.  My boss rode along with me and explained what all the different levers did and tried to show me the best way to avoid dropping 1,200 pound bales on hungry sheep.  Sooner than later, feeding became a task I was so comfortable with, I would head out to feed before I even saw my boss in the morning.

In addition to tangible, directly ranch related skills that I learned, my time as an apprentice helped me develop beneficial personal habits.  On my ranch, it was mostly just my boss and I.  I always prided myself on having good communication skills, but being able to clearly and respectfully communicate with the same person day in and day out proved to be an area I could improve.  Trying to find the correct words to express what I needed to be done when cows are going in the wrong direction and your horse is being a pill is not so easy.  Trust me.  I don’t mean to say that by the end of my apprenticeship I was a zen master at all times.  There was still a lot of yelling. But, as my boss and I grew our relationship and continued to have honest conversations with each other, I improved my communication greatly.

I feel fortunate that I had my next steps planned out before I even became an apprentice.  Currently, I am wrapping up my first semester as a first year law student at the University of Montana School of Law.  I plan to focus my studies in the field of environmental, agricultural, and land use law.  Being an apprentice gave me incredible hands-on skills that I hope will relate back directly to my practice in the future.  In a lot of ways, doing this apprenticeship made coming back to school much harder.  If I could choose between writing a paper or hanging out with a bum lamb, I would obviously pick the latter.  However, I do not regret doing the apprenticeship or coming back to school.

In this reflection I have mostly focused on my positive experiences, and overall, my highlights were far greater than my challenges.  One important aspect of the NAP that is worth mentioning is the ability to meet and spend time with the other apprentices.  I have never felt more empowered and inspired than when I was around young people who feel as passionately about regenerative agriculture as I do.  Being around intelligent, driven like minded folks felt like charging my motivation battery.  

In addition to meeting other apprentices, my other high was living and connecting with a new part of Montana.  I had lived in other parts of north, central Montana before, but never for as long as I lived in Conrad.  Since I grew up in a mountainous place, it was a hard adjustment to find beauty in such a flat area.  However, I soon discovered that the plains have just as many beautiful features as the mountains or the sea.  The beauty might not be as obvious from a car window going down the highway, but when you are out in a field and know what to look for, few things compare.

While I experienced mostly highlights during my apprenticeship, I would be lying if I said I faced no challenges.  As someone who is a perfectionist, the hardest part of my time at the Graham Ranch was learning to forgive myself for mistakes.  Cows are going to get by, tools are going to get broken, and jobs are going to take longer than expected.  Not only are mistakes and mishaps a pretty central part of ranching, they are an absolutely critical part of learning. One thing that helped me be more accepting of my mistakes was talking over any mishaps with my boss.  Having a mentor who was a first generation rancher really allowed me to relate to the mistakes she made 30 years ago when she was in my position.  Her experiences also allowed her to have more patience with me while I tried to figure it all out.

Overall, being a NAP apprentice was an incredible decision.  I wish that I could spend more time not only on the Graham Ranch, but on ranches all over Montana.  I am excited to continue my next adventure by going to law school, and I can not wait to work with Montana producers again in a slightly different capacity in the future.

May 2021

I vividly remember the moment I became interested in agriculture.  In one of my high school classes we read a chapter dedicated to the positive and negative repercussions food production can have on the environment.  At the end of the chapter we were tested on those facts and then the class moved on.  However, I never moved on.  I was stuck.  I kept finding myself glazing over the rest of our readings only to return back to that one chapter on agriculture.  As an environmentalist, I had just come across a subject that was the classic glass half full, glass half empty situation.  It crushed me to think that everyday the majority of the food we ate stripped our planet of its healthy soil and emitted so much CO2.  On the other hand, though, never had I felt so optimistic that improving a system could help us turn the tide in our environmental battle.  From that moment on, I have dedicated myself to studying and working in agriculture. 

Because this apprenticeship is my most serious dive into learning to produce food, I have more goals than are probably possible to ever achieve in a handful of months.  Some of my goals are practical.  I want to learn to back a trailer better.  I want to improve my grass identification ability.  Some of my goals are conceptual.  I want to truly understand low stress livestock handling.  I want to understand the numbers that it takes to run this specific ranch and what needs to be kept vs culled to hit those numbers.  The list continues.

While I am excited to tackle my practical and conceptual goals, my top goal is a mental and emotional one.  During my apprenticeship I hope to expand my horizons and open my mind to agricultural practices that I am unfamiliar or uncomfortable with.  When I began my journey with agriculture, my views on what was a “correct” or “environmentally friendly” agricultural practice were very narrow.  The answer seemed black and white.  Those producers using “bad practices” were wrong and getting them to stop would fix everything.  I understand now that my initial views were ignorant and naive.  Sure, there are harmful practices, but one must be hugely cautious before making a blanket statement that something within agriculture is all bad.  A seemingly bad tool or practice could be alright, or even helpful, when used in the correct situation.  It feels silly typing something so obvious now, but I am encouraged by the fact that I have already grown from where I started.  Living in north, central Montana places me among people who do not always have the same environmental views.  Encompassed in my goal of expanding my horizons is really getting to know those I might not agree with and trying to learn something from everyone I meet.  So, while I am excited to work on my trailer backing, I am really thrilled to continue working on opening myself to new agricultural ideas.

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