New Agrarian Voices

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





Justin Jones, APPRENTICE, Indreland Ranch, MT

Final Reflections
November 2021

In contrast to many of the other first year apprentices, I walked into the New Agrarian Program already having a substantial amount of experience in the regenerative agriculture world.  I interned at the former Pacific Northwest Savory Hub in Bellingham, Washington for over a year and a half.  Prior to that I worked on a variety of farms, homesteads and restoration projects through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms and similar organizations, including Paul Wheaton’s ‘permaculture laboratory’ in Superior, Montana and the founding Ecosystem Restoration Camp in southern Spain.  Of all these experiences, my apprenticeship at Indreland Angus this year was by far the most valuable.

I applied to Indreland Angus in part because I wanted to work for an operation that was well-organized, profitable, and that managed land on a large scale.  The Indrelands graze around 7,000 acres in total and have been in the cattle business for over two decades, with no dependency on off-farm income.  I trusted that this would translate to a fairly optimized and professional outfit, and I was not disappointed.  The business runs like a well-oiled machine.  The infrastructure, though not without occasional and minor defects, was quite dependable and functional.  I was most impressed by genetics of the cattle herd.  I found their resiliency and fortitude truly remarkable.  Of some 250 or so calves born this year, not one mother had birth complications.  No calving problems whatsoever!  And almost no health issues in any of our livestock classes.  I believe we doctored a single calf once or twice.  And the cattle here are exceptionally well-behaved, neither aggressive nor flighty.  It was a rare occasion that any animal was found beyond its boundaries and needed to be put back in.  It was a real joy to work with such wonderfully optimized livestock.

My admiration for the livestock was equally matched by my admiration for their caretakers.  Roger and Betsy Indreland operate their ranch with an apparent effortlessness that is exceedingly rare in agriculture.  For them, working in the business is hardly work at all, but a lifestyle that they have chosen deliberately and would not surrender for any other.  They seem to thoroughly enjoy the day-to-day; I must say that the attitude of ‘working is fun’ really rubbed off on me and kept morale high throughout the year.  They never lost their cool, even when shit was hitting the fan; nothing that went wrong was insurmountable or was worth getting upset about.  And they exemplify the 80/20 rule, aiming to get the most beneficial effect from only moderate input and cutting out unnecessary exertion.  These attitudes contribute to a high quality of life, which is sadly all too often sacrificed by farmers and ranchers in the struggle to keep their business afloat.

Another quality I admire, embodied in exemplary fashion by Roger in particular, is a self-confidence unclouded by arrogance.  Even though he has been raising cattle for essentially his whole life, Roger never pretends to know everything about ranching.  Now 60 years old, he remains insatiably curious, open-minded, seeks regular consultation, and is always looking for ways to improve his practices.

Like many of their peers, the Indrelands are fairly new to mentoring and I won’t say they are perfect at it yet.  Though Roger and Betsy are generous with their knowledge and transparent about their business, I must admit I am somewhat disappointed with the educational outcomes of my time here.  You see, there is a fundamental difference between being an apprentice and being an employee.  The employee-employer relationship is a fairly simple exchange of labor for wages.  The apprentice also provides labor, but accepts much lower wages in favor of vocational training – the mentor agrees to provide value in the form of education, teaching the skills that the apprentice would need to themselves start and operate a similar business someday.  I became quite adept at the skills required of me as an employee, i.e. the day-to-day boots-on-the-ground stuff, but the education and training largely stopped there.

For example, we had horses and heavy machinery on the ranch, and these tools were necessary from time to time.  Having some skills in the use of horses and tractors would be of great value to someone trying to make a career out of ranching, but training in these skills was never offered because I was never required to perform them in my function as an employee.  Similarly, the business end of the business remained a mystery throughout my apprenticeship.  Budgeting, financial decisions, marketing strategies, lease agreements, livestock registry, accounting, personnel, customer relations, and everything else on the back end are essential components of a successful ranch.  But again, I was not required to perform any of these functions and so my mentors had very little incentive to take time out of their already busy schedules to provide education in these areas.  Having only ever had employees, I understand the difficulty in the switch, but I feel frustrated nonetheless by the failure of my mentors to reciprocate my contributions as their apprentice.

But I don’t want to discount the value of the knowledge and skills I did acquire this year.  I feel fully confident in fence construction and maintenance, both barbed wire and electric.  I feel fully confident also with low-stress livestock handling – working cattle may have been my favorite part of the job!  I learned adaptability in regards to weather and how to be comfortable in all conditions.  (I was definitely underprepared when I first arrived.  My goodness is it windy here!  A really warm hat is an indispensable piece of kit in these parts.)  I learned that ranching never has to get old; every day is a new adventure!  I became quite intimate with the subtle art of flood irrigation, and the infectious joy of growing life by hydrating soil.  It is so rewarding to see the fruits of your labor appear so vividly on the landscape, grass flushing green in the wake of your dams.  (I am an aquarius and a hydrology major which is maybe why irrigation suited me so well.)

Perhaps most importantly, I learned to empathize with an unfamiliar environment and an unfamiliar culture.  Having grown up in the mountains of California and lived on the west coast for most of my life, the northern plains felt pointedly foreign to me.  And as a sensitive buddhist hippie-type with long braided hair and roots in permaculture, I felt incredibly intimidated by the bad country music and hyper-masculinity I perceived in ranching culture.  But over time, I learned to appreciate the austere beauty of the plains; and though I’ll never quite fit in with these cowboy types, I admire their kindness and hospitality.  I’m not sure I’ll ever overcome the feeling of being an outsider here, but I certainly feel much more comfortable in this world than ever before.

Lastly, I want to give a big thank-you to the New Agrarian Program and all the folks that make it happen.  Never have I felt more valued or more invested in as a young person in agriculture.  The events and educational presentations offered by the program went far beyond anything I have been offered in my previous experiences in ag.  Above all, I cherished the camaraderie that I shared with the other apprentices.  Most of us lived in remote locations, with little human interaction.  The relationships with peers in similar situations did wonders to alleviate those feelings of isolation and loneliness, and is a big part of what makes this program special.

Where do I go from here?  I believe livestock are an essential component of a full farm ecosystem, but there are many other components I would like to learn more about.  Tree crops, gardening, keyline design, biodynamics, forestry management, water infrastructure, and biochar all draw my interest.  One thing is for certain: whatever comes next, will be compared to the new high bar set by my experience this year.

May 2021

As an outdoor enthusiast, I’ve always wanted to leave the places I visit better off than when I found them. In my early teens, I determined that the only truly ethical way to live was to have as positive an impact on the world as I am capable, to leverage my time and my abilities for the maximum benefit of my fellow beings.  In my junior year of university, I was exposed to a documentary film called Collapse, an extensive interview with investigative journalist Michael Ruppert, in which he warns of the inherent unsustainability of an infinite growth model on a finite planet.  Ruppert gave two examples of post petroleum economies, Cuba and North Korea in the early 1990s, which suffered a massive reduction in petroleum imports in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and in the face of US trade embargoes.  North Korea, with its top-down authoritarian structure, starved miserably.  Cuba, on the other hand, asked its people to compensate for the failure of its industrial agricultural system by going out and growing food on every piece of ground they could find. They invited a group of Australian permaculturists to come to their country and show them how to live more in tune with natural systems.  The people of Cuba endured a number of very difficult years during this transition, but were ultimately successful in reorganizing their economy and culture, and now live in some of the most sustainable human settlements anywhere on Earth.

Collapse served as my introduction to the world of permaculture, and I have been exploring the rabbit hole of regenerative agriculture ever since.  In the course of my investigation, I encountered holistic management and the work of Allan Savory, which enlightened me to the global importance of seasonally humid grassland ecosystems, and the extent to which human beings have disrupted those landscapes.  Repairing these ecosystems, using holistically managed livestock which emulate natural patterns, is the only way to reverse climate change, he stated.  As a result of this information, I adjusted course to begin focusing on more broad acre regenerative projects.

One of my primary objectives for my current apprenticeship at Indreland Angus is to become familiar with ranching culture in general, to understand better what life is like on a broadacre family farm.  I want to get a deeper insight into the nuances of managing cattle as a business, and the various tools and techniques that make it feasible.  More than anything, I am excited about the professional network and credibility that will come as a result of graduating from the Quivira new agrarian program.  My hope is that it will springboard me into a yet more prestigious apprenticeship next year, and ultimately help qualify me to pursue a career in consultation and design of highly diverse and abundant production landscapes.

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