New Agrarian Voices

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

Shawna Burhans, NAP Alumni

My first day at div school. Took off the work boots, kept the grimy baseball cap. Onward! 

Journey of a NAP Apprentice

 

I loved school as a child. But when I got to college, everything changed: high school’s frenetically thrilling pace of seven classes every day, race-against-the-clock tests, and institutional guardrails were replaced by broad swaths of unstructured time, long-term projects, and expectations of personal accountability. I found myself floundering, incapable of writing a paper until I had worked myself up into a productivity-inducing hysteria at the last minute, furious at myself for my apparent lack of self-discipline, persistence, or capacity to remember anything. By graduation, my struggles had been compounded by years of cruel self-talk.

 Bereft of self-esteem—not to mention any sense of vocational direction—I took a job as a corporate analyst so that I could at least maintain the façade of  a well-ordered life. Yet even then, I relied on my timeworn coping mechanisms. To keep up with work, I routinely snuck into the office early in the morning to work unpaid hours. I rendered myself as obsequious and amenable as possible, with the hope that my boss would be more forgiving of my careless mistakes, cluttered desk, and forgotten assignments. 

It took time for me to realize that I had other options besides contorting myself into this cramped box of who I thought I needed to be. But after about a year at my job—and a lot of late night deep-dives down internet rabbit holes—I developed a hunch that the kind of work done on a farm or ranch might feel a little less Sisyphean, despite the fact that I had absolutely no agricultural experience. I began emailing operations out West and asking for work, and at long last I had the good fortune to be offered an apprenticeship by Anna Jones-Crabtree and Doug Crabtree at Vilicus Farms in North Central Montana. 

When I left behind a claustrophobic NYC skyline for a seemingly endless sea of highly diversified organic crops, I also began to let go of my desperate effort to hide and compensate for what had impaired me in the spaces I had inhabited thus far. After Vilicus Farms, I went on to complete an apprenticeship at a ranch in Colorado, and I then began my first official NAP apprenticeship at Cobblestone Ranch in Northern California.

 All the while throughout these apprenticeships, I learned what it was like to just feel good while I worked. The physicality mellowed my constant thrum of energy into a steady, mellow flow. Time, which putrified into muddled oblivion when my work was computer-based, became real again as it moored me to the day’s rhythms. I delighted in flitting from task to task, building fence one hour, sorting lambs the next, then gathering cows who had broken through the fence I had just built, never knowing what the day might demand of me. I even began to envision what it might look like to grow beyond my apprenticing and into management, which was a prospect I’d never felt competent enough to consider before. Needless to say, things weren’t perfect— just ask Doug Crabtree how many times I ruined tractor batteries by accidentally leaving the keys turned partially on (but those are just hilarious stories now, right, Doug…? Doug??). Nonetheless, in these apprenticeships I found a life where many of my challenges became strengths, and I forged toward a hopeful vocational future for the first time.

After all that, you might be surprised to learn that I have since hung up my apprentice hat to attend—of all places—divinity school, where I just completed my first year this past May. In the end, what was even more impactful than finally discovering a viable, albeit at times grueling, line of work was my experience of taking a leap of faith into a community and being welcomed, quirks and all, with good humor and open arms. As my relationships grew, a newfound sense of duty compelled me to critically discern how I might contribute to the work of widening this community’s circle, even beyond the bounds that granted my entry. I began to understand that true reciprocity is not transactional, but circular: the debt of my privilege and luck is not owed back to that which is already established; it is owed to those who face prohibitively thorny barriers that impede their attempts to leap into regenerative ag the way that I, a white cisgendered college grad, was able to do easily.  I decided that divinity school was the place where I could develop the skills I needed to support farmers and ranchers’ hearts and souls, and figure out what role I was meant to play in this exciting era of transformative changes in land ownership models, reparations to farmers of color, and development of practices that are truly regenerative for people as well as land. 

Great apprenticeships don’t only produce skilled farmers, ranchers, and land managers. They can cultivate self-assured learners, conscientious entrepreneurs, perceptive creators, visionary scientists, and devoted civil servants. They draw apprentices more fully into the world as themselves, whoever they already are, setting them up to serve wherever they’re called. 

More Voices