New Agrarian Voices

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

Natalie Berkman, APPRENTICE, Milton Ranch, MT

REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH

My experience in agriculture started in 10th grade when I realized the only job I was qualified for was working at a farm stand on the side of a busy road. I started the job with hesitance towards eating a salad and ended it with the passion to become a farmer. I spent the hot, muggy summer days sorting and arranging peaches, nibbling around the purple bruise of every peach that was unsellable. Eating half-rotten peaches on an upside-down milk crate, I became very intimate with that little 100-square-foot patch of grass next to our public library. I anticipated the box turtle’s visit from the woods every afternoon when we put out the compost, and found rhythm in the return of familiar flowers. With sticky peach juice all over my face and itchy arms from the fuzz, I grew to love that little piece of ground and the delicious food that came with it. While currently learning how to manage land on a much larger scale, I still carry the curiosity and wholeness I felt for creating a relationship with land during those early days of my agricultural journey. 

 

I don’t have a perfectly clear vision of my long-term professional goals. I see a pixilated image that includes cattle, community, dogs, and lots and lots of grass. My image becomes clearer with new experiences, especially ones that push me into unfamiliarity. I moved to Montana from Colorado a year ago and lived in a small tack shed, spending most of my days farming alone. I spent my free time having long, meaningful conversations with my boss’s 7-year-old son about everything from dogs, cats, and why it’s okay to cry. I learned about horse training and watched NBA games with my farrier neighbor, and learned how to quilt under the expertise of powerful women. Most importantly, I fell in love with our cattle, sitting and observing, watching them until sunset. These experiences led me to this apprenticeship, where I hope to continue to grow roots in Montana’s ranching community and build an enduring relationship with my mentors. I want to learn about the complexities of our land ecosystems and listen to the stories of people dedicated to bringing our land back to life. Storytelling holds a lot of power to effect change. I want to create my own narrative of land and love to contribute to the growing story of good agriculture.

FINAL REFLECTION

It was a cold morning with clear skies, and I was driving the feed truck, unrolling a fresh bale of alfalfa to our heifers. I stalled the truck five times before getting it into gear, dropped the bale on the bed of the truck and continually lost control of it as I was rolling it out. Later that afternoon I went to feed my friend’s horse, Sacha, with Nell, my border collie pup. Nell bit Sacha’s heels, sending her into a full-out gallop through the pasture, with Nell taking off behind her. The two were at top speed, one after another, and of course I couldn’t call them off. Nell turned instead to chase a deer over the hill, and Sacha was now out of sight, probably still galloping and traumatized by the pursuit. These stories would be cute if this all happened at the start of my apprenticeship, but they happened just a couple weeks ago. As a young woman who did not grow up on a ranch, I have learned that I am responsible for a lot of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ranching. 

I’m not sure if there’s an adequate way to quantify the skills I’ve gained during these 8 months. Some have offered determining what shade of green I am (I used to be bright green, now I’m more of a chartreuse), what my skill level from 1-5 on using a chainsaw is, or how fast it takes me to change a tire. What I do know is that ranching is a lifelong commitment to learning, and we are always just “arriving,” as my mentor (also a Buddhist priest) Bill always says. My shortcomings may still be numerous, but my willingness and gusto for learning are endless. 

My other mentor, Dana, has taught me how to subvert the stereotypical female ranching narrative in uniquely Dana ways. She has also taught me that cultivating an outlook that is both nurturing and empathetic is as important as any other skill I’ve learned. My coworker Ryan, seemingly the most liked person in Roundup, has taught me how to shoot guns, patch tires and create deep relationships with people while being true to myself. My puppy, who feels the world through her mouth (she loved eating her first snowflakes), has taught me about unconditional love. And our heifers (the herd which I feel closest to, probably because I’m also a heifer), have brought me back to the sisterhood of my all-girls high school.

We’re all hungry to create change in our agricultural systems, whether by adopting better grazing practices, applying holistic frameworks or growing better food for our community. I still don’t know how to create the ideal future for agriculture, but I do know that we can’t do it alone. Bill has taught me so many things– why he loves winterfat, why he hates threeawn, why we move cattle daily, why he loves hearing Sprague Pipits in June, why he hates barbed wire. But the most important lesson he has taught me is to be available to others and to always seek collaboration. 

At the beginning of my apprenticeship, Bill had me sit in on various Zoom meetings, listening to discussions about how to set up grassbanks to catalyze land access for young producers, and hearing simple questions like: How can we collect and organize range-health data to leverage our shared understanding of how, as land managers, we are positively impacting the Northern Plains? I felt out of place and out of context– I barely knew how to hold a pair of fencing pliers. Who was I to sit in on such conversations? Eight months and many Zoom meetings later, I can visualize my role in these conversations and a future in Montana’s ranching community. Plus, fencing pliers fit pretty well in my hands now.

I have no plans of leaving this side of Montana….ever. I’ve decided to press on with a second-year apprenticeship with Bill, Dana and Ryan, and I can’t wait to look back on this year and laugh at all these stories of my horrible ranching. Because next year I won’t make any mistakes, right?! Right?!

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