New Agrarian Voices

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





Natalie Berkman

1st and 2nd Year APPRENTICE

Milton Ranch, MT

2nd Year Apprentice


Final Reflections on the Second Year
November 2021

1) Diary of a Milton Ranch Cow:

It was one of those warm, sunny Fall days that have been happening more and more now. I know because I’m what they call a “pink tag” cow, meaning I’ve had more than 7 babies. Gosh, I miss them all. Except for that daughter who came back to the herd for some reason, she’s a real b****. I hope the rest are doing well! 

Anyway, we were all waiting by the water tank because it was too far to walk back to the feed and to be honest, none of us felt like doing anything at all. Plus, usually the humans come every day and open some gate or another to let us onto fresh feed. So we just waited. Finally, the human in the pink hat with the really annoying dog showed up and started hollering for us to follow her up the hill back to where that feed was. Half of us started following her, and when she was far enough away to think that we were all following her, I just stopped. And everyone behind me stopped too. Ha! 

An hour later when she came back with her horrid dog, she was looking all proud of herself until she saw half of us still standing by the water. She screamed expletives and threw that strange-looking hammer at the ground. Haha, I love when she does that. The joke was on me, though, because she got behind us and her dog started running back and forth like a psychopath and even bit some of our heels. Gosh I hate that dog. We had no choice but to go. Lucky there was a poly-wire gate ahead that was not heated so we just walked right through it onto fresh feed. I looked back and saw her throwing the weird hammer again.

She finally sent her dog around us and that’s when we saw the other cows and decided to go back to the old feed. There was plenty of grass there so I guess I should have just followed her from the beginning. But sometimes it’s just so fun to walk through fences— I can’t help myself! 


2) Land Love

I’m not sure how I’m going to leave this place. Not necessarily the work or my mentors or the neighbors, but this land. I know I’ll have a close relationship with Bill, Dana and Ryan for the rest of my life. But I’m not sure how I’ll leave this little piece of prairie that I’ve spent the last two years walking across. My favorite part of ranching is how landscapes can be shaped by memories of moving cows through them. When I walk through different parts of the ranch, memories of how I was feeling the last time I was there, what podcast I was listening to, or what personal drama I was dealing with at the time all come flooding back. There’s a section in East Lackey that always reminds me of an old friend who I spoke on the phone with over a year ago while feeding hay there. There’s another section in South Big Wall that makes me feel grateful for my relationship with Bill. We bird monitored there this summer during an extremely hot, dry (the hottest and driest on record) and stressful time. When listening to birds together at 5:30 am, the still, cool early morning air made us forget the stress and appreciate being together. The water tank at West Lackey makes me think of Dana, who had to come rescue me when I drove over a short wooden post. She identified the wildflowers and songbirds, deflecting my idiocy while I sawed the post out from under the truck. The big, dry draw in the South reminds me of my coworker Ryan, who I was beginning to get frustrated with one day after not being able to contact him. He miraculously showed up, explaining his tardiness because of a sad, personal trauma he was dealing with. I now always think of Ryan’s beautiful vulnerability and friendship when in that draw.

When I’m standing on the highest point, looking out over the entire ranch (The Milton Ranch is very bowl-shaped), I feel what I can only describe as breath. It fills me up. 


3) Thank You

The people I’ve met over the past two years are deeply ingrained in this land I’ve worked really hard to love. I am so very grateful to the Quivira Coalition for supporting this incredible program. I can’t even begin to describe my gratitude for Alexis, who seemingly keeps giving and giving, makes my troubles her own, and gave me friendship when I felt like I had none. For Erica Mannix, who is the badass female rancher I’ve always needed to look up to. For my neighbor Wade, who taught me cowboy stuff and told me that I’m “not quite a hand yet, but I definitely have some fingers.” For my dog trainer, who made me cry but also showed me how to train Nell (this stuff is not easy). For Ellen Lehfeldt, who gave me 10 books and 5 sheep to help me train my dog. For Julie Sullivan, who guided me through tough career steps. For Susan and Noelle, who provided the female friendship I CANNOT live without. For my neighbor Judy, who only talks about animals, just like me. For Oxbow Cattle Company, for providing me with a job at the end of all this. For my partner Paul, who continues to love me relentlessly and unconditionally, even when I sometimes chose cows over him. And for my family, who might not understand what business a Jewish woman has in Roundup, Montana, but is supportive nonetheless. And of course, for Bill, Dana and Ryan. I love you guys.

March 2021

What do you know now, that you wish you had known when you started your first year?

“This is hard to answer because I don’t think my experience would have unfolded the way it did had I known more at the start of my apprenticeship. I suppose I wish I had known that I’m about to find my place in the world, my home, my people, my fuzzy little buddy and that everything will be okay from here on out. I also wish I had known right from the start to bring a pb and j with me wherever I go, no matter how long I think I’m going to be out for.”

April 2020

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.

November 2020

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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