Vilicus Farms is a first generation, nationally recognized organic, dryland crop farm located on the expansive plains of northern Hill County, Montana. Established in 2009, Vilicus Farms grows a diverse array of heirloom and specialty grains, pulse, oilseed and broadleaf crops within a 7+year rotation on approximately 9,600 acres and growing. Vilicus Farms practices advanced land stewardship at a scale that matters. In 2019 Vilicus Farms became the first Bee Better certified farm in Montana and in 2020 Vilicus became Real Organic Project verified. The Vilicus Farms Apprenticeship begins with an eight-month engagement. Our intention is to provide a multi-season training and mentoring program that immerses highly motivated young professionals in organic farm operation and management – a journey that ultimately ends in farm ownership. Doug and Anna understand the challenges of taking a farm from vision to reality. Through the Vilicus Farms apprenticeship program they hope to give beginning farmers a real opportunity to start a successful organic dryland crop farm or related agrarian enterprise in the Northern Great Plains.
Vilicus Farms officially started from scratch in 2009 when Doug and Anna purchased 1,280 acres of Northern Great Plains prairie off the open market with 20 years of savings and lots of hutzpah. The vision for Vilicus began years earlier when Doug, whose family’s farm in Ohio had been lost in the farm crisis of the 1980’s, began looking for a viable way to return to farming. Without the existence of a traditional family farm base, options were limited. In 2005, Doug and Anna recognized the emerging opportunities in the organic market and began drafting their vision of a model organic farm that would push the boundaries of conservation and sustainability.
With a “vision board” in their Helena kitchen Anna and Doug began looking for farmland in earnest. Often driving hundreds of miles to visit potential sites, they settled on the name Vilicus meaning “Steward of the Land,” long before they closed on the land 35 miles North of Havre just south of the Canadian border. Determined to participate in an organic agriculture revolution, Doug and Anna became beginning farmers at the age of 40. Before they even made an offer on land, they purchased their first tractor, “Maddie,” with part of Anna’s retirement fund. They broke ground with Maddie in the spring of 2009 using the USDA’s Beginning Farmer loan resources for land, equipment purchase, and operating capital.
While both working full-time–Anna as the Lead of Sustainable Operations in the National Forest Service, and Doug as the Organic Certification Program-Manager at the Montana State Department of Agriculture–they began farming on the weekends. Much of their first few seasons were spent commuting 10 hours each weekend from their home in Helena with their 3 Jack Russells in tow.
Doug and Anna are visionaries dedicated to the ideals of organic agriculture and determined to see others who dream of becoming farmers succeed. Since 2009 Vilicus has seen a full cycle of the 7-year crop rotation while growing from 1,280 to 9,600 acres, with more opportunity for growth emerging every year. The organic farmer apprenticeship program exists to mentor beginning farmers through the full spectrum of learning needed to operate a farm such as Vilicus. They want to share their experience with the challenges and joys of starting their own midscale, dryland organic farming operation. They are also deeply committed to helping young agrarians develop their own path to an agricultural livelihood in this part of the world. Through building a community of friendship and hard work centered on the seasonal life of the farm, Doug and Anna, along with the whole Vilicus Crew, have much more to offer than just the hard skills of farming.
Organic farming philosophy and practice
Over 25% of the farm is in non-crop conservation and habitat. Vilicus Farms’ cropping system allows for us to farm alongside of Nature’s systems and mirror Her processes for sustainable food production. Organic production isn’t just growing food without chemical inputs. It’s a system that requires improving soil, water and associated resources while producing safe and healthy food for a growing population of informed consumers. In 2020 Vilicus Farms integrated grazing animals into the crop rotation for the first time. We grazed several hundred acres of cover crops, as well as native pasture and rangeland with cattle as part of a custom grazing contract. This the result of shared vision and cooperation between Doug and Anna and Farm Foreman Paul Neubauer. In the coming years Vilicus Farms will have animal grazing across the entire acreage of the farm as well as opportunity for engagement and education about organic grazing practices.
Vilicus’ fields are divided into 240 foot wide cultivated strips separated by 20-30 foot conservation buffers. In partnership with Xerces Society, many of these buffers are planted with a mixture of native wildflowers and grasses that provide habitat for native pollinators and wildlife. The buffers also greatly reduce the risk for wind erosion, and secure additional moisture from winter snow catch. It is the blueprint for the Vilicus Farms growing system, and is a dramatic visual statement of countercultural commitment to sustainability and diversity in a landscape dominated by chemical-fallow wheat monoculture. Every year we discover new reasons to love our conservation strips, and the amount of land we steward that is dedicated to conservation.
Anna grew up in rural Colorado and Washington State. She spent several summers in Indiana visiting relatives who farmed and playing hide and seek in cornfields. She is an innovator who has championed sustainability throughout her 28 year Federal career and her personal life. Her work has saved millions of BTU’s and dollars. She pioneered new approaches to supporting the place-based work of local sustainability champions. She holds a B.S. in Construction Engineering and Management and an M.S. in Civil Engineering, Construction Emphasis from Purdue University. Her Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering with a Sustainable Systems minor is from Georgia Institute of Technology. Anna is a registered professional engineer and an early accredited US Green building Professional.
Doug has always been a farmer. He grew up on a large-scale grain farm in Ohio that didn’t survive the farm crisis of the 1980s. Giving up a full ride engineering scholarship after one semester at Purdue he followed his true passion and transferred to the Agricultural Economics Program. While completing his degree, he managed a crop farm in Indiana. He worked as a professional Farm Manager and Agriculture Systems Researcher in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska. After completing his Masters program, he spent two years building a sustainably constructed home with his wife, Anna, while also working as an organic inspector. From 2001 until 2012 he served as the Organic Program Manager for the Montana Department of Agriculture. Doug holds a B.S. in Agricultural Economics / Farm Management from Purdue University and a M.S. in Plant Science/Agronomy from South Dakota State University.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Paul Neubauer is also a first generation agrarian. He has worked on teaching farms and ranches in North Carolina, Colorado and now Montana. He currently works as Farm Operations Foreman as well as taking the lead with education and management of apprentices and interns. With experience in organic cattle ranching and farming across many environments, Paul has a fair amount of youthful wisdom to share with apprentices. As a graduate of the NAP program himself, he has a depth of experience with the mentor/mentee relationship and brings that passion for work-learning to bear every day. Paul has begun the cattle grazing enterprise on Vilicus Farms, through his business P/N Ranch. The integration of cattle into the cropping system at Vilicus Farms is an on-going and dynamic process of which Paul has taken the lead. Paul works with Anna and Doug not only as fellow management of the farm but also as his mentors, who provide him invaluable guidance and support.
What will an apprentice do?
2021 will be our ninth year hosting apprentices. We are the first to admit that not everything goes as planned. We have probably done as much learning as the eleven apprentices and eight interns we’ve hosted! Doug, Anna and Paul are patient and fully committed to stewarding the next generation of organic dryland crop farmers. Not one of their apprentices has come from an agricultural background but they expect all apprentices to have a commitment to organic food and sustainability. We started our operation from scratch. Being beginning farmers ourselves uniquely positions us to be able to share that perspective and support others who are entering agriculture. Doug, Anna and Paul expect a lot of themselves and thus a lot out of their apprentices. Entering agriculture is not easy and developing a vision for yourself and your operation is imperative to success. They support apprentices in developing and growing their own vision. Open communication and honesty are fundamental to this process.
This first-year position is designed to provide an immersion experience in all facets of the dryland organic crop farm enterprise. Apprentices will work under the direct supervision of the farm managers and the farm operations foreman. Specific training will be tailored to the skill sets and needs of the apprentice. Apprentices will be an integral part of the Vilicus Farms team and are expected to participate fully in the daily work planning sessions, weekly team meetings and visioning discussions. Apprentices will participate in the physical labor of the operation as well as the mental challenge of all aspects of the management of the farm business. Specific activities will be dependent upon the operations needed for any given season. Responsibilities and tasks will generally include:
- Large-scale machinery operations, tillage, seeding, cultivation, cover crop termination, green manure incorporation, swathing, combining, and crop storage/delivery.
- Field and crop scouting to monitor crop conditions, weed, pest, disease incidents, and soil health.
- Record keeping, maintenance, review, development and analysis. Including documentation of field operations, organic certification records, and conservation practices.
- Machinery maintenance, periodic service, cleaning and repairs as needed.
- Planning and implementation of conservation practices such as wildlife and pollinator habitat, windbreaks, field border establishment.
- Weeding, mowing and facility upkeep.
- Participation in field days, farm tours, and conferences to further develop knowledge of dryland cropping systems, organic production and grow connections with the network of organic producers in the northern plains.
What skills and traits are required in an apprentice?
Applicants must have a keen interest in farming and becoming a farmer. They must be curious self-starters, have the ability to work independently, appreciate the challenges and joys of working outside in all conditions, be a solid problem solver, with an open creative mind, and embrace diversity. The chosen applicants must be mature and excited to engage in their own learning process. Formal training in agriculture or farm management isn’t required but an ability to apply whole systems thinking, curiosity, and a broad ability to learn and be reflective is a necessity. However, candidates do need to have had agricultural experiences that are sufficient to have led them to know they want to pursue a life of farming. Candidates must have a valid US driver’s license with a good record, and a passport allowing travel to Canada.
What skills and traits are desired in an apprentice?
Ideally, candidates should have a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree (or be close to finishing) or provide proof of success in an academic setting.
Nuts & Bolts
Stipend: The monthly stipend is $1000, paid at the end of each month, and can be directly deposited to your bank. The stipend may or may not cover monthly expenses for the apprentice based on his or her needs and lifestyle. The position does not allow time for a second job, so the apprentice should consider his or her budgetary needs before applying to this position.
Housing: Apprentices will have their own bedroom in a house shared with other apprentices and/or farm employees. Bathroom is shared. Please note: housing currently is provided only for the apprentice. Accommodation needs for pets, spouses, significant others, and/or children might be able to be provided depending on the particular situation and time commitment of the apprentice.
Time Off: Day to day changes in work hours can and will occur to accommodate Mother Nature, soil and crop conditions, equipment needs and crew capacity. The apprentice will have one day off a week. During seeding operations there will likely be times when a specific day off isn’t possible and days may be banked together when the weather allows. During less intense times of the season we often move to a two day off per week schedule. If an apprentice needs additional days for specific activities, he or she should let the mentors know as soon as possible. Apprentices often request time off between seeding and harvest to visit family or friends. We will do our best to accommodate these requests. However, requests must be made at least 6 weeks in advance, and time away from the operation will be unpaid.
Food: Some shared meals are provided during seeding and harvest. There is generally a once a week farm crew dinner. Additionally, a grocery share will be part of the compensation package. This will include organic vegetables, local organic meat, and food grown on Vilicus Farms. Meals are nearly 100% organic with a focus on eating what is grown on the farm and from other Montana growers. There is an expectation that the apprentice will participate in all the household duties of cooking, cleaning and caring for the farmstead.
Quivira Coalition Activities: The apprentice is required to attend the annual Quivira Coalition orientation, held virtually in late March, and the Regenerate conference, held each November in Albuquerque, NM. Conference and hotel fees are covered by the Quivira Coalition. In addition to the conference, the apprentice will participate in monthly supplemental education calls hosted by Quivira. Apprentices are also required to write several reports during their apprenticeship; these reports will go through the NAP Coordinator at Quivira, and be posted on the Quivira website.
NO Smoking or Drugs: No smoking or drugs on farm, range, vehicles, housing – the farm is a completely non-smoking, no-drug environment.
NO Partying: No partying. Having a beer/glass of wine or two after work is just fine.
Health Insurance: The farming lifestyle has inherent dangers. While personal health insurance is not required to participate in the apprenticeship program, it is strongly encouraged. The farm carries Workman’s Compensation to cover injuries incurred on the job. But if the apprentice is injured on his or her day off, gets sick, or has or develops chronic conditions like allergies, these types of issues should be covered by personal health insurance.
COVID-19 policy: Vilicus expects any apprentice to use common sense when in public including wearing a mask when it is required by businesses and/or local and state regulations. We also expect our apprentice to practice social distancing as much as possible when in public. With the assistance of Quivira, we will monitor the COVID situation in our community and may ask the apprentice to take additional precautions depending on current transmission rates.
Farm Vehicles: Many of the farm vehicles are standard transmission. Apprentices will need to know how to drive stick-shift. Previous experience with backing up trailers and running heavy equipment is not required, but greatly appreciated.
Personal Vehicle: While there are no instances (or very few) when an apprentice would be asked to use a personal vehicle around the farm, the apprentice will need the flexibility of his or her own vehicle in order to run personal errands such as purchasing groceries and travel on days off.
Living in Havre, Montana: The farm is located 40 miles from the nearest town of Havre, MT and is in a very rural location with limited population. Candidates should be willing to embrace this lifestyle and understand there is limited access to services. Medicine Hat, Alberta is the closest larger sized population center and is 100 miles away. The landscape is wide-open with an arid climate. Summer highs are in the upper nineties with cool nights. Winters can be extremely cold with several days in a row with a high of -10 degrees not unusual.
Want to read more? Here’s our August 2017 New Agrarian Newsletter profile of Vilicus Farms.
When I was growing up in Carver, Massachusetts, cranberry bogs were a common sight. In fact, across the street from where I lived was a cranberry bog that was cultivated, sprayed and harvested for Ocean Spray, the juice company. It was a relatively frequent experience to hear the helicopters flying back and forth over the acres of berries, spraying pesticides. For days afterwards there would be signs warning people not to go into the water for health reasons. Our family dog paid no attention, however, and happily chased geese, ducks and deer through and across the bogs, happily bounding into the chemical laced reservoirs. Years later we had to put her down due to debilitating cancers, and our cat followed shortly afterwards with similar symptoms. No-one in my family thought anything of it, thinking that it was just the way the world works, dogs get old and cancer is part of the cycle of life. My mother was an avid gardener and I credit her with first sparking if not an interest, at least an awareness of what food is. Cucumbers, tomatoes and corn can be fun to watch grow, and frustrating to watch the squirrels eat before we did. Our neighbor was a horse dentist and would give us horse teeth as souvenirs when we would go visit, and our friends raised goats and gave us delicious milk and cheese. I remember my first truly sorrowful experience of having my favorite kid goat die suddenly and unexpectedly. I made it a cross for it’s grave, and us kids got the adults together for a very solemn funeral service in the forest behind the barnyard. Although my family ended up moving to a more suburban area, these initial experiences with getting my hands into the soil lingered. However I didn’t begin to seriously contemplate our food system until I was in high school.
I began to concentrate in earnest on the issues we face with our food and energy systems after watching a few eye opening documentaries about our abuse of fossil fuels, water systems, and chemically dependent agriculture. I started wondering about those cranberry bogs and helicopters dumping chemicals. Why did we do this? The dominoes started falling for me, as one discovery led to the next, and before I graduated high school I was determined not to fall for the big lie underpinning our society. I began to believe that the anomaly of fossil fuel energy was not to be underestimated, and the bubble in which industrialization built the world around us had a pretty steep price if we continued blindly. While before I was on track to attend a university for a language arts degree and pursue writing, I now felt that I wanted to develop a more foundational skill set, but I didn’t get into farming straight away.
I spent the years after high school feeling disillusioned and lost, struggling to live on my own by working odd jobs at coffee shops, gas stations, and any other paying job that could keep me from depending on anyone else. I wanted to figure out how to take care of myself, and those years learning were extremely important to building my character and work ethic. It took breaking away from the life I was “supposed” to have lived to really gain some mental clarity on what I felt I truly mattered. Fortune favors the brave I suppose, and after years of knocking around just getting by, I finally answered an Craigslist post that was seeking a “Farm Crew Member”. That year I had been cultivating a plot at the community garden in my town, and felt that perhaps this was an opportunity to take the next step towards sustainability.
My very first day farming I was put to work mucking out the pig stall and pulling low-tunnel anchors from the semi-frozen ground. After avoiding a boar attack and spending hours in a cold windy field all by myself, I knew that this job was different than any I had worked before. Over the next four years the range and difficulty of work increased as my skills progressed. I have built greenhouses, led harvests, trailered cows and pigs to and from pastures, led on-farm chicken slaughters, and completed other endlessly varied tasks from weeding to seeding, irrigation to cultivation, welding and fabrication as well as many forms of tractor operation and equipment maintenance. My first year I worked as a field crew member, learning and following directions through a season of diversified animal and vegetable farming. Following that I completed an apprenticeship at an 88 acre organic vegetable farm and was hired to be their Harvest Manager/Machinery Operator for the next season. I would often spend days on the cultivating tractor, driving the different transplanters, and performing field prep such as plowing, disking, and bed shaping.
This year I have been working as the lead apprentice on a livestock farm/raw-milk dairy. Getting up at 4:30am on windy January mornings to milk the dairy herd with temperatures barely creeping above 0 degrees, working late into the evenings during the summer to make and store hay into the barns, and responding to 10pm phone calls that the cows are out of their electric fence on the far side of town-these are the experiences that have truly tested my commitment to farming. However, the beauty and complexity of our relationship to our food and environment has always made every discomfort worth it. These past four seasons have encompassed a range of experiences too numerous and varied to tell precisely, but each and every event has transformed me into a more capable person. Capable of handling high stress, capable of leading a team, capable of making split-second decisions with confidence, capable of working well past the limits of my own endurance, and capable of operating a variety of different tractors, tools, implements and vehicles. It’s hard to point to one single experience and say “this is what made me a farmer”, and as I reflect on the last four years I realize that the experience I value the most is a much longer one; the experience of seeing the seasons change one to another, and the years progress into each other, and seeing myself growing and changing with them. Perhaps no other occupation holds such a clear mirror up to oneself and ones surrounding as farming does, and for that I am immensely thankful. When I think of all the experiences in other jobs or other lifestyles I could have chosen, I am thankful for the path I am on and thankful for the connection to the planet and the other life-forms on it that agriculture fosters.
I’m looking forward to my time at Vilicus Farm as a continuation of this journey, and a turning point towards taking my vision to the next level. I love farming and food, but the issues that originally inspired me to pursue this career exist on a scale beyond the scope of small New England farms. The statistics are daunting when they are laid out on paper: the millions of acres of topsoil we are depleting, the massive fossil fuel bill we are racking up using “Big Pharma” to grow our food, and the decline of our grasslands globally due to desertification. However, looking at the statistics never changed anything, and so I am excited to participate in the real world solutions that exist to these problems. I’m hoping that this coming year at Vilicus and through the NAP apprentice program I can get a firmer grasp on just what I can bring to the table as a solution, and integrate into a role that brings about the change we need to continue to exist in a viable fashion on our planet. Whether it be re-uniting animal grazing into crop farming, growing bio-fuels for sustainable farm mechanization, closing the loop between consumer and farmer, growing cover crop seed and inoculant to help other farmers switch to organic methods, or all of the above, I am looking forward to learning and growing and helping further the vision of regenerative agriculture in any way that I can.
Remembering the cranberry bogs and cancer in my childhood, I want more than ever to change the paradigm for those who follow after me. Our food system has become a strange and twisted array of vested interests and corporate shortsightedness, and can only be described as one weird world. However, one of my personal heroes, a journalist by the name of Hunter S. Thompson, is credited with a quote that sums up my perspective, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”. I’m looking forward to trying.
Farming has always been a part of my life. My best memory is probably my Wednesday afternoons when I would come back from school and spend the rest of the day with my father and my grandfather on the family farm. I took an agriculture school orientation and during my studies I did different internships and gained experience experimenting with agricultural chemical products. I started to worry about the durability of the conventional farming and I wondered about the honesty of a company who prioritized profit over the farmer and the agricultural community. Over time, I developed my own opinion on the subject.
Now, I am starting to have a personal interest in organic farming. For me, it is more fun, sustainable and respectful to the environment. I believe that each of us has something to bring to this world and that it is my time to change the way we consume and conserve the beauty of the natural world. This apprenticeship is probably the best experience of my life…through this apprenticeship I am meeting new people, sharing stories, learning a way of life and building my knowledge of organic farming. I love the Vilicus Farms environment. Every day is an adventure and I am very well supported to make this apprenticeship a success.
I would like to take away from this experience a project for my family farms in France to help convert them to organic practices. I don’t see myself as anything else but a farmer. To a long life in organic farming!
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