Vilicus FarmsEight-Month Grain Farming Apprenticeship in Havre, Montana
Vilicus Farms is a first generation, nationally recognized organic, dryland crop farm located in 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 5+year rotation on approximately 5,000 acres. Vilicus Farms practices advanced land stewardship at a scale that matters. The Vilicus Farms Apprenticeship is intended to be 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 in the Northern Great Plains.
Meet the mentors
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 grain farm in Ohio had been lost in 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.
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.
Since 2009 Vilicus has seen a full cycle of its crop rotation, and grown from 1,280 to 4,700 acres. Doug and Anna have begun an organic farmer apprenticeship program to mentor beginning farmers through the challenges of starting a midscale, dryland organic farming operation. Doug and Anna are no longer commuting from Helena every weekend; instead the farm crew is based out of the Vilicus Farms Headquarters located near the original 1,280 acres, which is the epicenter of the farming operation.
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.
Doug and Anna are visionaries dedicated to the ideals of organic agriculture and determined to see others who dream of becoming farmers succeed.
Vilicus Farms practices advanced land stewardship at a scale that matters. Over 20% 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.
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.
Anna grew up in rural Colorado and Washington State. She spent several summers in Indiana visiting relatives and playing hide and seek in cornfields. She is an innovator who has championed sustainability throughout her 23+ year Federal career and her personal life. Her work has saved millions of BTU’s dollars. She routinely cultivates key pilot projects, and pioneers new approaches to supporting the place-based work of local sustainability champions. She’s fostered a national sustainable operations effort for the US Forest Service serving as the first Regional Sustainable Operations Coordinator and today as the National Sustainable Operations Director–positions she created. 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.
2017 will be our fifth year hosting apprentices. We are the first to admit that not everything goes as planned. We have probably done as much learning as the six apprentices we’ve hosted! Doug and I are both patient and fully committed to stewarding the next generation of organic dryland crop farmers. Not one of our apprentices has come from an agricultural background. But we expect them all to have a commitment to organic 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. We expect a lot of ourselves and thus a lot out of our apprentices. Entering agriculture is not easy and developing a vision for yourself and your operation is imperative to success. We support apprentices in developing and growing their own vision.
Applicants must have a keen interest in farming and becoming a farmer. They must be 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 individuals and excited to engage in their own learning process.
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. 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.
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. 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/monthly 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.
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 have their own room in the four bedroom farm headquarters. Bathroom is shared with apprentices and farm guests. Please note: housing can be provided only for the apprentice. Pets, spouses, significant others, and/or children cannot be accommodated on the farm. For 2017, there is a possibility of separate housing for the apprentices which could accommodate a spouse or significant other.
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: Full board is provided. 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. Most meals are shared. If separate housing becomes available for 2017, apprentices will be responsible for most of their own food. There will be shared dinners several nights a week with the farm crew. The stipend will be adjusted based on the final housing arrangement.
Quivira Coalition Activities: The apprentice is required to attend the annual Quivira Coalition 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 an Holistic Management International webinar series geared Whole Farm/Ranch Planning Series. 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.
Farm Vehicles: All 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.
Applications for 2018 NAP apprenticeships will be posted online in October.
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