Friday, July 21, 2006

Ranch Response to the Wall Street Journal

Ranch Response to the Wall Street Journal
Sent to Conor Dougherty,
Emailed: July 21, 2006

A Big Montana Hello to Conor,

I enjoyed reading your 7-7-06 article in the Wall Street Journal titled The Disappearing Dude Ranch. It was well thought out and carefully researched.

I wanted to let you know that dude ranches are not the only ranches facing the “setting sun;” cattle ranches in Montana and elsewhere are in the same situation. The ranch land is far more valuable than the cattle business it supports. We have bumped up against (and in some cases, neighbor) the Brokaws of the world. Newcomers are not known for being good stewards of the land. Jeff Phillips, of Sunset magazine raised Tom Brokaw’s ire when he reported the local sentiment toward out of state land owners. [Sunset February 2005: Home on the Range.]

We don’t look at the land as something we’ve inherited from our fathers. It’s like a trust—we’re really borrowing it from our children. 4th and 5th generation ranch families hang on in spite of the fact the economics of ranching here in Montana really don’t work anymore. Whether too ornery to admit it or too stubborn to quit, we’ve had to look at ways to pull together. As near as we can tell, we are the only ones doing what we’re doing…the way we’re doing it: as an agri-tourism cooperative. Or at least we’re the only group of cattle ranchers in the U.S. hosting guests cooperatively. It is common place in Europe where we borrowed the idea from their Farm Holidays program.

We call ourselves Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations and we would like to think that we will be the option for the next “century of summers” giving people a genuine appreciation of the value of the small Western rancher. We are family owned and family operated generational cattle ranches in Montana (15 to date) working together to host guests for what we call an “authentic” working ranch vacation. As you pointed out in your article, in the late 19th century, working ranches took in guests for extra cash…then evolved to where they existed solely to entertain dudes. A criterion for our group is that the primary focus remains production agriculture while opening our homes to folks who want to learn about our way of life is secondary.

Let me know if you have any questions or if you’d like to have a cup of coffee with me or any of the ranch families on our web site!

We welcome you to experience the traditions of our ranching way of life in Montana, where myth has long been in partnership with reality.

Happy Trails,
Karen Searle

Karen at Montana Bunkhouses
Working Ranch Vacations LLC
P.O. Box 693
Livingston, Montana 59047

Office Phone 406-222-6101

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Battling Weeds

Battling Weeds

Just think of a ranch as a big garden—a very big garden. Hundreds of acres of land all requiring watering and weeding. Now after some of the driest spring months you can imagine, we just had one of the wettest 4th of July weekends on record and the cowboys riding bulls at the local rodeo were getting bucked off in the mud. All this rain makes it a little difficult to get the haying done, but we are happy for the moisture. The foothills are a shade of green that we have not seen for a few years and it sure makes us smile.

By this time last year we were already seeing fire crews make their way to Montana. Last summer a total of 12,000 firefighters fought fires around the state. If all those people had been living in one place, it would have made the 8th largest city in the state of Montana.

The dry seasons seem to have given an advantage to the weeds. The war on weeds consumes our energy and a big chunk of our pocketbook. Left unmanaged, invasive weeds negatively impact agriculture, wildlife and recreation. Weeds can reduce grass production by up to 90%. In Montana there were only a few spotted knapweed plants not long ago and today more than 5 million acres are infested. The noxious weed list contains more than 100 species.

Leafy spurge has invaded the Boulder River Valley and we are using everything in the toolbox to lower weed populations and that includes herbicides, bio-agents and sheep grazing. Our sheep are “spurge vacuums.” Can’t believe what they can do to a spurge patch in one day. After 4 days in the 40 acre river pasture, there was not a seed head to be found. It is a joy when something far exceeds your expectations. And the sheep are doing it time and again as we move them from field to field. Sometimes they say that sheep need to become accustomed to eating this noxious weed—that it takes a while to get used to eating it. But ours eat it with gusto.

The sheep are some of our favorite animals…they provide food and fiber and they also lower our cost of production because of the fabulously efficient way they control noxious weeds. The are the only animal that eats spurge and they eat it with gusto. They turn a horrible enemy of the West into the delicacy of lamb chops.

Pretty amazing story.