Friday, October 19, 2012

Cooking in the west

Dear Roundup Participants,
   I can't be with you tonight because I am cooking for hunters in a tent in the Scapegoat Wilderness. Although I am somewhat concerned about being eaten by a grizzly bear in a cook tent that reeks of bacon grease, I am more concerned about making enough money at my extreme cooking job this week to buy a month's worth of Crystalyx supplement to help our cows get through this drought.
   As a ranchwife, my primary function is to supplement the income from the sale of our calves to keep the cattle healthy, the bills paid, and meet the annual land payment. Even though the ranches we operate now have been in our families since the early 1900's and both my husband and I are fourth generation Montana ranchers, we still have to work hard on and off the ranch to keep it solvent. 
   We started out 30 years ago with 25 cows, a couple jobs in town, some leased ground, and a dream to own our own ranch. Three factors made that dream a reality--the recession of the 80's that allowed us to buy a small place over across the river, inheritance of two nice places from family members that placed deathbed trust in us to hold on to the places they had created with sweat and perseverance, and the fact that we are too stubborn to admit that our ranching dream is sometimes more like a nightmare.
   For example, last year, a year of record rainfall, our summer pasture and our home place suffered more flood damage than the value of the calf crop. This year, we sold calves for record high prices right in the middle of a wildfire that burned up 1300 acres of our pasture, several miles of fence, and left a huge mess to clean up including 5 charred outbuildings. Fortunately, despite the drought and the fire, we will be able to hold on to our cows barring another bad hand dealt by Mother Nature. Being gamblers, we are going to double down and bet she deals us some aces in the form of normal moisture in the next year. Only God knows if it will rain, so the fate of our ranch is literally in His hands as it has been every year for the hundred plus years our families have been ranching in Montana.
   Ranchers don't get days off. They don't get to sleep in. Our family vacations consist of attending a bull sale in a neighboring state. Our investment is at risk from the economy, the weather, fluctuating prices, death loss from illness and predators, governmental regulations, radical environmental groups, noxious weeds, grasshoppers, wildfires, and floods to name just our top ten.
   Four generations of our family currently live on the ranch, and we want to pass it down to the fifth and sixth generation, our kids and grandkids. That will not be possible if the Death Tax is not reformed. If a bear eats me this week and that causes my husband to have a fatal heart attack, our children will have to sell the ranch to pay the inheritance tax, and that is just plain wrong since their ancestors will have paid over a hundred years of property tax on that property.
   I am not trying to evoke your sympathy, because we chose this profession, and we can walk away from it if we choose to do so. I am trying to explain our motivation as something other than the I word (insanity), so I will propose that we do this because we love the land, the livestock, and the lifestyle enough to lie awake at night trying to figure out how to hang on year after year and pass the ranch down to the next generation. Bottom line is that as a profession, ranching defies logical explanation. I cannot explain why this choice makes sense to us nor why our children want to follow in our footsteps, but the next time you eat a burger, I hope you will have a better understanding of the insane people who made that burger tasty, affordable, safe, healthy, and plentiful. Enjoy your ranch visit and know that I really do wish I could have been there!

Note from Susan Metcalf at the Lower Deer Creek Ranch: 
Every year, Bob and Susan Burch, who own the Hobble Diamond Ranch across the river from us, host an amazing Literary Arts Roundup at their ranch. They invite students from their other hometown of Philadelphia to join students from our area to stay at the ranch and explore fine arts with professional artists, writers, photographers, and actors. Their generosity and courage in hosting that many teenagers is astonishingly commendable.
    This year, Kathy Agnew, my former English teaching colleague, invited me to do a little presentation at the Roundup on what it is like to be a ranch wife, because suffice it to say that a visit to the Hobble Diamond is not an immersion into the reality of the average rancher's life. Unfortunately, I can't attend the Roundup, because I will be cooking in hunting camp. Nevertheless, I decided I would sit down and pen a few comments to the participants.

“Cooking in the West” routinely appears in the Western Ag Reporter, which covers the 14 northwestern states and is considered  the best read ag publication in the West.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Featured on Farm Stay U.S. website!

February 22, 2012 Interview

Karen Searle Owner/Manager of Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations

Question: Montana Bunkhouses is a group of 20+ working ranches that have teamed up to offer guests a great selection of authentic cowboy experiences, how and why did the group form?

Answer: Families who want to pass their ranch down to the next generation are under increasing economic pressure to sell out. I formed an agri-tourism cooperative, modeled after the European Farm Holiday program. The supplementary income each host ranch receives will hopefully help future generations to sustain their ranching way of life. We are able to offer a variety of authentic cowboy experiences, because that is exactly what we are, authentic. Ranching is a labor of love; we do not ranch because it is easy, we ranch because it is who we are. Montana Bunkhouses provides a gateway for others to share and understand our disappearing way of life.

Question: You (Karen) act as a matchmaker between guests and ranches, how do you know which ranch is best for a particular guest?

: I am a native Montanan with ranching roots and i guess you could say i am a travel coordinator. I act as a matchmaker for guests and ranches. I know these ranchers, personally, they are my friends and neighbors, and i understand what makes each of them unique. I devote myself to getting to know guests as well, not just as a potential customer, but as a friend. Developing a personal connection with our guests I am able to match them to a ranch not just based on their interests, but their personalities. My goal is to match you with a ranch that will give you an authentic ranching experience, adding emphasis to the areas you find most interesting, and introduce you to people who will become "family" during your visit.

Question: There's a cluster of ranches concentrated east of Bozeman and west of Billings, What is special about that area?

Answer: The idea for Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations started where i live in southwestern Montana, and the participation ranches now stretch to the border -- each in dramatic landscapes -- across the entire state. It is a great benefit for our guests that the area with the highest concentration of ranches is within the distance of a day's excursion to Yellowstone National Park. With our working ranch vacations, everything on-ranch is included: comfortable lodging, hearty family style meals, and seasonal ranch activities. Rates vary from $ 1500 to $1900 per week depending on the ranch and the hands on experiences they offer.

Question:What sets Montana Ranch Vacations apart for ranch vacations elsewhere in the U.S.?

: “Saddle Up” and experience a part of the Old West that still exists. We love sharing the ranching way of life and what comes with it. With over twenty Montana Cattle Ranches hosting guests, we offer a wide range of choices specializing in unique agri-tourism vacation opportunities on a personalized basis. Working ranch vacations offer more than just head to tail horseback riding. Guests participate in seasonal ranch activities while learning about conservation practices and sustainable ranching in the Rocky Mountains. It is traditional for ranch families to get together during brandings or roundups or cattle drives and they welcome you to join them. You will enjoy the camaraderie and appreciate the skill involved in the roping and wrangling. Springtime in the Rockies brings the perfect combination of nature and nurture. During calving and lambing you can make a difference, watch expecting mothers, read the weather, and lend a hand in preserving new life. Something vital fills each and every day.

Question: What is your (Karen's) background? How did you end up with such an unusual and fascinating job?

Ranching is in my blood. I grew up on a cattle and sheep ranch in southwestern Montana, and am well-versed in the challenges of the family farm. I am the galvanizing force behind the agri-tourism cooperative, and describe myself as a matchmaker, pairing ranch families and travelers. I was credited by a former director of Cooperation Works, a national center for cooperative business development, for having put together the first agri-tourism cooperative of cattle ranches in the United States. The co-op was formed after I was selected as a representative to the 2002 World Congress on Rural Women and Rural Issues in Spain. I modeled it along the lines of the European Farm Holiday program. I see agri-tourism as a way to help preserve family ranches and to narrow the divide between ranch and city dwellers on land use, and wildlife issues. Those objectives have put Montana Bunkhouses on the forefront of a trend in the travel industry labeled “geo-tourism.” Travel that sustains or enhances the character of a place, helping to preserve its heritage, habitats and scenic beauty.

Question: Is there a 'typical guest' that you work with? What kind of folks crave a Montana working ranch vacation, and what are they looking to do during their stay?

Why do guests come? Montana is a place where myth has long been in partnership with reality. The kinds of folks who find me on the internet are searching for “working ranch vacations.” They are not interested in simply traveling to another destination…they are seeking a life changing experience. Whether they are looking to connect with their roots, or reconnect with their family members, or establish a connection with our ranching way of life…it is all here. We offer the opportunity for them to share the ranching way of life with people who are tied by birth or choice to a part of America that just might prove to be the country’s soul!

Question: Your Group has gotten a lot of good press! Do you have a favorite article (or two) that you want to share with our readers?

Yes, we have gotten a lot of good press as you can see if you go to our “IN THE NEWS” website link: . The USDA/Rural Developments folks told our story in their national “Rural Cooperatives” magazine. We’ve been featured in newspapers in places a far flung as New York, Chicago, and Sidney, Australia. Respected travel magazines including Condé Nast Traveler and the Sunset magazine have celebrated our unique vacations….. as well as journalists in China, Taiwan, Japan, Italy and the United Kingdom. But the one that I’m the most proud of – my favorite, hands down!— is being selected for the National Geographic GeoTourism MapGuide of the Greater Yellowstone area. Please encourage your readers to go to my website to order their free copy. They will want to have this map in their back pocket when they visit Montana. We are the only Montana ranch-vacations to have met National Geographic’s criteria for authenticity of experience, culture and heritage. We're proud of that.

Question: What has changed for the ranches since your group formed? What changes do you foresee in the future?

Change is measured in generations in Montana and our agri-tourism cooperative is just starting its second decade so we can only speculate what the longer term impact will be for the ranchers down the line. Already the diversified income from agri-tourism has provided everything from money to remodel a kitchen right on down to the money necessary to make the next ranch loan payment. In some cases it means the difference on whether the ranch family’s son or daughter can return home so they can carry the ranching traditions on to the next generation. But the benefit is not just measured in dollars and cents. We enjoy sharing our way of life. It jogs us off-center so we don’t simply take for granted what we’ve been born to do because we see our ranching world through our guest’s eyes and it brings us joy.