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.