Farmstay U.S. Blog

Created for and by travelers and the farmers, these posts will cover a variety of topics related to farm stays in the U.S.

Archive for tag: Montana

Karen Searle, Owner/Manager of Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations, has the impressive distinction of creating one of the first agritourism cooperatives in the United States. Today Montana Bunkhouses includes 20 authentic ranch vacations spread across Montana's remarkable landscape. Karen plays matchmaker between ranches and guests, and aims to give great personal thought and attention to pointing guests to their ideal ranch vacation.

Farm Stay U.S. recently had the pleasure of asking Karen about her organization, ranching in Montana, all of the great press Montana Bunkhouses has received, and more. We're excited to share her answers here. Photo credits for all the photos in this blog go to Montana Bunkhouses.

1. Montana Bunkhouses is a group of 20 working guest ranches that have teamed up to  offer guests a great selection of authentic cowboy experiences. How and why did the group form?

Families who want to pass their ranches down to the next generation are under increasing economic pressure to sell out. To give ranchers another option, I formed an agritourism 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.

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2. What kinds of experience do your guest ranches offer? You act as a matchmaker between guests and ranches: how do you know which ranch is the best for for a particular guest?

I am a native Montanan with ranching roots and I guess you could say I'm a travel coordinator and matchmaker. 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 potential customers, but also as friends. Developing personal connections with our guests means I am able to match them to a ranch not just based on their interests, but also based on their personalities. My goal is to match guests with a ranch that will give them the authentic ranching experience, with emphasis on the areas they find most interesting, and introduce them to people who will become "family" during their visit.

3. There's a cluster of your ranches concentrated east of Bozeman and west of Billings. What's special about that area?

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The idea for Montana Bunkhouse Working Ranch Vacations started where I live in southwestern Montana, and the participating ranches now stretch border to 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.

4. What sets Montana ranch vacations apart from 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. 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 guests to join them. Guests 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 guests can make a difference -- watching expecting mothers, reading the weather, and lending a hand in preserving new life. Something vital fills each and every day.

5. What's your 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 sympathetic to the challenges of the family farm. I am the galvanizing force behind the agritourism cooperative. I was credited by a former director of Cooperation Works, a national center for cooperative business development, for having put together the first agritourism 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 see agritourism 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 "geotourism," travel that sustains or enhances the character of a place, helping to preserve its heritage, habitats and scenic beauty.

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6. 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 to some feels like the country's soul!

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 experience they offer.

7. 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 Montana Bunkhouses News Page. 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 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. Anyone who visits Montana will want to have this map in their back pocket. You can order a free copy of the map from our website, www.montanaworkingranches.com. 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.

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8. 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. Our agritourism 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 agritourism 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.

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To contact Karen, send an email to karen@montanabunkhouses.com, call 406-223-6101, or visit Montana Bunkhouses Farm Stay U.S. page. Karen likes to warn potential guests with a wink: "Caution!  Working Ranch Vacations may be habit forming."

Thanks to Montana Bunkhouse Ranches for the use of the photos in this blog.

farmstay-montana

Serenity Sheep Farm is a diverse homestead farm in Montana's Gallatin Valley, with two cozy, antique Sheepherder's wagons restored just for farm stay guests. We recently spoke with shepherdess LaVonne Stucky about her unique farm stay. Here's the scoop:

Serenity Sheep

1. Could you tell us a bit about the setting of your farm?


We are nestled in the heart of the Gallatin Valley, near Bozeman, MT.  Visitors are greeted by mountain ranges on all sides.  We have several well-known rivers in the area and are just a few miles from the Headwaters of the Missouri River.

2. What's your farm's history?


It is part of the original 160 acre homestead my husband's grandfather farmed with horses.  He raised 4 children by himself in a time of no electricity and running water.

 

3. How did you get the idea for your unusual farm stay lodging: two sheepherder's wagons? Do you know of any other farms where guests sleep in wagons?

I know of other wagons for rent, but not in a farm setting.  Having sheep I was always in love with they lifestyle of the shepherds who tended their flock.  There are still many around to this day and they lead a very solitary life.  Serenity and solitude are just the respite many are seeking today, if only for a day or two.  When I saw an ad in the local classified newspaper for a sheepherder's wagon for sale, I waited.  I gave it a week or two.  The ad was still there, so I called and the rest is history.serenity-sheep-wagon Let's just say the inside of the Winona didn't look a thing like it does now!

4. What is a typical day for your farm stay guests?


The stay can be as private or interactive as they'd like.  Quite often they will do the chores with me in the morning and they love interacting with the animals.

5. Aside from your farm, what else do your guests come to do in the area?


We have so many things available in the area, like the Museum of the Rockies, fishing, hiking, biking, hot springs, caverns and lots of other things to see and do.  We have lots of great places to eat in the area and a lot of them specialize in local foods.
serenity-sunset

6. What made you want to work with sheep and fiber?


It was sort of a happy accident.  A friend of mine was raising sheep and 2 of them were born on my birthday.  I got to name them.  Thinking back, I am sure she had this in mind all along, but I wound up buying those 2 girls.  Two sheep led to too many, as I like to say, and here we are.  I call it a hobby run amuck!  So what do you do with all of that fiber?  Marketing it has not been an easy road for me.  Twenty years later I long for a "cult following" of spinners and knitters, but that hasn't happened.  I do have a handful of folks who love my wool and I am grateful to them and for them.  When I discovered needle felting about 10 years ago, I felt like I had finally found the reason I have sheep.  It had come full-circle for me.  Now I wish I only had more time to needle felt!

serenity-sheep-yarn

7. You offer lots of options for folks who want enjoy on your farm ... farm stays, birthday parties, kids' day camps, tea parties, classes. Which of these are your favorite ways to interact with visitors?


Being a new business, most of these are ideas and hints for folks.  I have yet to host a tea party or even a birthday party, but my classes, kid's camp and the overnight guests are beginning to take off.  Sometimes it's frustrating, but then I realize I am right where I need to be right now.  Slow growth is good, really it's best.  If I got too busy too fast I may pull my hair out, but there are no worries  there.  I'd just needle felt myself a wig out of my wool!
Teaching folks about the animals is my favorite thing.  It's typically geared more toward the children, but I find that most of the adults who visit learn quite a bit too.  I love having a farm that's loosely based on the old-fashioned homestead farm.  We have a bit of everything here and it's so much fun to share that with children and adults.  I even hosted what I called a "Grandma Camp".  Instead of kids one week I had two retired ladies.  They had a blast.  It was a gift from one friend to the other for her birthday.  She had flown out from NJ, just across the river from NYC.  She'd never experienced anything like it.

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8. Anything else you want to add?


In sharing the farm with others, I often hear the adults speak of their Grandparent's farm or their Uncle's farm they went to as a child.  It occurred to me this summer that there's an entire generation, and possibly even two, who will never be able to say those words.  For that I love sharing our farm and keeping it alive.
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For more informations about Serenity Sheep Farm Stay, check out their website (www.serenitysheepfarmstay.com) and their Farm Stay U.S. listing. All photos in this blog are from www.serenitysheepfarmstay.com. Lavonne also has an Etsy shop where she sells her yarn.