#tbt: White Deer Ranch

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Unless and until I cover every square mile of Montana, I doubt I’ll cease to be amazed by the landscapes out our front doors (and barn doors). In early June, I visited the White Deer Ranch and got to see first-hand how they run their sustainable agriculture operations.  Lee and Roxanne and their family have been working with their land, and diversifying their farm, IMG_6317 and making a living.

Farming organically and in harmony with the environment is important to them, and they are showing us all how it is possible.

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Roxanne, me, and Lee during the morning microgreen prep.

With a diverse farm operation, the Dunns are working with their land to grow specialty crops like the watercress that grows along their creek, along with nettle and fresh mint. They’re experimenting with microgreens (radish, cabbage—they even tried wasabi arugula) that are in growing demand in the Red Lodge and Billings area—and they are crispy and spicy and would be an excellent addition to your salad or sandwich. Roxanne made a pesto from microgreens and I just can’t stop craving it. They also raise cattle, pork, chickens, and goats. And FYI, Lee makes a mean goat milk rhubarb latte…

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Upon arriving at the charming yellow home of Lee and Roxanne Dunn, I was enthusiastically greeted by their 8-year old border collie, West–he’s a big kickball fan.  We all left the house and traveled up a little hIMG_0480ill to the gorgeous bee house the Lees have created from an old shed they converted and moved to an open field for better access to pollen sources for their happy bees. Modeled after bee houses developed in Slovenia, the Dunns took the bee boxes to the art walk and people painted them for their beautiful bee house.

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IMG_0442White Deer Ranch has hugelkultur no-dig raised beds, including one made from an old collapsed with thriving plant life all over it: nettle; chocolate mint (which we used for tea later); an apple tree (doing fine until the goat kid got at it); and more. The Dunns have invited a MSU herbalist come out and host tours to talk about local herbs and what can grow and what is edible there.   Roxanne uses this knowledge to make natural wellness and beauty products in her Rugged Ranch Woman line.

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Check out that iron chicken Brice made for their coop!

The 50 or so chickens roam the property by day and stay in their chicken trailer at night, adorned with one of the metal sculptures designed by Roxanne’s son Brice. The chickens get to move around the property and they go to town on all that nature provides. Sometimes, when the trailer has been moved to a different part of the property, the chickens won’t stay back in the trailer at sunset, but act weird and get out and congregate where the trailer is usually parked. Weirdo dinosaurs. IMG_0449They also get over fermented barley most mornings. And they devour it. They get so excited for this treat that in the morning before they are let out, the chickens are smashing up against the door, feathers sticking out of the gap by the door and squawking like…hens in a hen house.

IMG_0454Oh, and I milked my first goat. A Nigerian Dwarf goat. Most of it went up my arm, but, hey, it was my first time. Lee built a nice little contraption for the goats to chow down on some grain while they get milked. Roxanne or Brianna, the young woman Wwoofing for the Dunns (a natural goat-milker it seems), will show you how to milk and care for goats, trim hooves, rotate pasture and make fresh goat’s milk into delicious foods or beauty products. No lesson in falling in love with dwarf goats will be necessary.

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Beautiful barn that serves as a greenhouse for microgreens and plant starters, as well as venue for Farm to Table dinners.

The Dunns have turned their barn into a vegetable starter and microgreen incubator, powered by a wood pellet stove in the winter. As a means to supplement their diverse farming lifestyle, the Dunns hold farm to table dinners in this same barn, and outdoors if the weather permits, serving food from their farm. They typically feed up to 50 people! They also hold weddings, host field trips, and provide farm stays. The diversity in income sources helps them farm organically and with the environment, in a way that aligns with their values.

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There is something zen about cutting microgreens in the morning…

White Deer Ranch is growing and by thinking creatively and farming intentionally, they are making a living in sustainable agriculture in Montana. One new idea they’re looking into is using their water source to build a micro-hydro system to provide power for their operations.  I look forward to seeing what they come up with and helping them share their results.

Harvesting microgreens is fun!

Harvesting microgreens is fun!

If you get a chance, check out their place.  They are warm hosts and are happy to share their story and ideas, and they seem to love to hear the creative and intentional ways people are farming sustainably, and I’m sure they would love to here your story, as well.

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What we need is here.

As I await the release of Neil Young’s new album, “The Monsanto Years,” I have been listening to the two songs that are on early release. He’s not one to mince words (the best kind). And this is part of the reason why I am so excited about the launch of the album, the other part being that I love his words and music so much, he makes me wish I had more ears.   He’s maintained a sense of honesty in his music over the years that is refreshing and rare. Neil is echoing how I feel about the few who are in control of our systems in this country—whether it be food and agriculture or energy or healthcare… A mega-corporation decides whether or not to pollute and decides to pay the fine in lieu of better business practices (as Neil sings: too big to fail, too rich for jail).

I want my food to be made by real people, preferably my neighbors. I want it to be grown with the environment, not against it. It goes without saying that I’m not the only one AND it’s not an impossible task. In fact, in a study about the capacity of local foods, Montana has the potential to grow 72.8% of its food locally, making it one of the highest local food capacity states in the country. And the local food momentum is working in our favor.

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AERO was founded during the energy crisis of the 1970s to promote local alternatives to non-renewable energy sources. In the early 1980s, AERO began addressing the need to protect renewable resources, especially the natural and human resources on which agriculture and rural communities depend. AERO’s members share a commitment to facing the challenges brought by change. By bringing people together, AERO offers a vehicle for collective action and a sense of common purpose for citizens within their communities to shape a more sustainable future. AERO’s programming is grounded in the conviction that communities are the best place to create the kind of change we envision. We believe, and our programs reflect, that the best way to effect change is by empowering people in their own communities to work towards sustainable solutions.

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As I travel around the state this summer, I will be visiting with AERO members and their communities about living sustainably.  I want to learn what folks are doing with sustainable agriculture and how they are changing how we use energy and power the machines in our lives.  I want to know how Montanans are working to create sustainable communities, I will share their stories and talk about their needs to keep living their values in their daily lives.  These members of our communities are not asking for a new way of life, they want to work with what we have and keep it going for a future. True sustainability works with the land and doesn’t destroy it.  These Montana farmer and ranchers who feed their communities, and our energy champions who work tirelessly to provide alternatives to fossil fuels, are living their lives and showing people that working with the land, rather than against it, is a viable and accessible reality.  It is not impossible to live our values in our daily lives and AERO members show how that is possible by telling their stories. In the words of Wendell Berry: what we need is here.

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

Wendell Berry

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