Lea Howe is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Boulder.
Johnny Grant (of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch) started ranching in the Deer Lodge Valley in the 1850’s. Since then, ranching has come to define the social, political and economic fabric of Montana. Cattle outnumber people by three to one.
Having spent my entire life in a city where people are still coming to the realization that “meat” comes from farms, it was a startling adjustment to live amidst the endless pastures of grazing cows. It was certainly the most beautiful landscape I’d ever seen. But I had a hard time reconciling this idyllic landscape with the factory farms most of these animals end up inhabiting.
And when I talked to the folks in Boulder, very few seemed to even take notice of the ranches. Rather, the ranches got lost in the views. This prompted me to begin a conversation about the business of raising animals. Everyone was eager to talk about hunting, but raising animals didn’t seem to spark the same enthusiastic dialogue.
So I decided to dig a little deeper with some of my students and have a more nuanced discussion about meat. Animals, after all, are essential parts of healthy ecosystems– and all of us are a part of this ecosystem whether we think about it or not.
To start the conversation, I decided to take students to a small, local goat ranch during kidding season! Kathy, the “goat lady,” introduced each of her goats by name and told students a little bit about each goat’s personality.
She led the kids over to a majestic white goat. “This is Miracle. Her mother died when she was born. We didn’t think she would make it, but she pulled through and boy, are we glad!”
“This little trouble-maker over here is named Rowdy. She knows just what to do to get a rise out of all the other goats. She can push all their buttons!”
During the trip, students learned how to harvest milk and listened to Kathy as she talked about the art of cheese making. They learned that goats are wonderful fertilizers and effective noxious weed killers. In fact, students voted unanimously to use goats over pesticides for our own weed situation back at the school!
Most importantly, students learned the incredible lengths farmers go to to bring food products such as cheese, milk and meat to their plates. They left with a new found reverence for Kathy and all the other farmers and ranchers in the Boulder Valley. There is no better education than one in which kids can be engaged with all five senses.
The “ranch” came to life that day. It was no longer just a part of the view, but rather a place where things happen. A lot transpires between the barbed wire that often gets lost in the bigger picture. And it’s that perspective I hope to bring to the students. Taking a deeper look is the most important lesson I hope to impart. It’s not just the same old fields on the ride to school every day, but rich places where people make a living, raise food, and honor tradition.