It was the closest I had ever come to throwing a dart at a map and taking off. For several years I’d been interested in working with WWOOF, a program that connects people to organic farms and ranches and coordinates participating in the daily working operations in exchange for room and board. But all of my attempts, prior to the summer of 2014, to plan such a trip had fallen through.
I chose Montana on a whim. I had grown up in the Midwest and was currently living on the East Coast, but I’d always felt there was something exotic and unknown about the West. I looked at farms through the WWOOF directory and chose White Deer Ranch, in part because of my love of goat cheese, which they produce. I was excited to spend a summer working with animals and soaking up the Western sun!
My hosts, Lee and Roxanne, picked me up—sweaty, disheveled, and weary—from the tiny Greyhound bus station in Billings, Montana. As we wound our way up into the hills, I recounted my journey and they told me about the farm. Katrina, the other WWOOFer, drove in from Denver later that night and we soon felt like a little family.
We found out the very first morning how exciting life on a farm can be when a mama goat gave birth to triplets within an hour of starting our morning chores. We bottle-fed Hefty, Maybelline and Underfoot and brought them in to snuggle on the couch on cold, rainy days. The month-long program definitely wasn’t all goat cuddles—Katrina and I had plenty to do. Every morning the animals were fed—chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows. The big black sow, Mama Chyna was my favorite, and I brought her scraps from dinner and breakfast each morning. Think about everything you normally throw down your garbage disposal, that’s what I delivered—and she loved it!
One of my biggest tasks on the farm, however, was helping halter-train two of the young calves. I even got to name the older calf, and I named her Bella, after my favorite pup back home. After morning chores we would start the long process of ringing the cows in from the pasture (though we had help from their fearless leader, Duke the Mule, who knew there were oats to be had), we corralled the cows into the pen, and then worked on separating the two youngest into chutes. We’d put harnesses on them to get them used to walking around, being led, and backing up. Some days it felt like we were making a difference—they grew to love being pet and handled and having their feet picked up. Other days it felt like they hated every minute —but I still like to think we made some good progress!
While I was in Montana, the farm hosted a wedding, which meant I had to help butcher chickens for the wedding dinner. I was nervous but slightly excited about this—I had always gotten an odd thrill from dissecting frogs and dealing with rotting and moldy food at the grocery store I worked for. I found it interesting to pull things apart and get my hands messy, but I wasn’t sure I could handle real, (recently) live blood and guts. Lee walked us through the whole process—cutting, feathering, all of it—and it was hard work but we had to keep up the pace. We dressed twenty chickens and ended up with a lot of feathers, gizzards and a little pile of chicken feet left over. It was gross and interesting and absolutely fueled my interest in learning more about butchering and dressing animals.
In addition to my work with the animals, I learned a lot about plants and foraging on the farm. Lee had stumps covered in mushroom spores to be watered, and we went out to the fields and ponds to look for koraibi, radishes, nettles and mint. Roxanne was the queen of tinctures and teas, with the help of knowledge she had gathered from neighbors and Native American traditions. Working with her and learning about the different uses for the flora and fauna around me planted an interest in me that grew into deep respect for nature. I’d been raised to be fairly skeptical about natural remedies and other “hippy” things, but in that kitchen in Montana, surrounded by glass jars of greenish liquid and drying grey-green plant bundles, I established a new connection and respect for the land and all she has to offer. I’ve carried that interest home with me and still love learning about the medicinal qualities of the plants around me.
The third major part of my time in Montana (and my favorite) was using the heavy farm machinery. The first day I was there, I was told to hop up into the driver’s seat of a big yellow backhoe, instructed on how to shift gears and operate the buckets, and then sent on my way. I had gotten my driver’s license when I was sixteen, but this was an entirely different ballgame—and I loved it! Both Katrina and I learned how to operate not only the backhoe, but several other pieces of equipment, including a few different tractors. I ended up getting to aerate and seed several fields. Those were wonderful, long afternoons listening to music, while I made sure the machinery wasn’t catching, watched out for snakes and ground hogs and got a bit hot sitting on the tractor in the summer sun!
We had plenty of time off to balance our hard work. Katrina often went running in the afternoon, while I headed to the pond to sun myself and read Stephen King. And I loved taking the four-wheeler out into the hills whenever I could. Katrina had her own car and we used it on a few day trips to Yellowstone and Mirror Lake, and even found ourselves a rodeo!
The month was too long and too short at the same time. Working with animals and the earth was fascinating and fulfilling in ways that I had not experienced before. I loved living and learning from people who were passionate about how they took care of animals, made a greater and greener impact, and provided their community with high-quality food and remedies. There’s nothing in the world that could replace the experience I had, and I would highly recommend trying it for yourself.
If you are interested in WWOOFing, check out their website. A one-time fee gets you access to farm descriptions and contact info for one year. There are even international opportunities. Interested in learning more about White Deer Ranch? Check out their Facebook page. Roxanne makes her own tinctures and salves and you can find those here! Want to see more pictures of my trip to Montana? Here’s a few more albums: 1, 2, 3, 4
Photos courtesy of Katie Klotzbach
Katie Klotzbach is a Midwestern transplant on the East Coast. She likes to take pictures of urban decay and graffiti, rollerblade and explore late at night, and play poker with interesting people. She is passionate about underrepresented groups of people and plans to go back to school to be able to do more about it. Contact her through her blog: ivy-and-twine.tumblr.com