Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Back from Montana! Part I: The Farm

Back from our ten day trip to Montana!

It's been so long since I was out West, and I forgot how it felt to be near that much sky and earth. It was wonderful disconnecting from the phone, internet, and t.v. to spend time with friends and nature.

The main purpose of the trip was to attend the wedding of two great friends from here in Baltimore. (Some of you readers have already met the groom from the February post about homemade wooden bows and arrows.)

For the first few days we had the opportunity to stay with the bride's family on their wheat farm on the prairie. That's their welcome sign above, with a deer antler decoration and some of the mountains in the distance. Quite a view!

Here's Chicken-Man taking his own photo of the sign:

The farm was a conventional wheat farm. I won't talk too much about it here since I know that I don't know anything when it comes to "real" farming. It was interesting learning that they grow a special dry-land wheat crop (along with some barley and flax) since so much of the precipitation in Montana gets dumped out over the mountains, it's all gone by the time the clouds reach the prairie.

This year was actually pretty wet so much of the crop has been covered by "rust," or fungus. Sometimes the crops get destroyed by hail storms. This year the farmers would actually benefit from a hail storm since then they would be able to collect insurance instead of having to sell the rust-infected crop. Farming is definitely risky business! Many farmers have family members with jobs off the farm to help keep things stable.

The wheat fields:

Another bit of farming information I picked up is a term called "chem-fallow."

Letting the land lay fallow is part of a crop rotation system necessary for farming. It is even mentioned in the Bible as a method for feeding the poor!

A main problem with letting the land lay fallow is that is gets totally covered by weeds. Since it requires so much time and labor to pull thousands of acres of weeds, the farmers now spray a chemical to prevent any weeds from growing on the fallow fields. There is also something in the chem-fallow that prevents all of the dust from the empty fields from blowing away.

It can be easy for us consumers to talk about chemicals and farming, but I guess if my family's livelihood was at stake the choice would be difficult. I have read accounts of farmers switching from conventional to organic farming and how it's cheaper because they don't have to pay for pesticides and fertilizer, but I do know it's a lot more work. Visiting a farm was a great opportunity at getting perspective on where food really comes from and the choices our farmers have to make, and we as consumers have to make.

I read a fair amount of the "Last Best Place" anthology to get a sense of Montana's history. Part of that history is the struggle of the homesteaders to survive in such a dry place. During the trip I heard a family story about one of their great-grandmothers who came with the wave of homesteaders from Minnesota lured by cheap land. When she arrived at their plot of ground, she grabbed a shovel and stuck it in the ground to see how rich it was. The shovel barely made a dent. She then grabbed a knife and tried to stab it into the ground. When the knife was resisted too, she laid down and wept.

Don't worry though, I didn't spend the whole time obsessing about food and where it comes from!

We spent a lot of time looking out at the land and sky. I rode around a lot in the back of a pickup, and it was a good thing the groom was riding in the back of the truck with us as he has an expert eye and kept pointing out deer, antelope, and coyotes for us to see.

We hiked up a butte and saw the remains of an ancient seabed. There are even small shark teeth to be found among the many seashells. This is a large seashell that I picked up, with a shot of the butte in the distance:

There were many wildflowers and sagebrush, with even a few prickly pear cactus thrown in (shown here in bloom):

We drank homebrew and potluck food, chatted with new friends and family, and got a taste of real Montana life. Sometimes literally, like when we got to eat elk kabobs made from an elk bagged by the bride's uncle!

We also toured the barn where the bride's father stores his handmade wooden canoes. Check out the lovely compass rose design he created out of inlaid wood:

A not very good shot of more of the canoe, with Chicken Man taking a photo of the compass rose:

You can see a main attraction of Montana's entertainment by the looks of their barn, with the canoes and a pile of antlers built up over the years from the family's various hunting trips:

Also, I got to shoot a gun for the first time, a .22 rifle! I felt safe using it because there were many experienced gun users around who coached us on safety. Also, the bride had used the rifle at age 12 so I was confident that I could easily manage. It was exciting!

I was more scared about the kick-back than anything else, but I was coached how to hold the gun so the experience was much more mild than I was expecting. Like so many other things out on the farm, the experience of shooting a gun made you realize that you better have your head on straight and pay attention and stay in control or someone could get hurt.

Enough about guns, here's another photo of wildflowers!

For the second half of the trip we left the prairie and headed for the mountains. Stay tuned for photos of the visit to Glacier National Park!


Esperanza said...

That is funny! I love Montana's beauty. Where about were you? We were in Bozeman area. We drove from Oakland and camped along the way. Actually, we camped at the bride's family farm as well. :)

AlizaEss said...

Haha, opposite coasts, parallel lives ;) The farm was located in the tiny town of Geraldine (pop. 248), nearest town is Great Falls. The wedding took place in Glacier National Park about six hours aways, so we got to see a lot of Montana from the prairies to the mountains!

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