Three Stories, Three Ways To Give: Donate

My wife and I were married underneath a canopy of golden willows that my great-great grandfather planted. We held our reception across the creek inside a century old shearing shed. That space of sweat and toil, which likely had never seen celebration beyond the odd shared dram of post-shearing whisky, transformed then into a venue of jubilance. Most of our guests had never before set foot in a shearing plant, and to share an essential piece of Montana’s economic and cultural history with our wedding guests made that personal day all the more meaningful.

My parents named me after a place on our family ranch that was homesteaded by Welsh brothers. Needless to say, the ranch is not only a part of my work but an indelible part of my identity. The ranch has survived as a family-owned working landscape into my generation—the fifth—because each generation has treated it as an heirloom, as an almost sacred entity that surpasses our needs as individuals. I was brought up in an ethic of stewardship and conservation, to enhance the land whenever possible and leave it better than how we received it.

Witnessing overgrazed rangeland elsewhere, then, or farmland growing housing developments, or the disappearance of historic ranches and associated recreation opportunities stuns my sensibilities.

With a land trust, my family tackled one of these threats to our ranch. Recognizing the ease with which it could pass out of the family when faced with estate taxes, a generation’s lack of interest, or difficult economics, we crafted a conservation easement on the core ranch to preserve in perpetuity what our family holds most dear about the ranch. A future owner might neglect the responsibility of stewardship, but he may not seek financial gain at the expense of the landscape’s integrity. In effect it codifies our practice of symbiosis—manage in the best interest of the land, grass, water and the wildlife, and you will benefit from a healthy, robust ecosystem that more efficiently converts sunlight into consumable forms of energy—in our case, beef and lamb.

Our ranch is but one small part of this magnificent region. And the threats we face are no less cruel in other areas.

I had the opportunity to join Western Sustainability Exchange in 2009, and I did so with enthusiasm because I believe strongly in the organization’s purpose and method. The same mission my family and I have for the landscape in our charge, WSE has for the Northern Rockies region. It affects stewardship and sustainability on a landscape scale, in means accessible by consumers.

I work on my family’s ranch because I love the land, the lifestyle, the stewardship, the legacy. I work for WSE because I care about preserving all that’s best about Montana and the Northern Rockies, that my daughter and her offspring may enjoy the same bounty.

There’s no telling if our historic sheep sheds will weather another generation. But we can ensure that the land will remain—open, intact, healthy, and supporting a diversity of wildlife, flora, and hopefully too ranch families. That, after all, is my family’s vision. It’s the vision of Western Sustainability Exchange.

 If you also share this vision, please consider supporting WSE. Volunteer, redirect your spending (even just $10 of your weekly grocery budget towards local, sustainably raised food), or donate.


Three Stories, Three Ways To Give: Redirect Spending

This year please consider (either in lieu of or in addition to a donation), redirecting five or ten dollars of your weekly grocery budget toward the purchase of local sustainable food. Studies show that if everyone changed even this modest amount of their spending there would be a sizeable positive impact on the stability and overall health of our regional economy.

I blanched at a recent party when I saw my “green” friends approaching. “Oh gosh,” I thought, “I haven’t set up a rain barrel yet, or bought a hybrid car, or switched to solar or any of the things they are doing. What will I say when they look at me expectantly…?”

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in all those things and more, but how can I, on a limited budget, make the most effective, most powerful choice for positive change?

In working with farmers, ranchers, food processors, distributors and chefs as WSE’s Market Connection Program Director, it has become obvious that the way we spend our food dollars can impact not only our health, but that of our economy, community, and our environment. The food contamination scares, from spinach to burger to peanuts, have raised the awareness of even the most thoughtless eaters. How can we ensure our food’s safety? A step in the right direction is to know something about our food.

Most of our food travels thousands of miles and passes through the hands of countless people. It becomes insurmountable to trace the source of any problems. Putting a face and place on your food creates accountability, traceability and security. Purchasing local food has other benefits as well. Economists speak of the “economic multiplier effect,” a complex formula that says locally spent dollars circulate several times in the community. That increased circulation bolsters the community’s economy. It’s estimated that if every Montana household spent just $10 per week of their grocery money on locally produced food it would put $189 million annually into Montana’s economy. Talk about a stimulus!

When Montanans band together to improve their health and local economy by purchasing local food, a renewed sense of community happens — a connection between the folks that produce the food and the people that purchase and consume it. A visit to any farmers market showcases the mix of rural and city dwellers mingling and visiting while shopping.

Farmers and ranchers control nearly 2/3 of the land in Montana. In fact, they have influence over much of what we most love about Montana, whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or you just enjoy the clean air, water, and incomparable view. The stewardship practices in place on those farms and ranches can preserve the integrity of land and resources. Sustainable stewardship practices protect the region for future generations.

So even though I don’t drive a hybrid, I choose every day to contribute to my health, the health of our economy, our community and our environment with my purchases of sustainably raised, local food. I’m pleased to say to my friends, “Yes, I’m doing something every day to make a difference,” and I just might order a rain barrel.


Three Stories, Three Ways to Give: Volunteer

As a nonprofit, we at WSE rely on the support of individuals to accomplish our mission. And with our annual fundraising call we like to remind our supporters of the different ways you can contribute to our work.

First, we couldn’t accomplish what we do without our cadre of volunteers. If you are interested in joining our volunteer team, let us know.

We are lucky to work with many dedicated people who are truly committed to our region and our mission. Many non-profit organizations rely on volunteers to do everything from stuff envelopes to answer phones to being the cogs and wheels that make an event run smoothly. Lucky for us, we don’t have to look very far for examples of the power of giving back from those who dedicate their time for the good of our community.

One of our most visible programs is the Livingston Farmers Market. The market would not be the success it is without the commitment of our volunteers and, most especially, our Market Master and Volunteer Extraordinaire, Rob Bankston. Rob commits as much time to WSE as a part time employee. We’d be lost without him.

When asked why he volunteers, Rob offers, “To give back the blessings that have been given to me.” Fifteen years ago Rob suffered a ruptured brain aneurism and he says from that day forward his life completely changed.  “The community put together a benefit event to raise money to help with my medical bills and they blessed me with more than money.”  It was the generosity of the people at that gathering and the events that followed which instilled Rob’s belief in giving back to his community and region that he loves. He now spends nearly all of his days volunteering in the Livingston area.

In addition to WSE’s Livingston Farmers Market, Rob teaches in our Young Entreprenuer Stewardship (YES) program where he has the chance to pass his community spirit on to tomorrow’s leaders. Children in the program are encouraged to recognize the importance of being responsible business people, but also that it’s important to be good stewards of the environment and actively involved in their communities.

It is not uncommon for participants in the YES program to donate 100% of their profits to charity. Each year, as a group, the YES kids donate the season total of their booth fees (typically about $200) to a local youth-oriented charity. In this way, Rob is ensuring that his legacy will live on through future generations of active, involved citizens.

In honor of his many hours of community service, Mr. Bankston received the Governor’s Award for Civic Engagement from Brian Schweitzer in 2007.

Take Action

At WSE, we are lucky to have an incredible group of volunteers.  Our accomplishments are due to their efforts and their dedication to our organization.  If you are interested in joining the volunteer team, please contact us.


The Practical Side of Biodiversity

We were impressed by this article from the Ranching for Profit blog, and thought it worthy of republishing.

I once asked ranching consultant Gregg Simonds, if there were only three things he could measure to evaluate the health of rangelands, what they would be.  He responded: 1. Cover, 2. Cover, and 3. Biodiversity.  Gregg wasn’t being facetious when he listed the top two criteria as cover.  There are several types of cover (soil cover, basal cover, canopy cover, etc.).  I never did pin Gregg down on which he thought were most important, but regardless of the type, cover is reasonably easy to measure and I think most of us can appreciate its importance.

It is harder to understand or appreciate the importance of biodiversity.  Biodiversity refers to the variety of plants, animals and microorganisms, the genes they contain and the ecosystems they form.  Genetic diversity is critical to maintaining the viability of populations within species.  Species diversity is vital for several reasons, not the least of which are the many interactive effects among organisms. For example, one gram of forest soil may have over 4,000 different species of bacteria.  The interaction of some of these bacteria with roots is essential for the vigorous growth of some commercial timber species.  Some of these bacteria are dispersed by voles, mice, insects and other creatures we normally think of as pests. In the absence of the microbes the trees don’t grow as rapidly and are more susceptible to disease and pollution.   How important are these rarely seen and easily forgotten organisms to the productivity of the forest and, therefore, the jobs in the timber industry?  That’s hard to quantify but it isn’t a stretch to see the relationship.  

We will never know or understand all of the relationships between organisms in a community. We do know that when we lose diversity, communities are more susceptible to disease out breaks, weed infestations and pest problems.  Diversity also plays a role in the ability of an ecosystem to function during and following severe environmental events like droughts. 

Cell grazing, which promotes root growth and creates habitat for desirable microbes in the soil, is just one of the many things we can do as ranchers to increase biodiversity on our properties.  Avoiding excess fertilization and the use of toxic chemicals also tend to maintain or increase biodiversity. There are several things we can do to enhance habitat for wildlife that increase diversity.  Wildlife waterers, like the ones I saw on Curtis Rankin’s ranch are a terrific example.  To see a video of the waterers that Curtis installs every time he puts in a tank for his cattle click here.    

In the long run, ecology and economics are inseparable.  In fact, I think of them as one in the same: eco-nomics or econ-ology.  In past editions of ProfitTips, I’ve written about many Ranching For Profit School alumni who used their knowledge to drastically increase their carrying capacity without spending money on herbicides or fertilizers (which tend to decrease biodiversity) or seeding.  What they feel for their land is probably not unique among ranchers. What they had that most of their neighbors didn’t was a deeper understanding of ecosystem processes and tools like cell grazing. The results we see consistently are more cover, more cover and more biodiversity.

To view the original blog post, click here.

Muddy Creek Ranch tour breaks in my new cowboy boots!

Saturday morning was perfect with the suns rays gradually warming the autumn chill in the air. I dressed appropriately for a field day at a ranch; jeans, belt, ball cap, and best of all, a chance to wear my new cowboy boots!

Muddy Creek Ranch, just north of Wilsall, is one of Western Sustainability Exchange’s Certified Sustainable cattle ranches. Ranch manager’s Dave and Karen Shockey, along with their four kids and numerous ranch workers and volunteers, opened the ranch and its operations to the public for a ranch field day.

An interesting mix of town folk, ranchers, chefs, and restaurant owners came to learn about the techniques and challenges of raising high quality grass fed beef in Montana’s fickle dry land country.

Dave and Karen created a day of learning and enjoyment by sharing their passion and expertise on the World Champion American Lowline Cattle they raise and the grazing and feeding techniques they use to create a healthy, delicious beef product for folks like you and me – all while preserving over 5200 acres of pristine Montana open space and wildlife habitat and supporting the local economy.

After a tour of “Bull Alley,” an ultra-sound demonstration, a hayride ranch tour and a grass-fed beef sampler lunch (yum!) prepared by Chef Sean Rooney of the Wilsall Café, we settled back on our hay bales and listened to brief but interesting talks by Tracy Mosley, Park County Extension agent, Dewey and Kathy Emmet of Stillwater Packing and (blush) yours truly. The audience got involved with lively questions and comments.

I don’t think most folks out there realize the knowledge and expertise that goes into creating the beef we eat. “Cowboys” are really part botanists, conservationists, range scientists, animal welfare specialists, nutrition experts, project managers and business people. If they keep their cattle to sell direct as meat, they also have to be middlemen-arranging finishing, processing, storage, marketing, and delivery.

Western Sustainability Exchange believes that good stewardship practices such as those Muddy Creek Ranch uses can preserve what is so special about this region while contributing to a local food system that is healthy, humane, environmentally responsible and locally based.

Hat’s off to Dave and Karen Shockey for helping more of us understand and appreciate what is truly behind the excellent beef they sell. I’ll be checking in with them often to find out if they’ll do this again next year and mark the date on my calendar. When I do I’ll post it on this website so you don’t miss it either!

Keepers of the Land

This is a wonderful documentary by Montana PBS about the ranching and farming heritage that is so important to WSE’s mission. It articulates the fundamental connection between people and land, the importance of agriculture to our communities and cultural identity, and the principle of sustainability:  managing a resource base in the interest of future generations.

Stewarding the Next Generation

“Real Men Drink Pink,” reads signs pinned to the shirts of two brothers selling lemonade at the Livingston Farmers Market.

Cody and Braxton Vincent are quite the entrepreneurs. Several other vendors sell fresh lemonade and attract long lines at their booths. Cody and Braxton decided to differentiate themselves by wearing signs on their shirts and wandering through the crowds with a placard promoting pink lemonade. In doing so they discovered a new and lucrative twist to their business.

A number of the vendors took the brothers up on their offer to deliver the lemonade and also asked the Vincents to pick them up something to eat along the way. And so was born Cody and Braxton’s Lemonade and Delivery Service.

What is most amazing about the creativity and nimble nature of this business is the age of the entrepreneurs. Cody is 13 and Braxton is 10. And they are not the only children running businesses at the Livingston Farmers Market.

Throughout summer vacation, children from 6 to 16 occupy a surprising number of vendor spaces at the Market. Shoppers can find fresh cut flowers, face painting, free range eggs, snow cones, cookies, duct tape wallets and Wondrous Wizarding Wands, all offered by “Youth Booths.”

Many of the kids are there for noble reasons:  reducing waste by repurposing old materials, raising money for local charities, and to learn first hand the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship.

Last week marked the fourth annual summer kids camp dedicated to entrepreneurship and sustainability taught by WSE, LINKS for Learning, and Junior Achievement. For four days the campers learn business fundamentals, budgeting basics, and about sustainable practices in business. WSE then mentors interested children to sell products at our Livingston Farmers Market. The camp and subsequent mentoring is part of WSE’s Young Entrepreneur Stewardship (YES) program designed to equip our youth with the tools and experience to become the next leaders of our community, in business and sustainability.

Through the program kids learn that business is vital for the sustainability of this region and that sustainable practices are vital to the long-term profitability of business. They will tell you that sustainability means a healthy environment, community, and economy.

YES Kids learn how to set up their own businesses at the farmers market and understand that they are strengthening Livingston’s economy by doing so. Many go a step further by donating proceeds to their favorite charity. And they understand their power to protect the environment by minimizing energy and water use and reducing waste in the creation of their products. Many YES entrepreneurs, for example, insist on using only napkins to serve their baked goods to customers, thus forgoing the waste and cost of forks and paper plates.

Every few weeks brings a surprising addition to our farmers market:  “Art Sale to Benefit Charity,” bird houses to raise money for the animal shelter, cookies made from all Montana-grown ingredients. We are encouraged each week by the creativity and dedication of our community’s youth.

WSE’s purpose as an organization is to pass on to the next generation the special qualities that we enjoy daily in this region. YES takes our mission a step further by empowering the next generation to become stewards themselves. We are grateful for the support we have had to implement this program and the partnerships that have made it a reality.

YES teaches our next generation of entrepreneurs the economic benefits of using sustainable business practices, the importance of giving back to their community and the responsibility of being good stewards of the world they live in. Come out to the Livingston Farmers Market to see these kids in action. Buy a glass of lemonade. Maybe a cookie. And don’t forget to check out the wizarding wands.

Chefs are My Heroes!

I admit it. I love chefs. I love how they think and talk about food. I love their desire to make food a sensual experience. I love that while processed, boxed, frozen I-don’t-have-to-do-anything-but-heat-and-eat-it food pumped with salt, sugar, and fat tricks our brain into thinking it’s good, chefs tease our palates honestly with herbs and spices and techniques that coax the subtle flavors from ordinary (and extra-ordinary) foods. I LOVE the commitment and the art of chefs. They are the Picassos and Rembrandts of the culinary world. And, I believe they can save the world.

Okay, so I have to admit, as well, that I have an unabashed belief that the “how” of food can solve all of the world’s problems. Really. When food is grown with care it protects the soil, the environment and those who grow it. When animals are handled with compassion and gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice they give us, those that work with them can’t help but be touched. When food is processed minimally, our world is safer from unnecessary additives and chemicals and when it’s consumed regionally, our resources are saved. And thoughts of hate and aggression are rarely found around a table of good food prepared and consumed with care and gratitude.

And that’s where chefs come in. At least the chefs I’m fortunate enough to work with in the Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection. Now in it’s 6th year, this Western Sustainability Exchange program connects chefs that want the freshest, tastiest and most sustainably produced ingredients with the local farmers and ranchers that are creating them. These chefs pledge to bring world-saving cuisine to their diners’ plates. June 19th is the official launch of the 2012 Montana Farm to Restaurant Connection. Mark your calendar, make a reservation, order the local option. Save the world.

The Dirt on Healthy Food

He looked a little out of place in a health food store when he came up to me shyly. “The woman up front said you could help me”, he explained, “I’m Jeremy. I want to start eating healthy and I don’t know where to begin…”

I thought to myself; it’s such a misunderstood concept, with dozens of conflicting “expert” definitions. Does he really want to know what it means? Does he have an hour or more just to get started?

If he did I’d tell him that eating healthy is thinking about every step in the process of food production. It’s not just the “low fat,”  ”heart healthy,” “high fiber” claims marketers use to promote food products. And healthy eating is as much about cooking your own food at least some of the time and eating with gratitude all the time, as it is about what you eat. Actually though, if he wants to start at the beginning, Jeremy needs to know that healthy eating starts with the soil.

I’d bet Jeremy doesn’t realize that soil is more than dirt, it’s a diverse community teaming with life. In fact, soil scientists reveal that there is more life in the soil than above it. Soil is a community:  a dynamic, evolving and basically nonrenewable community that took millions of years to develop. And healthy soil is necessary to grow what we need to survive. It’s important that he knows that the microbes, bacteria, insects and invertebrates that inhabit the soil are responsible for vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants in our food and for our very lives!

Then I have to explain that farming and ranching operations that use sustainable practices nourish the soil. The careful use of rotational grazing allows cattle to plow, plant and fertilize with their hooves and waste, and then provides rest for plants and the soil community to flourish. Organic farming uses cover crops and green manures to feed the soil, eliminating chemicals that would harm the soil’s inhabitants. Oh, and the farmers and ranchers that use sustainable practices are healthier and the water, air and grasslands around them is healthier, so, of course wildlife populations are healthier.

Of course I can’t leave out that many conventional farming and ranching practices have damaged much of our soil. And he needs to know that we all bear responsibility:  because we demand more food at cheaper prices, we drive these stewards of the land to use practices that mine the soil rather than tend it. Practices that provide cheap food at a health cost to the soil, the farmers and ranchers, the consumers, the water, the air and the planet…

Suddenly I realize I only have 10 minutes left before closing, so I just sigh and smile, “Tell me what you’re used to eating, Jeremy, and how much cooking you do, then I can show you some healthier options. If you start by choosing organic, sustainably produced food that you have to cook before eating, and no, microwaving TV dinners doesn’t count,” I added with a smile, “ you’ll be on the road to eating healthier. By the way, did you know that the health of the soil makes a big difference in the health of the food that grows in it, as well as the planet?”

Farmers Markets Hatch Possiblities

Spring is the incubating season.

Chicks hatch. Calves, lambs and kids appear on pastures that show a promising hint of green. Planting is just around the corner for gardeners and farmers, and already here for some. Many producers are preparing for farmers markets—that season too will be here shortly. Spring is an interesting time to consider the growth of these markets across our communities, and to note how as farmers grow a new year’s food supply, farmers markets incubate and grow new businesses.

The growth of farmers markets in Montana has been nothing short of spectacular. In 1990, Montana had only five farmers markets across the state. Today we have 49 markets in 42 communities. Very likely this growth has to do with the power of farmers markets to enable small business growth and enliven communities.

At Western Sustainability Exchange we’ve noticed significant growth within our own market. When WSE took over the Livingston Farmers Market in 2002, the busiest market days never saw more than 30 vendors. But in the past few years the market has steadily grown and we now see as many as 95 vendors come out on the more active days. Last year the market hosted a record number of 230 different vendors over the course of the season. As more and more people come out to socialize, shop and buy groceries, we have also seen an accompanying rise in sales generated through the market for each individual business—from 2009 to 2010 vendors witnessed a 20% growth in total sales, and approximately a 15% increase from 2010 to 2011.

We hear plenty of anecdotes about the importance of the market as an essential secondary source of income for vendors and their families. Farmers markets are undoubtedly growing in economic and community importance. But they also serve another valuable but less apparent role:  they incubate small businesses.

In the microcosm of the Livingston Farmers Market, we have witnessed a number of vendors grow their businesses from weekly booths at the market to regular suppliers of other shops around town. Farmers markets serve as a platform for vendors to test products and pricing and build a customer base in a low-risk setting.

Farmers markets have given rise to alternative business models too, as farmers cultivate customer bases and then begin CSA (community supported agriculture) shares or create virtual marketplaces like Bozeman’s own Field Day Farm’s Online Farmers Market.

But perhaps most far reaching is the capacity of farmers markets to incubate the next generation of farmers, businessmen, and community leaders. WSE provides “Youth Booths” to children at our Livingston market as a way to develop business savvy in young people. Many of the kids that set-up booths at the market have learned important business basics from an annual summer kids camp WSE helps organize as part of our Young Entrepreneur Stewardship (YES) program. YES teaches our next generation of entrepreneurs the economic benefits of using sustainable business practices, the importance of giving back to their community and the responsibility of being good stewards of the world they live in. The Livingston market then serves as a platform for these kids to put their theory into practice. We’re proud to partner with LINKS for Learning, Junior Achievement, 4-H, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Park County and the Livingston Food Pantry on this important component of our market.

Farmers markets are a significant and powerful feature of our communities. Whether it’s a healthy food system, a business idea, an entrepreneurial education or a community gathering, the growth of farmers markets in Montana is incubating and hatching up a better life for Montanans.