I received a text on the Sunday morning I was scheduled to visit Blarney Heights Farm. It had rained all night and was supposed to rain all day, and Brian wanted to make sure I was still up for the trip out there.
I pulled on rain boots, a few layers of wool under my rain jacket, and a pair of long johns under my Carharts and texted back, “Cancel for rain? No way! See ya’ll soon!”
It rained the entire 45 minute drive from Whitefish to Trego, but I didn’t mind. It’s been exceptionally dry this spring. After a pretty dry winter, I was just happy we were finally getting some moisture.
I pulled off 93 North, following the signs leading to Trego, a tiny little town with only a Pub and a post office, so close to the Canadian border you could probably see Canada if the Whitefish Range weren’t in the way. The Whitefish Range, or any mountains for that matter, weren’t visible today though. The clouds hung low around the base of the mountains making me forget they were even there. The view was still spectacular though. Everything was vibrant, as if the rain had breathed new life into it. The evergreens were emerald instead of black-ish, and the newly sprouted leaves on the aspens and cottonwoods were neon.
When I imagine a ranch, I imagine hundreds and hundreds of acres of open land with no buildings in sight, and small black dots that are cattle here and there. Imagine my surprise when I pulled down Blarney Heights’ driveway and the cattle were right there, just a couple hundred feet away from the home site! And they weren’t enclosed inside a metal fence with barbed wire strung over the top. They were standing in what looked like a single slack line of rope held up by small posts in the ground.
Brian, Karla, and their son, Declan, met me as I drove up to their house. As I got out of my car they waved goodbye to a car that was leaving. “Those are the folks from the pub up the road. They’re going to start serving our beef!”
We all introduced ourselves and started walking toward the cattle.
“What are ya’lls backgrounds?” I asked.
Brian was in the military and then in law enforcement in Missoula, and Karla was a traditionally trained Maritime Captain.
“Wow! So how did you get into farming?!”
Brian’s answer was simple, “[My job] didn’t resonate with me anymore, and I felt more at home and at peace in this environment.”
Karla added, “This is the lifestyle we wanted to raise our kids in. It’s really important sourcing food from resources where you know what it’s being fed, so you know what is going into your family’s mouths… There’s a huge disconnect in society about where meat comes from and how it’s raised, so we wanted our kids to have a grounded sense in how to nourish themselves and to respect where their food comes from. That’s why we’re trying to build an open farm, too, so people can come here and learn, and we can bridge that gap between what society knows about their food and what actually happens to their food.”
Blarney Heights Farm is 5 years old, but they have only been in Trego for a year. They moved here last year from Arlee. Before that Brian and Karla lived in Missoula, which is where they started dreaming up their farm.
“We just knew there was a different way to get food and to raise food, so we decided to do it ourselves,” Brian said.
Blarney Heights is a farm that practices regenerative agriculture. Even if you aren’t immersed in agriculture in your day-to-day lives, there’s a high chance you’ve heard of regenerative agriculture. It’s a buzz word surrounding food that, like organic, non-GMO, and no-till farming, has come about in this time of awareness about hurting soil and a warming planet. But what exactly is regenerative agriculture?
Basically regenerative agriculture is a type of farming that puts the health of the land first with the mindset that healthy soil and land grow healthy plants and raise healthy cattle. These farms employ practices that benefit the soil by trying to build up organic matter and restoring degraded biodiversity.
When I got home, I researched regenerative agriculture a bit more and found there’s no consensus on a definition, but some core principles based on generations of Indigenous and peasant farming practices: 1. Improve soil health, 2. Increase biodiversity, 3. Carbon sequestration, 4. Livestock integration, and 5. Increase community well-being.
So what does this look like in action on a ranch? Instead of letting cattle graze an entire 200 acre property at once, Brian and Karla move the cattle from one ¾ acre piece of land to a different ¾ acre piece of land. They do this every day so the cattle graze, trample, and add manure in one section of pasture for 24 hours. This is a practice called “mob grazing,” popular in the regenerative agriculture movement.
Brian explained, “By putting them in a smaller area and moving them each day, they eat everything equally, more or less. Whereas if you had them in a large pasture, they would choose to eat only their favorites, so some things would be eaten down to the roots, which would contribute to the degradation of soil health via erosion and run off, while other things would be a foot or two tall.”
As we walked up to their cattle, I noticed these cattle were different from any I’d seen before. They were much smaller and they had a more wild look about them.
As if reading my mind, Brian said, “These are Dexters! A breed native to southern Ireland. Their genetic bloodline is a heritage breed.”
“Why Dexters as opposed to the traditional cattle you always see?” I asked.
“Dexters are the ideal candidate for regenerative agriculture! They were naturally bred in a small, compact frame, which makes them the perfect animal for what we’re trying to accomplish, which is to be low impact. For example, they were here where we are standing for the last 24 hours. It’s been raining all night and all morning but the ground isn’t destroyed. The larger breeds tend to be hard on the terrain.”
I looked down at the grass below my feet. There wasn’t any mud at all. Only grass that looked like it had recently been mowed, spattered with cow pies here and there.
“Plus,” Brian continued. “they’re very thrifty on food. They eat less, drink less, and take up less space. And they’ll eat anything! We implement silvopasturing (an agroforestry practice that combines trees with pasture), and they’ll eat brush and other things that aren’t desirable to other breeds.”
In short, Dexters take up less land and eat less food to produce the same amount of product, all while being gentler on the environment.
Besides employing regenerative agriculture practices, Blarney Heights’ cattle are never treated with antibiotics or given hormones.
When asked about it, Brian said proudly, “Yep, no fly treatment, no GMOs, no hormones, no steroids. We let nature do what it’s designed to do, and with their good genetics we don’t have to worry about them getting sick. Also, switching their pasture every morning means they’re not eating around their own poop all year, which causes more bacteria and sickness. By the time they get back to the pasture they’ve already used, the poop is dry.”
I looked around at their 200 acre property. It was lush and green after a few days of spring rain. Knowing the NW corner of Montana very well I asked, “What do they eat in the winter? Summer is so short here!”
Brian nodded his head, “Our goal is to be as little petroleum oriented as possible, so we’re trying to graze them year round. We have an 80 acre piece that we’re not touching this summer so we can stockpile for the winter. Our plan this year is to try to go as long as possible without feeding them hay. We want them to eat plants straight from the ground as long as possible. With hay, even if you cut it at the perfect time and store it perfectly, you can’t get the same vitamin, mineral, and protein content as grass that is still in the ground. Even if the grass is dormant, they’re going to be getting more nutrients throughout the winter than hay would provide.”
“I hear you guys talking a lot about limiting your petroleum usage and maintaining your soil health and being stewards to the land. And as you know, cattle are talked about a lot in conjunction with climate change. Do you think this type of ranching is the sustainable way of having meat in the future?”
Brian nodded his head as if he’d had this conversation before, “People think this method is new, but this is the way it used to be done. Eventually the country changed and did what it had to do to feed large amounts of people. We had two world wars back to back and then the depression. We were afraid of not having enough food, so we changed the model. And it’s stayed the same. But no one ever looked back at the model and asked if it’s still working for us, we just assume because we’ve done it forever that it’s the right way.
The narrative isn’t accurate, that being vegan is sustainable and eating meat isn’t. Everything vegan is harvested and often processed using machines, and therefore using petroleum. These cattle aren’t. They are out here living well while also regenerating the soil.”
He laughed and said with a smile, “We’re seen as these hippie farmers, and that’s OK. We’re just trying to be as respectful to the environment and our animals as we can.”
As I listened I found myself opening up to a new narrative – one where we can take care of our environment and eat meat – all because of a single conversation with a single farmer.
That is why these conversations are so important. There is nuance in one-on-one conversations with the people who grow our food that often isn’t captured in sound bites of media. Buying local is worthwhile for many reasons, but being able to talk to our farmers, being able to ask them questions about their practices, is priceless.
Sammie McGowan is a Communications Coordinator for Abundant Montana. She lives in Whitefish with her four-legged best friend, Charlie. She is deeply in love with nature and enjoys getting to know each and every bird and flower she comes across while hiking. Contact her with your favorite hikes at [email protected]