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Published July 11, 2011, 04:45 AM

Tourists stay at Montana ranch to experience riding horses, working livestock

BOZEMAN, Mont. — Chopping wood, feeding chickens and wrangling cattle might sound like work, but to some folks it’s a vacation.

By: Amanda Ricker, Bozeman (Mont.) Daily Chronicle

BOZEMAN, Mont. — Chopping wood, feeding chickens and wrangling cattle might sound like work, but to some folks it’s a vacation.

Guests come from as far as Italy and Japan to get hands-on ranching experience at G Bar M Ranch on Brackett Creek near Clyde Park, Mont., says Mike Leffingwell, a fourth-

generation rancher who runs the ranch with his wife, Maria.

“They want to be out here working these cattle,” Leffingwell, 44, says.

Agritourism — visiting a farm or ranch — is gaining popularity.

CNN recently reported that FarmStayUS.com lists 700 farm and ranch stays nationwide — twice the number it started with one year ago.

Twenty of the listings are within 50 miles of Bozeman, Mont.

Before coming to G Bar M, Annette El-Sherif and her 13-year-old daughter, Lexie, of Wayne, Ill., never had been to a working ranch. During their stay, they learned to ride horses and move cattle. They milked goats and shoveled manure.

“You’re never bored here,” Lexie says.

People pay up to $276 a day to stay at the G Bar M.

‘Authentic Montana’

The G Bar M has 50 horses and runs 150 head of cattle on 60,000 acres of owned and leased land. It has goats, chickens, herding dogs and barn cats. Guests can participate in cattle drives, branding and artificial insemination, depending on the season.

“If they want jobs, I’ll give them jobs,” Leffingwell says. “If they want to relax, they can relax. It’s whatever they want to do.”

G Bar M is “authentic Montana,” according to its website. It’s no dude ranch.

“We don’t have a swimming pool,” Leffingwell says. “There’s no golf course. We’re basically a family that takes guests into our home.”

At least 20 working ranches in Montana and Wyoming have signed up with Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations, a service that pairs tourists with the ranch experience they’re looking for.

That way, the ranch can continue to go about its daily business without having to concentrate on drumming up guests.

Tourists call Karen Searle, owner of Montana Bunkhouses, and she sets them up with the right ranch at the right time.

People who want to help calve during the day and go trout fishing in the evening might go to one ranch. A family who wants to go on a classic cattle drive might go to another.

“I guess you could call me a matchmaker,” Searle says.

She says Montana Bunkhouses is the only cattle-ranch, agritourism cooperative in the United States. She started the business 10 years ago.

Leffingwell’s family first began accepting guests at G Bar M in the 1930s. But now, Searle does his booking.

“The number of ranches in (Montana’s) Park and Gallatin counties just making a living on cattle, you can count on two hands,” Leffingwell says. “We’re a small ranch. The way we survive is with the guest business.”

But not all farm stays focus on the cowboy way of life.

Serenity Sheep Farm Stay in Belgrade, Mont., offers accommodations for guests who might be looking for a slower pace, cheaper price tag and place where they literally can count sheep to lull themselves to sleep.

Ranch work

For $99 per night, guests can sleep in a sheepherder’s wagon and help with the farm chores — milking goats, feeding pigs, gathering eggs from the chickens or working in the garden.

“I do my chores, and they’re welcome to join me,” owner LaVonne Stucky says.

Stucky and her husband have 40 acres of land near the East Gallatin River that their ancestors homesteaded. They have sheep, turkeys, chickens, beef cows, dairy cows, a llama and a miniature mule named “Lula Belle.”

“She’s a mule with an attitude,” Stucky says.

For 20 years, Stucky raised sheep and sold wool.

She opened the farm up to curious city folks last summer as a way to make more money.

“Our first guests were a young couple from New York City,” she says.

Farm-fresh food

Part of the draw of farm stays is the food.

The ingredients are often the freshest you can find, and you can see for yourself just how they made it from the pasture to your plate.

“People are interested in finding out a little bit more about where their food is coming from,” Leffingwell says.

A recent family-style lunch at the G Bar M included farm-fresh eggs, chicken they raised themselves and vegetables from their garden.

Guests at Serenity Sheep Farm are invited to pick vegetables from the garden and gather eggs from the chickens to cook their own meals.

Farm and ranch stays are a way for people to get back to their roots and reconnect with a more traditional way of life, Searle says.

“The experience we share is authentic — that day-to-day, roll up your sleeves, ‘What are we going to do?’” she says.

Kip Losey, a guest at G Bar M from Idaho City, Idaho, started one of his recent vacation days on the ranch at 6 a.m., chopping wood and fixing the flagpole.

“I wouldn’t come if we didn’t have chores,” he says.

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