Who knew that livestock made such a fascinating tourist diversion? After eating a yummy organic breakfast at Boulder Montana's Boulder Hot Springs, Nick Aster and I noticed that Caroline Ranch, an organic lamb farm, was one of the hotel's sources. We thought it would be cool to meet happy, local sheep, so set up an appointment with owner Karalee Bancroft. Maybe we'd pet some fluffy ewes and dawdle? No. For two hours, Karalee blew us away with her expertise and hard-core devotion to real organic standards, small farmers, and local food sourcing. She may be one of the most dedicated people I've ever met. Though I've never eaten a lamb on purpose (they're cute! they're young!), I would nibble on a Caroline Ranch shank. She gave us way too many morsels for one measly post, so we'll gradually dole them out and follow her leads over the next couple of weeks. Keep reading for more about Caroline Ranch and more pics. Karalee left a marketing and publishing career in Chicago for idyllic Boulder in 1989, where she settled on 140 acres with her mother, daughter and son-in-law. Her mother has passed, and the modern day homestead now houses four grandchildren, around 13 ewes, a ram, a peacock, chickens, turkeys, two friendly guard dogs, and multiple cats.
Not your garden variety back-to-the-lander, Karalee stumbled into growing organic produce after leaving her old life without a firm plan, but eventually found it difficult to do more than break even. Livestock seemed like a better bet. Her sheep are just about as free range as it gets, with a feeding paddock and about 100 frolicking acres. She looks at the sheep as animals, not commodities, and thus breeds them when it makes sense (rather than in time to make them fattest for market), gives them the space and nutrition to stay naturally healthy, and sheers them when it's best. Culling time is somewhat difficult, but knowing what carefree lives they've lived makes it easier. Since they're about a year old when they go off to slaughter, they're more like teenagers than babies, which makes the process a little less emotional.
Karalee serves on the board of the Montana Organic Association and also acts as a sales representative for other growers who measure up to her standards. The Caroline News letter to her customers is a wealth of information and reveals her dedication to consumer education. Lamb farming isn't lucrative, but providing an example of responsible organic farming feels like what she's "supposed to be" doing. We will use the information she's gathered to discuss the meaning of organic, free range, grass fed and natural, pasture raised, and antibiotic- and hormone- free over the next few weeks. Stay tuned! I fancy myself fairly aware and learned more than I ever thought I could in two hours. Photos by Nick Aster. ::