Vacationers get an inside look at rural living.
Cloudy droplets of whey collect at the bottom of a cheesecloth tied to a cupboard handle in Roxanne Dunn’s cheery country kitchen before splashing to a bowl below. Her guests sip coffee sweetened with goat milk cream and wait in anticipation for the cloth to yield the fresh, creamy farmer’s cheese cradled in its folds.
Making cheese is just one of a litany of new experiences Dunn and her husband, Lee, have delivered to today’s guests in only a few short hours spent on their Fishtail, Montana, farm. Lee and Roxanne rent out two guest houses on the 450-acre White Deer Ranch named for an albino deer. With the stay, guests are treated to stunning views of the Beartooth mountains, a lake for swimming and an invitation to join Lee and Roxanne for a farm tour and to pitch in and help with farm chores.
“Every time a guest says how beautiful it is and how lucky we are to live here it reenergizes us and reminds us, oh yeah, it is great here,” Roxanne says as she relates all the work they’ve done to the property. “Sometimes when you’re mired down in things to do you forget how fortunate you are, but guests help us remember how special it is here.”
Natural transition. Roxanne and Lee met while working in search and rescue in Montana and continued that work together in Colorado. When they retired from the profession they moved back to the farm Lee owned in Montana. Prior to their return, the acreage had been leased out for grazing. Virtually untouched for 10 years, it was a natural fit for the Dunns to certify their acres as organic.
“We were really excited about this next phase of our lives and were looking forward to challenging ourselves,” Roxanne says. “We had been subjected to a lot of organic foods and products in Colorado, so when we came back and had a small farm we figured we’d go straight into organics.”
They started adding different components that naturally fit together. They raised cattle so they would have compost to help renovate pastures, pigs were used to break up sod and allow for seeding of native species, chickens were brought in to follow the pigs and so on. Being a small farm in need of a little extra income, they opted to use the extra house as a rental and build a log cabin.
When they started marketing the houses as vacation rentals, visitors almost immediately began taking interest in the comings and goings of the farm itself. So, the Dunns began offering farm tours to their guests, opening the farm for exploration and allowing guests to help with various tasks.
“We’ve had about 260 different groups come through since we’ve started,” Lee says. “We’re pretty psyched about what we do. We like to eat good food that’s good for you, much of which we raise ourselves. People get interested in that sort of thing and that gets us excited.”
Guests can participate in typical farm chores such as feeding the animals, gathering eggs, milking goats and weeding the garden. They even offer some educational activities for guests and locals alike that branch far from the typical farm tasks.
Foraged finds. A unique adventure to be found on White Deer Ranch is foraging for plants used for food or for their medicinal properties. Lee and Roxanne took an interest in foraging when they were working search and rescue. “We would be climbing around in the wilderness and I started thinking about what plants we could use for first aid, or what someone could eat to survive on,” Roxanne says.
At a farmer’s market, they connected with a lady well versed in foraging. They invited her to their farm to teach classes on the topic, getting her to come back during all the different seasons. Thus, they were educated on what plants they could use on their farm, including many most other farmers would label as weeds: stinging nettle, lambs-quarters, burdock, dandelion, mallow, bishop’s weed, watercress, cattails, yarrow, cottonwood buds, mullein, goldenrod, and elderberry to name a few.
A Facebook mushroom identification group helped round out their foraging program by classifying tasty mushrooms found on the farm, too.
Oyster mushrooms find the fallen, decaying cottonwood trees along their artesian spring-fed creek to be an excellent spot to grow. In May and June guests can help the Dunns pick the mushrooms that grow to a bit larger than the average hand span. Those that don’t get eaten fresh are dried in a dehydrator for hearty mushroom soup mixes.
Throughout the year other mushrooms pop up. In late summer, big, meaty shaggy parasol mushrooms hide in the cozy darkness under tall grass.
“They grow in circles, so you can follow the arc to find the next group,” Roxanne explains. “Over time we’ve gotten a good idea of where they’ll crop up. We scout for them regularly, especially after we get some moisture. They make a very rich, meaty mushroom stew that’s just out of this world.”
Knowledge of edible plants makes weeding the garden a bit easier, as some of the weeds are great for eating and left to grow. Wedged in between milking goats and making cheese, the Dunns’ current guests toured the garden. With Lee at the helm of the tour it was as much an adventure in taste and smell as a visual experience.
From clusters of tiny grapes dangling from a trellis to leaves plucked from mallow plants sprouting where they pleased, Lee constantly offered up things for his guests to smell, taste, and delight in.
“Smell this, what does it remind you of?” he quizzes his guests as he offers up an endless supply of seemingly average leaves plucked from various beds. One raised bed hosts perennial herbs.
“My favorite is the fennel,” Roxanne says. “When it’s really fresh you can put the flower or the seed in your mouth and get this really strong, sugary licorice flavor that’s really nice.”
Sorrell leaf is another favorite of the Dunns who have somewhat become flavor connoisseurs. “It has a lemony flavor and makes a great dipping sauce,” she says. “Mallow, which is a weed, is from the okra family and has a very pleasant flavor. You can make an entire salad from it.” She also harvests leaves from stinging nettle, and — a more pleasant job —the soft furry leaves of mullein to make teas.
“Dried mullein leaf tea is great for clearing out a head cold and is very soothing for a sore throat,” she says. She gathers leaves in midsummer when they are large, but still plump and in their prime. Stinging nettle leaves are gathered in early spring when nutrients and flavor are at their peak. “It’s very nutritious, like a wild spinach,” Roxanne says. “I layer the leaves in lasagna or use them for tea.”
The latest buzz. Wandering throughout the property, the keen eye can pick out metal artwork sprinkled here and there. From the peaks of the mobile chicken house to a fountain fed by their artesian spring are sculptures by Roxanne’s son, Brice Lagreca. “He creates pieces from salvaged tin and iron we have in our equipment boneyard from years of farmers and ranchers putting things up there that are no longer in use,” Roxanne says. “It’s a really neat way to recycle.”
On the edge of the property, a large metal bee swings in the breeze giving guests a clue to the contents of the old wooden shed resting beyond its post. Pollen-covered worker bees dive in and out of slots situated at the bottom of windows boarded up with plywood and painted with scenes fitting of the area: Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, and bees.
“We’ve had bees on the property since we owned it, but we are putting in a lot of fruit trees and bushes and we’re organic. We knew our honey would be exceptional, so we wanted to get our own bees,” Lee says. Initially they purchased bees, but the domesticated bees have long been bred in a system where they are taken to warmer climates for the winter. They didn’t fare well staying in the hives year-round, which was what the Dunns planned.
Lee discovered traditional Slovenian beehives. The country has a long and rich tradition of beekeeping and uses shed-sheltered hives developed over hundreds of years. Lee constructed his hives in this style using an old farm shed, allowing bees to enter and exit through slots in the walls.
“We can work the hives from inside the shed and installed observation windows in the hives so we can see the honey and the bees without opening the hive,” Lee says. The bees like it, too. Bees have survived three winters now due to the new hive and the Dunns seeking out hardier bees.
They’ve harvested local swarms and even had a passing swarm take up residence in the hive voluntarily. They’ve planted a lot of wildflowers and sainfoin — a legume similar to clover but much more bee friendly and reputed to produce high quality honey — to increase their bee habitat, Lee says. The painted windows of the hives don’t add much to the bees’ lives, but they’re traditional.
“Artists in Slovakia would travel the country and often pay for their housing by painting on the hives,” Roxanne says. “We loved the idea so I sketched some scenes on boards and took them to an area art walk. We set out paints and people strolling by would stop and paint a bit. Our windows are the result of probably 100 different painters.”
Vacationers staying with the Dunns can appreciate the art on the hive and the fruit of its busy inhabitants. Guests each get a jar of honey, a dozen eggs and, seasonally, greens foraged or grown in the garden. They can buy those products plus organic beef, pork, goat’s milk, mushroom soup mix, facial scrubs, and balms made from various foraged goods and more from the cozy confines of the Dunns’ front porch. Guests often buy into the lifestyle and the practices as much as the products.
“Some of our guests are questioning if they want to continue eating meat or if animals should be part of the food system at all,” Lee says. “Many seem comfortable keeping meat in their diet after spending time here and seeing the life we offer our animals. They see they’re well treated and often end up buying something from our farm store.”
Their favorite minds to impact, though, are those of children. They often welcome large groups of school children to the farm for educational tours.
“It’s pretty cool to make impressions on children and be part of their happy memories,” Roxanne says. “They write thank-yous and draw us pictures. It’s just great for kids to interact and see where their food is coming from. One of our guests had taken his children on vacations all over the world, including expensive spots like Disney. His kids spent hours playing with a litter of kittens we happened to have during their stay, and they said it was their favorite vacation ever. That’s pretty rewarding.”
No two stays are the same. One time there might be kittens, another time there might be farmer’s cheese, but for every visitor Roxanne and Lee are sure to delight by sharing the work, joy, and nuances of living life in the country.