We grow a lot of fruit at our house — raspberries, strawberries, three kinds of apples and plums — but beyond that, we get the bulk of our food from Costco, pre-cut, wrapped-up and presented beautifully in plastic containers. Milk, meat, fruit and vegetables — direct from Costco to us.
Which is a bit of a disconnect, especially considering that my own great-grandmother owned one of the largest farms in northern Michigan less than a century ago. Of course, my boys understand that a ribeye and milk both come from a cow, but do they really understand what all is involved in producing the 10 gallons of milk they drink a week or how that juicy piece of steak arrived on their plates?
I didn’t think so, which was enough to make me Google “farm experience Montana” to see if there was a place where we could go and experience the farming life. And thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I found the perfect opportunity for my boys to get a small taste of being on a farm: Serenity Sheep Farm Stay, which is smack-dab between Manhattan and Belgrade and within a stone’s throw of the East Gallatin River. So, I made reservations and off we went to try our hand at farming.
Collecting eggs and milking animals would have been enough but Serenity Sheep Farm Stay has the added draw of sleeping in a sheepherder’s wagon. I’ve mentioned in previous columns my boys’ love of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series. So when my boys — Peter, my 6-year-old, in particular — heard that they had the opportunity to sleep in a wagon just like Laura did when she was a 6-year-old girl traveling across the prairie to a new life, they were pretty excited to give it a whirl.
And Serenity Sheep Farm Stay did not disappoint. Upon our arrival, our host, LaVonne Stucky, showed us the sheepherders’ wagons, both of which have been lovingly updated and outfitted with some very comfortable mattresses. There are also many additional touches, like natural bug repellent, lanterns and fresh towels for everyone, which made the wagon feel like home.
After we dropped our bags, LaVonne gave us a tour. We saw (and smelled!) the pigs and observed the sheep, goats and llama, who were grazing in a different field. LaVonne then took us over to see her birds, including ducks, turkeys and chickens, which she uses for both meat and eggs. The boys got to collect eggs from the chicken coops — a first for both of them.
Then, since it was hot, we took off down the road to the East Gallatin River, where we cooled down by splashing around in the water for a few hours before coming back to the farm to make dinner. While we could have easily hit a restaurant in any of the nearby towns, we opted to cook dinner for ourselves a la camp style.
LaVonne provided a camp cook stove and the propane and we provided the rest. It wasn’t long until we were enjoying beans, corn on the cob and burgers under a rising, nearly-full moon while watching LaVonne’s cows and miniature mule frolicking in the field next to the wagons. We ended our night by making s’mores around a campfire and reading “Farmer Boy,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder aloud with the aid of our headlamps.
We snuggled into the comfortable wagon bed, covered with blankets and a down comforter and within minutes, both of the boys were snoring peacefully. Unlike tent camping — during which I wake up every 10 minutes — I slept soundly in the wagon until morning was announced by one (or many — I was too groggy to tell) of LaVonne’s roosters. The boys and I agreed that if we were ever lucky enough to call a farm home, we would be certain not to invite roosters to live among us.
Peter and Mike got to help LaVonne with her morning chores, which included feeding the chickens, collecting eggs, and — best of all — milking the goats. Neither of the boys had ever milked anything before, and they were both surprised at how difficult it was. Thankfully, LaVonne has some of the world’s most patient goats, who stood quietly munching on willow leaves while the boys tugged and pulled at the goats’ udders.
After milking was done, LaVonne invited both of the boys to try some cold goat’s milk that had been collected earlier and she showed us some of the things that she creates with materials collected from the animals on the farm, such as goat’s milk soap, needle-felted crafts and a number of beautiful items — mittens, socks, hats, scarves and more — created with wool from her sheep. She also had skeins of wool that she had spun into yarn and were still in the natural colors of the sheep, which I thought were the most beautiful of all.
For those of you who might not be into roughing it, LaVonne has converted an old outhouse into a composting toilet that is affectionately referred to as “the throne.” There’s also an outdoor, heat-on-demand shower and a solar-operated hand-washing station. As a guest at Serenity Sheep Farm Stay, you also get to pick whatever you want from her garden for your meals and you get farm-fresh eggs to cook for breakfast.
As we pulled away from the farm, Peter let out a deep sigh and announced, “Someday, I’m going to live on a farm just like LaVonne.” While we don’t have any immediate plans to pack up our house and move, I have a feeling that we might just visit LaVonne again soon. To schedule your own farm visit at Serenity Sheep Farm Stay, visit http://serenitysheepfarmstay.com.
Sara Groves is a freelance writer who lives in Helena.