Christmas in the Country: City shoppers see cattle, purchase homemade crafts
December 24, 2014
An old sale barn got new life this holiday season for a unique ranch shopping experience.
At the Yellowstone County Young Farmers and Ranchers' inaugural "Christmas in the Country," black cattle lined up at the feed bunk took the place of Black Friday shopping lines; a circle around the barn was all it took to find a prime parking spot; warm coffee welcomed shoppers in for a break from the cold.
"The goal was to bring people from town and get them on the ranch to see how we do things," organizer and host Jenny Stovall said. Her mother's quilting group hosted a similar event in Prairie County, Montana, for years, "and people would come out in droves from town to buy their quilts," Stovall said. "So I figured, if they can do it in Prairie County, why couldn't we do it in Billings?"
So, ranching friends and neighbors gathered their craft wares and had their handiwork proudly on display in the ranch's former sale barn, including quilted table runners, weathered wood re-purposed to rustic signs, bedazzled beef skulls and more. The natural perfume of homemade goat milk soap mingled with cozy candle scents.
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In the middle of the displays, Beth Lusin handed out samples of her infused olive oils.
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"It's been a wonderful day," Lusin said, tying a ribbon around a gift basket filled with the top seller for the day – Italian oil. "I came to visit with the wonderful women here, and people showing up to shop was really just a bonus."
"The Forgotten Goddess" mixes Lusin's love for gardening with the creation of a product she wanted as a consumer and couldn't find. The organic olive oils are infused with flavors she grows at her Colstrip home – chives, lemongrass, basil, oregano, rosemary and more. Flavors like the Tomato Basil start from seed in her garden, and she handles the vegetable and herb through growth, harvest, drying and processing. A company in California provides the ingredients she can't grow or process herself.
With a nursing day job, the infused olive oils are a "creative outlet," Lusin said, much like the other women who gathered to sell the goods that are byproducts of ranching downtime.
"Living in Montana, we're so close to agriculture. Some people, like these ladies, see the whole process every day," Lusin said. "But sometimes, we forget that not everyone knows how it all works."
Stovall said bringing shoppers to the ranch 15 miles southeast of Billings, winding through the grazing hills and hay fields, down a two-mile gravel driveway and past their feedlot to get to the "Christmas in the Country" event was a valuable aspect of the event.
A barnyard education
With more than 100 guests milling through the barn that afternoon, Stovall said it was a good mix of family, friends, ranching neighbors and city shoppers that made their way through the displays.
"There was a lot of interest in the feedlot, since it's right here – people asking what we feed them, what we do with them. A lot of people commented on the drive out, or noticed the prairie dogs, how destructive they can be to the land," she said. "So maybe they'll get a better understanding of what we do, what challenges we face."
Kassydi Wilkins and her daughter, Bergen, 4, alternated between strolls through the vendor booths and along the cattle feed bunks.
"We just came out to see the craft fair," Kassydi said.
"And the cows!" Bergen interrupted. Her cheeks were flushed as pink as the new headband purchased at the event, both from the cold and excitement. "I really liked the cows. They were wearing earrings, too," she smiled, describing the variety of colors the cattle 'earring' ear tags came in, and showing off the bright, bedazzled headband. This was the first time the Billings girl had been that close to cattle, and she was enamored.
"It's just nice to come out here, to know that everything really is homemade, and you get to talk to the people who made it at their booth," Kassydi said, between Bergen's excited descriptions. "It's just nice to know the local people you're supporting."
Healthy holiday giving
The support went much further than the local vendors, too. The day served as a food and fund raiser for the Montana Food Network and the local Billings Food Bank, an established partner of the Montana Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher program. Brochures from the Food Network displayed next to the donation box noted that one in seven Montanans struggle with hunger.
"The Harvest for All campaign – that's the main goal of the Young Farmers and Ranchers program," Stovall explained. "It plays a big role in what we do here – this is where it all starts. So for the Young Farmers and Ranchers, it just shows – we do care about those in need, we do care about those the food we raise and harvest feeds."
Food gathered from the event went to the local Billings Food Bank, and cash donations were forwarded to the Montana Food Network. Earlier in November, the Montana Young Farmers and Ranchers program presented the Food Network with a check for $6,000, raised from their annual "Hoofing it for Hunger" race. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation website, in 2013, YF&R programs across the country donated a total of 32,627,920 pounds of food, spent 12,963 hours volunteering, and donated $810,033 to their local food banks.
"Everyone I know in agriculture works hard to support their families," Lusin said. "So it's nice to do what we can to support others, too."