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Dude ranching keeps couple on Montana property



Zack Wirth realized more than 15 years ago that the economics of ranching would not let him make a living on his ancestral home, a scenic slice of Montana tucked in the Rocky Mountains between Helena and Great Falls. Wirth had a cow-calf operation on the Rocking Z Ranch but needed to supplement the livestock income with other work. He tried selling automobile parts from here to Albuquerque, and failed. He was self-employed in the construction business, until its physical toll caught up with him in his late 40s. Looking for something easier on the body, Wirth considered becoming a preparer of tax returns, then dropped the idea. Today, he's making a go of the Rocking Z, working there full-time except for a few winter weeks at high-end shopping malls in the eastern United States. Wirth and his wife Patty run a dude ranch with a heavily European clientele. The cattle are gone except for a handful there seasonally for the ranch guests, but the Wirths still raise hay. They save money and ease their environmental impact by running a solar-assisted irrigation system and using old cooking oil to power a pump and make biodiesel for ranch equipment. At Christmastime, Wirth bleaches his Gray beard white to labor as a mall Santa in New York and elsewhere. "All good horsemen know you never quit learning," he said. T h e 2 0 0 7 C e n s u s o f Agriculture found that for nearly 78 percent of U.S. farms and ranches, the market value of agricultural products sold plus government payments was below $50,000. Most of the nation's crops and livestock come from relatively few producers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its publication, "Amber Waves," reported last year that about 52,000, or 2.5 percent, of U.S. farms received income from farm-based recreation. "Without the guest ranch, we would not have survived," said Wirth, a fifth-generation rancher whose grandfather bought the Rocking Z in 1951. Horses there are about 60 are a big draw, bringing people such as the Richard and Dagmar Williams family from Eastbourne, England, to ride steeds across 2,000 acres of the ranch plus neighboring land. Dagmar and her two daughters had ridden at British stables and wanted the Western experience. Richard went along with their idea for a family vacation at the Rocking Z, where a trout stream flows and rock cliffs form part of the backdrop. "This is my fourth day in the saddle," he said gamely as he sat atop Chase on a hot July day. Nearby, the Wirths' daughter, Anna, showed guests how to use a horse when separating a cow from its herd. Around the country there are thousands of people like the Wirths, trying to stay on a farm or ranch through economic diversification, said Bill Travis, who studies rural land use as a geographer at the University of Colorado in Boulder. As producers of commodities "they take the price they get, and that price barely covers production costs in many years," Travis said. "Individual producers find they can't make it from the wholesale prices they can get." For some operators, offering bed-and-breakfast accommodations or fee hunting helps them stay on the land. "One way to diversify is just to get a job off the farm, but in a lot of places in Montana, there's not much opportunity to do that," said Joe Atwood, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana Stat e University in Bozeman. Health insurance may be one of the advantages of outside employment. The Wirths began dude ranching in 2000, and Patty now figures 50 to 60 percent of the clients come from Europe, where the Rocking Z is marketed through agencies. The weekly summer charge of $1,610 per adult might suggest luxury, but the Wirths offer comfortable simplicity and find it particularly suitable in these turbulent economic times, even among people of means. "Upscale is no longer a word being thrown around," Zack said. "Now it's all about simplicity and sustainability." The sustainability part drove some of the Wirths' innovation, including the oil-to-biodiesel conversion helped by state utility regulator Ken Toole. He collects used cooking oil from a couple of restaurants in Helena, 24 miles south of the ranch, delivers it to the Wirths and in return gets biodiesel for his personal vehicles. Even with all the enterprise at the ranch, winters are lean. That's when Wirth, who has a soothing voice and knows how to curl his beard with a hair dryer, leaves the Rocking Z to work for a New Jersey photography company that hires the "naturally bearded" to play Santa Claus at malls. Like ranching, though, that work is not a sure thing. Wirth's services were not needed during the economic swale last winter.


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