Madison County conservation districts recognize land stewards.
Steve and Jenny Wood
Proving public perception wrong with 30 years dedicated to the land
What do you get when a farmer from New York and a farmer from Australia combine? Thirty years of ranching and land management practices in the Ruby Valley.
Steve and Jenny Wood met through a mutual friend while traveling and working in New Zealand in 1990. Little did they know, New Zealand would be the tie that bound them, eventually leading them to Southwest Montana.
“It was all just opportunities,” said Steve about landing in the Ruby Valley and starting their ranch, Horse Creek Hay & Cattle. “Just one opportunity at a time.”
What originally took them 12 years to acquire and build Horse Creek Hay & Cattle, a primarily cow, calf and yearling operation with flexibility for farming, has turned into a 30 year venture of caring for the land.
Sitting at the base of the Ruby Mountains, between Sheridan and Laurin, the Woods, along with their four children, have devoted their life to the land.
“We always wanted this lifestyle,” said Jenny. “We love the work that it takes and it’s always challenging and providing you with new opportunities.”
Jenny, born and raised in Northern New South Wales, Australia, grew up on a sheep and cattle farm before traveling to New Zealand for work. Steve was raised on a farm near Mount Kisco, N.Y., where his family raised dairy and beef cows. Steve’s aunt and uncle had a place outside of Glen, where he spent a couple summers before eventually moving to Montana.
After meeting Steve while he was traveling in New Zealand, Jenny followed him back to Montana; they married in 1992 and began a life together in the Ruby Valley, bettering the land.
“You have to look after the land that you’re given,” said Steve. “If you abuse the land you don’t get a return from it.”
“You have to be forward thinking and modern thinking,” added Jenny.
Rebecca Ramsey with the Ruby Valley Conservation District said Steve and Jenny are always trying to find ways to better their practices and have always demonstrated they “aren’t afraid to try new things.”
“It’s evident, not just on the ground, but in their children,” said Ramsey. “Watching their kids grow with such an incredible work ethic and instilling in them good practices.”
Over the past 30 years, Steve and Jenny have put in 12 miles of pipeline to create a water system away from riparian areas, adjusted pasture fencing to make it more user, cattle and wildlife friendly, and worked to continually educate themselves about the changing world of agriculture and land management through seminars and workshops. Most notably, the two have introduced the practice of training their cows to eat weeds, something totally new to the area.
Steve said public perception is the difference between ranching productions now versus 20 years ago and through forward and modern thinking, he hopes to change that perception.
“In the last 20 years, people have become more removed from agriculture, that what you do becomes under scrutiny a bit more,” said Steve. “A lot of it is misunderstanding about the production of agriculture, as well.”
“It’s the perception of what you do,” said Jenny. “So education is really needed.”
Both Steve and Jenny credit their work to the help of the Natural Resource Conservation Service and said they would not be where they are without them.
“They’re a great source of information and we wouldn’t be doing all that we are without them,” Steve said.
As for what keeps them going in their day-to-day life, Jenny pointed out the window to the Tobacco Root Mountains and a vast blue sky.
“Look out the window,” she said. “You’re doing something every day that is a new opportunity to care for the land.”
“Conservation should be part of the whole business plan,” added Steve. “It’s good for all – the land and the people.”
Sharing the importance of land education with our youth
Janet Dochnahl has been in the Madison Valley for 38 years after moving to the area from Idaho with her husband to pursue work with the United States Forest Service. After retiring from a career in range management and planning for the Madison Ranger District, Janet turned her enthusiasm for the land into and educational experience for students.
In 2009, Janet helped establish Madison Farm to Fork as a way to promote local agriculture and sustainability and through the program, helped introduce a farm to school initiative, GROWW, in 2010.
GROWW, which stands for Gardening, Resources, Outdoors, Watershed and Wildlife, is a way for students to learn about the world first hand through outdoor education classes, field trips and outdoor camps by immersing them in gardens, engaging with local ranchers and producers and exploring streams, rivers and mountains.
“The root of it is so they understand and appreciate where they live so they can grow to be stewards of the land,” said Janet about why GROWW exists.
Janet got her excitement and enthusiasm about outdoor education and conservation from her mother who, at a young age, helped her start her own seeds to be planted in the garden.
“I was hooked the moment she said to me ‘you really have a green thumb’,” Janet said. “I learned to garden with her as we moved place to place and had to learn about different climates and soils and pests.”
Janet grew up in national parks as her dad worked for the National Park Service, living in places from New Mexico to Virginia to Nebraska, and has seen the benefits of land conservation over the past 50 years.
“Conservation is relevant to me because I’ve seen what can happen,” she said. “It’s important to live in recognition of what the environment requires to be sustainable. The Madison Valley is a special place and it’s easy to love it to death.”
After studying natural resource management in college, Janet said she realized how closely tied the principals she learned from gardening were to those of conservation and how much you can learn from just trying to grow food.
“That’s what’s so cool about the GROWW Program,” she said. “Teach the kids to grow a plant in their garden and they learn about soils, weather, watersheds, wildlife and so much more – and, they love to eat what they grow!”
Janet also said she feels lucky to live in a community with so many organizations and groups dedicated to preserving the land, that share her enthusiasm for education.
“It’s important to educate the youth about all of the work our ranchers and conservation groups do,” she said. “It’s just another piece of the puzzle.”
Janet said she is proud to be the recipient of the stewardship award and is happy to serve as the face for her team.
“I’m just one member of a team and I couldn’t do this without them,” she said.
Sunni Heikes-Knapton with the Madison Conservation District reiterated Janet’s involvement in cooperative projects both throughout her professional and personal life, adding how all-around Janet is in her conservation practices.
“She’s so well rounded in what she brought to our area,” Heikes-Knapton said. “Interest in a healthy landscape often come from those who have an active hand in it and people like Janet are almost a secondary contribution and such a nice complement to the practice of caring for the land.”