For Becky Weed and Dave Tyler, co-owners of Belgrade's Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company, sheep farming was a grand experiment. "From the beginning," says Weed, "part of our whole motivation behind Thirteen Mile was to see if we could make small-scale agriculture work."
A Harvard-educated geologist born in Bangor, Maine, the 40-something Weed says her farming background was "essentially nothing," although she admits to having a longtime interest in agriculture. With a doctorate in civil engineering, Tyler, an affable academic with a beard and glasses, was on the faculty at the University of Maine, where he taught civil engineering until the mid-80s. Like Weed, Tyler’s knowledge of ranching and farming was limited.
Despite their collective lack of experience, the two have managed to transform a farm that was admittedly "in rough shape" in the 80s into a shining example of what can be achieved by forward-thinking sustainable agriculture. Although Weed stresses that Thirteen Mile is truly a two-person operation, the reality is that the couple, married in 1987, have been doing the work of four people since 1995 when Weed devoted herself to the ranch full-time. (Tyler worked for a precision agriculture company until 2002.) While Tyler says he "puts in at least 80 hours" each week, he estimates that his wife reaches the 100-hour mark more often than not. According to Weed, "We both do the haying, feeding, and building. Thankfully, we really enjoy working together."
Located on the original 1865 homestead of John Reese in what’s now called Reese Creek, Thirteen Mile Farm was originally purchased by Weed and Tyler in 1987. Recognizing that the 80-acre farm wasn't big enough or suited to tillage-type farming, Weed and Tyler settled on raising sheep for both meat and wool. A devout knitter as a child, Weed says the "idea of producing both food and fiber was appealing."
As both Tyler and Weed were able to devote more time to ranching, they initially sold their lambs at the livestock auction—a thoroughly dissatisfying experience from their perspective. "It was personally humiliating to directly experience the low prices and volatility of commodity agriculture," Weed says. "It was basically a statement that our society doesn’t respect what farmers do."
Frustrated by the low prices offered by the commodity markets, Weed and Tyler eventually began to direct-market their meat on a very small scale. It was at that point in ‘93 that Weed was hiking with friends and heard about a group of ranchers and wool growers who were launching a concept called “Predator-Friendly,” in which ranchers make a commitment not to kill native carnivores like wolves, coyotes, bears, and mountain lions.
"At first I thought it was just a cute marketing gimmick, but I also knew we weren’t going to make it selling our stuff on a commodity basis, so I was definitely open to alternatives," Weed says.
After an initial meeting with the founding members of Predator-Friendly (PF), Weed says she became convinced that the group was interested in what she saw as the real issues—namely, protection of wildlife habitats and the preservation of viable rural economies. "That’s when I really took an interest in Predator-Friendly," she says.
As ranchers, Weed and Tyler had already been made painfully aware of the dilemma posed by the predator problem. "When we first started with our tiny flock, we lost two ewes within the first two weeks," says Weed. "That was when we realized there was an issue concerning predators, here in the valley."
Weed recalls that after that very first kill, she and Tyler called the government trapper, who shot one coyote and snared another. “That was when we really started thinking about what exactly it is that we’re doing here. If we have to kill the native species to ranch in the Gallatin Valley, then there’s something wrong with this picture.”
Today, as fully certified members of the PF community, Weed and Tyler use llamas to protect their flock of 300. While the number of sheep lost to predators varies from year to year, Tyler says that the llamas are not 100% effective and that Thirteen Mile has lost as many as fifteen sheep in one year—mainly to coyotes, mountain lions, and foxes, which prey on extremely young lambs.
Because last year’s losses due to predators were reaching "intolerable levels," Tyler says Thirteen Mile has decided to add guard dogs to its arsenal of protection for the flock. While the dogs are an added cost, it’s a price Weed and Tyler are willing to pay. Helping to eradicate Montana’s native predator population through hunting and trapping simply isn’t an option for them.
For Weed, PF isn’t as much about putting wolves, coyotes, and other carnivores on a pedestal as it is about trying to find sustainable ways to live in the Montana landscape and still treasure what makes it special. Says Tyler, “We could grow our lambs in a cornfield in Illinois, but we’d rather be here."
Officially trademarked in 1994, the PF brand is slowly gaining momentum and is finally being promoted nationally. The Predator Conservation Alliance (PCA) has taken over certification and a Predator-Friendly website will be online soon to act as a central marketing tool for PF meat and wool producers nationwide.
Weed says she was initially reluctant to recruit other ranchers and wool growers into the Predator-Friendly community until it could be proven that there was a market. Now, however, she's hopeful that Predator-Friendly can be a success.
Thanks in part to the PF brand, Thirteen Mile has been direct-marketing all of its organic meat since 2001. (In 1999 the farm was certified fully organic after ceasing the use of chemical wormers.) Customers for their grass-fed lamb and beef include local restaurants like The Savory Olive, John Bozeman’s Bistro, Rainbow Ranch, Montana Ale Works, and Lone Mountain Ranch, and retail outlets stretching from Hawaii to Naples, Florida.
Whether or not the PF concept will ultimately prove to be a success will depend on reaching the public. "Predator-Friendly is a way of engaging the consumer and saying ‘Look, if you want to have opinions about what responsible agriculture is, then you have to be willing to reward ranchers who are doing things differently,’" says Weed.
While Predator-Friendly is attracting more and more interest each year, Tyler acknowledges that some of their customers are "focused on PF and some aren’t at all... they just like to get good quality meat or wool products."
And speaking of wool, Thirteen Mile sells a variety of Predator-Friendly products (sweaters, blankets, sheepskins, and felted wool pieces) and has embarked on an ambitious project to produce first-quality yarn for knitters, while also offering wool-processing services to other area wool growers.
In keeping with Thirteen Mile's dedication to sustainability, the new wool-processing facility employs a solar-powered system, valued at more than $40,000, to heat the building and the water used in the washing system. Tyler says the system, partially financed by a renewable energy grant from Northwest Energy, will save Thirteen Mile more than $5,000 each year.
While Tyler is excited about the mill's financial potential, he says it's just one facet of Thirteen Mile's attempt to make small-scale agriculture work. "We can't operate this mill as a service industry alone, we've got to put the whole package together along with the lamb meat and the finished wool products. Each area is vital to the farm's success."