“It started here,” Alyson Dorr said, sitting in her kitchen, looking out to fields on her family farm.
It’s one of those brisk fall mornings that reminds us winter isn’t far off. The leaves are turning to a warm, pumpkin orange and the cornucopia that once filled her summer garden has long been harvested. But the farm hasn’t come to a restful state just yet — in a fenced coop adjacent to the greenhouse, a dozen chickens peck and coo as they scout for breakfast and when Dorr cracks open the rear door, a gray and white kitten trots toward her, mewing earnestly for a bowl of warm milk.
It’s these little slices of life, and many more, that keep Dorr rooted to her family farm, located in Columbia Falls in the shadow of the Swan Mountains.
Along with her husband Casey and two daughters, Elaina, 11, and Evelynne, 9, Alyson lives what some might call a simple life. She grows her own vegetables, raises pigs and chickens and cooks from scratch.
“There’s a real movement in food nationwide to eat local, grow your own …being more self-sustaining,” Dorr said. “All of those concepts are appealing to me, not because they’re a trend, but because that’s just what it means to be a Montanan.”
Growing and preserving her own food was part of the fabric of her childhood, but she pursued this way of living with renewed energy when she learned that both she and her youngest daughter had an allergy to gluten.
“What I’ve found is a lot of the replacement products or processed gluten-free options are just packed with sugar,” she said.
Instead, Dorr dove headfirst into home cooking, preparing meals that were both healthful and homegrown. This year, her garden boasted everything from spinach and peas to beets and more than five varieties of squash. When dinner guests compliment her meals, she can simply point outside to the origin of her ingredients.
“There’s such satisfaction in putting a meal on the table, whether it’s for family or guests, that you can say I grew this, I raised this,” she said.
Her love for the land and all its bounty started in her youth. She grew up on the family farm, which got its start in the 1950s when her grandfather, Gene Orem, left New Mexico for Montana. He first worked in construction and helped build the aluminum plant in Columbia Falls, but his heart was in ranching. Over the years, Orem began purchasing small farms and eventually started his own herd. Such was his love for the ranching way of life that when Dorr’s father was born, Orem’s journal read: “Cow had calf. Wife had son.”
Her father continued the family legacy and added sheep and hogs, along with crops of seed potatoes and peppermint. Dorr recalls “an idyllic childhood,” where her time was spent helping her dad in the fields or riding her bike a quarter mile to her grandmother’s house.
As Laura Ingalls-esque as it was, farm life also came with some tough lessons. Dorr learned how to work hard from an early age and the value of a dollar.
“There’s something really satisfying and rewarding in doing a job that you can see the efforts of — whether that’s taking care of animals or planting seeds in the garden,” she said.
When she was growing up, her father grew a large crop of peppermint — a labor-intensive plant because it had to be hand-weeded. He hired local housewives to do the weeding, but told Dorr and her sister if they were willing to do an adult’s work, he’d pay them an adult’s wage and off they went.
She discovered the pride that came with earning money to purchase the things she wanted, and has passed that onto her daughters, who have each found their own niche in the agriculture world. Elaina sells peppermint oil at local markets and at Station 8 in Columbia Falls, while Evelynne sells handmade crafts like totes made from feedbags. They’ve occasionally taken their wares to the Columbia Falls Community Market, held on Thursday evenings during the summer months.
“They’re learning to save and to give and to think about spending,” she explained. “We don’t buy them a lot of stuff — they buy their own stuff and there’s power in that.”
The family also sells honey harvested from three hives on their property and operate a vacation rental out of a barn. The guesthouse, appropriately dubbed The Red Barn, was yet another way for the family to diversify their farm.
“It’s difficult to carve out a life here. The cost of living is so expensive and it’s a seasonal economy,” she said. “Even having a professional job as a teacher it’s difficult — how do you make ends meet?”
When Dorr was teaching English at Columbia Falls High School, she spent summers working for Glacier Raft Co. to earn extra income. Through her interactions with tourists, she realized how great the need was for local accommodations. That discovery, combined with her entrepreneurial spirit, resulted in the construction of The Red Barn. For the past seven years they have hosted guests from as far as Dubai and South Africa. From $245 per night, up to four visitors can relax in the homey two-bedroom barn and enjoy a sample of rural farm life.
One evening a pair of guests were kicking back on the deck of The Red Barn as the Dorrs went about their evening farm chores. Alyson was moving a rescued Arabian mare from the round corral so the kids could work their 4-H pigs there, and Casey had donned his full protective suit to check on the bees.
From the deck, with glasses of wine in hand, they called out to the family below.
“Bravo! This is the best free show,” Alyson recalled with a laugh.
But for the Dorrs, it was just another day on the farm — another magical Montana moment.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or email@example.com.
Learn more about the farm, The Red Barn and items for sale at www.montanaredbarn.com. Farm Kid & Co honey and peppermint oil will be available at the Market Beautiful on Nov. 9. Pastured raised Berkshire pork will be available in the spring. Check out some of Alyson’s recipes in the latest issue of Where Women Cook magazine, available at the Shops at Station 8 in Columbia Falls.