Country Meets City 12

BART AND WENDY MORRIS TALK THE RURAL TRADITIONS OF OXBOW CATTLE COMPANY

Playing the part of Missoula’s rancher is a profound role, one that straddles a rather wide line between farm and city and, best of all, bridges the gap between. And that’s exactly what Bart and Wendy Morris of Oxbow Cattle Company have done as our local ranchers.

It’s not every day that the average Missoulian loads up their dogs in their flatbed truck, lifts a few locally cut round bales onto the back, and drives off to feed his or her herd of cows when spring grass hasn’t quite sprung, but Bart knows this story well. It’s the daily song that makes up his lifestyle, one neither he nor his wife could do without. With their roots running deep in the way of agriculture, both having grown up in rural worlds and graduated within a rural college town, it made their choice of settling just beside Missoula an easy and wise one.

“When you’re in real estate they say, ‘Location, location, location.’ That’s what makes us work, too. The city limits are right there,” said Bart, stretching a hand toward the rolling hills on the south end of Missoula. “Location is a big part of a business like this. We’re as local as local gets, and we take pride in that and we take pride in being Missoulians.”

Oxbow Cattle Company headquarters is set amid a sprawling dream of valley floor—the perfect meeting point of Miller Creek and Sapphire ranches. The land where their cows are able to graze consists of rolling hills, winding Bitterroot River, surrounding trees, and endless open sky above. It is wild as it is remote when bumping and jostling along a dirt road, and having the city of Missoula as its neighbor adds to the ranch’s charm and functionality within our community.

Bart and Wendy’s horsemanship, cattle care, and land management are interweaving threads in the patchwork of their ranch, and ultimately their duty to their animals and Montana’s pasturelands. Their beef, sporting a higher price tag than commercial beef, has a traceable history indicated by the numbers that are printed on each package, referring to specific animals and their life stories.

“We’ve always known we wanted to be in agriculture,” said Bart. “The stars aligned and we just took the plunge. It’s the best decision we’ve made in our lives. When we first started, we were unproven and we went and talked to restaurant after restaurant; we had some successes and some failures.”

It was at the downtown Farmers Market that he and Wendy were able to put a face to Oxbow Cattle Company, where family and friends bought their beef in good faith that it would cause a domino effect and get the word and the beef out into our community.

“And that’s part of [Missoula] and the people that live here,” he said. “I don’t go knock on doors anymore—people call us and ask us for our beef. We have more demand than we do have beef, which is a really good problem to have. We’re really fortunate, and that’s the city of Missoula doing that. It’s not just a piece of protein for them—some it may be—but the feeling I get from folks is that they take pride in it being a Missoula product. The land is treated well, the animals are treated well, and it produces a high-quality protein that tastes wonderful.”

He added, “This town, this community, they just embrace it.”

Missoula has yet to see the long-lasting effects of Bart and Wendy’s labors on this sublime piece of land that snakes down into the Bitterroot Valley. Years from now, the soil may begin to be rich in nutrients and minerals that were lacking before Oxbow Cattle Company inhabited the land.

“One of my goals when I was working for a wildlife agency was to conserve land and make things better for the land and the animals. Well, I couldn’t do that through my jobs with the government but I sure in heck can do it with these critters here, and with the land that’s in my care,” Bart said.

It all goes back to the circle of life and the notion that what we put in is what we get out. By sticking to the proven techniques of raising and moving cattle by way of horses and limited machinery, the cows in turn have a more peaceful life—able to graze the natural surroundings, lick salt and mineral blocks because our land currently lacks it, and therefore produce a high-quality protein without the antibiotics or solutions that are usually, thoughtfully, administered to combat stressful situations throughout their journey from farm to table. These cows skip most of those human interventions, being strong enough to fight sickness and maturing the way they ought to.

Financially, there isn’t much to gain, said Bart in between laughs. It’s the lifestyle that he and his wife are after. It’s the reason why he’s never worked harder in his life—why he’s there to keep their cows nourished in the deep freeze of winter and why they’re inspired to feed Missoula the best of the best.