City kids keep lining up to experience life in rural counties. The 12th Annual Ag Exchange took place last weekend and eight students from Portland were matched with Wallowa County ranchers for an in-depth hands-on experience.
The 4-H-sponsored program was launched as a way to provide children from both sides of the mountains a taste of how the other half lives.
It’s an immersion experience, with children living as one of the family and invited to take part in everything a ranch kid does during their stay, including going to school with host family students on Monday.
This year, visitors came from The Cottonwood Charter School of Civics and Science, St. Rose Catholic School and Sunnyside Environmental School.
Beyond a ranch experience, the students are pursuing a better understanding of the rural perspective. What they learn is shared in presentations in front of their home schools.
This year, for the first time, the students were allowed to keep their cell phones to take photos for journal entries.
Sylvia Austin, 13 and Laney Fadden, 12, both from St. Rose School in Portland, had the unusual opportunity to experience four different ranches during their stay.
The girls have been part of the exchange in Baker, so they had already learned many of the ways in which the east and west side of the state were both similar and different.
But local ranchers hoped to intensify the experience.
“We’ve just finished two months of calving,” said Charity Ketscher. “I was hoping the girls would get a more realistic view of ranching cattle by being part of calving — but calving was pretty much over and we weren’t really excited about it continuing by then.”
Nevertheless, the girls learned that even with the brunt of calving handled, the Ketscher’s were still conducting frequent night checks on mother cows. The girls also experienced dealing with new calves: tagging a calf and reuniting a calf with its mother.
Ketscher was impressed with their can-do attitude.
“They reunited that calf without my even asking them,” she said.
The students also spent time with Karen and Joe Rinehart of Joseph. Karen took them to feed cattle up Elk Mountain Road and to the Tony and Trina Jones Ranch in Lostine for calf branding, where they threw themselves into sorting calves and thrusting them through the gate toward the branding chute.
When they were with Charity and Phillip Ketscher, they groomed horses, and did other chores on the Ketscher’s Ranch on Zumwalt Prairie. On Sunday, Charity took them to the stunning Imnaha country to help her son-in-law B.J. Warnock drive new mother cows and their calves through “downtown” Imnaha and on to a fresh pasture.
The girls again showed their expertise blocking roads, drives and parking lots and facing down mother cows looking for shortcuts.
“You’re hired,” said Warnock. “But I don’t pay much.”
The students were pleased with the variety of work.
“We worked more this year,” said Fadden, “and I think we had even more fun.”
Of course they learned a lot (cows only have teeth on the bottom; some cows have twins; calving is a very big deal; you have to watch mother cows and know when to face them down and when to back off; calves seem just fine a few minutes after branding) but they were also pretty impressed with the cuteness of the calves.
Although they had noticed the friendliness of rural people on their last trip, this trip the girls observed how often folks passing on the highway waved to one another. Even out in the most rural locations of the county, it seemed that the people knew one another, Laney said.
“That’s a lot different than in Portland,” she marveled.
Both girls were also astonished when host families didn’t lock their doors when they left the house. Austin’s family had recently been robbed, she said, and the fact that people in Wallowa County were not conditioned to crime was a real difference.
The event has just a few rules for participants: use common sense, have fun and learn are at the top of that list.
Other rules include no shooting without a 4-H trained instructor present, horse riders must wear a helmet and be under the oversight of an adult; only adults drive ATVs; no operating farm machinery; and participate and be part of the family.