GREAT FALLS — Over 100 years ago, there were five million sheep flocking through Montana.
"It's the oldest industry in the world." Wendy McKamey said.
With a decline in flock numbers after the First World War, the sheep industry still has a place in The Treasure State.
In the last 100 years, the McKamey family has led the way in wool and meat lamb production. The McKamey West Ranch operation was featured in the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce 2023 Future of Ag Tour. It is a representation of how city commerce and agriculture work hand in hand.
"The more we can kind of piece things together, the more we see that we're all related and we're all in this together. And that's what's really neat about it. How one aspect of this industry is ag and the different components of just the sheep and lamb and just how far that goes and spread out," explained President and CEO of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, Shane Etzwiler.
The McKamey family operates a working cattle ranch south of Great Falls, supplementing its livestock operation with wool and meat-producing lambs. Five generations of McKamey's and fourth generation Ranch Manager, Merrill McKamey is keeping his family legacy alive.
"Everybody that's involved with this operation, all of our family members, really dedicate a lot of extra time and effort. And it's more than just what the money provides. It's also, you know, providing a sustainable source of food and fiber." Merrill McKamey shared.
The wool industry in Montana is fighting an uphill battle, working each day to build up a declining market.
"One of the biggest issues the Montana wool producers face is just having a really good market for their wool. We're growing that demand as fast as we can so we can buy more Montana wool, more American wool, and supply a superior product to the American consumers," said Evan Helle, a representative from the Duckworth Wool Company.
The Future of Ag Tour hosted business and community members alike to gain an understanding of Farm to Table. Demonstrations included sheep shearing, 4-H showmanship, and a lamb lunch while providing participants with information on the information about the industry.
The matriarch of the operation, Wendy McKamey showed her skills on the loom and how to spin fiber into yarn. It is a skill that has been passed down for generations. The opportunity to watch or taste was an experience like no other for Patty Coleman.
"I've never really eaten lamb. I'm kind of a beef girl. That was very interesting just to get to try the lamb we had for lunch. I'm going to give it a try next time I'm in a nice restaurant."
The McKamey family opened their home and lives for strangers to gain a better understanding of Montana's leading industry. An opportunity that is humbling but plentiful for both the producers and participants.
"We really feel that we have a story about sustainability to share. We also have a story of stewardship, land stewardship, and livestock stewardship. We feel like we instill those values from one generation to another."