Adam pulls on his cowboy boots to travel to Montana for YFCU USA exchange trip

A place I have always been fascinated by and eager to visit is the United States, so as soon as the opportunity arose that I could be a part of the YFCU International Exchange Programme I was going to take the bull by the horns and try to be a cowboy for a number of weeks, writes Adam Alexander from Kilrea YFC.

Thursday, 24th October 2019, 10:00 am
Adam Alexander, Kilrea YFC with Ulster Farmers Union President, Ivor Ferguson. Adam was awarded a bursary place on the 2019 Exchange Programme which was supported by the Ulster Farmers Union

In all honesty, my trip got off to a turbulent start. My first flight was a nine hour direct - scheduled for 4pm on 7th July 2019, departing from Dublin and arriving in Seattle.

After being held at US customs for a considerable amount of time, I just made it to the flight and no more, hightailing towards the gate in movie-like fashion. Upon touchdown in Seattle with not a wink of sleep I was keen to find the gate for my connecting flight to Bozeman, Montana. Thankfully, there wasn’t the same hassle involved with this one and I arrived in Bozeman safely. I was the first of a group of exchangees to arrive at Montana State University (MSU) that would be attending Montana 4H Congress week. This would give us a chance to not only meet people from other countries representing sister organisations around the world, but also to understand the way in which 4H in the United States operates.

Because I had arrived late the night before and I was the only exchangee here thus far, as the day went on, the others were arriving. I was meeting delegates from England, Wales, Germany, Finland, Austria, Greece, France, Switzerland and New Zealand. We all ate together on our first night in the terrific dining hall at MSU, breaking the ice as we would spend the next week together. Our main coordinator (Carrie) also showed us around the university and explained that we would be attending an orientation the next morning so we could formally introduce ourselves and learn what we were in store for in the upcoming week. After Orientation, we hopped on a bus that took us to downtown Bozeman. Carrie showed us around and then took us to the famous American superstore chain - Walmart. This was proceeded by a trip to Murdoch’s. This is a large ranch supply store, which I can only explain as heaven on earth to me. My dream of becoming a cowboy became slightly more possible as I bought my first pair of cowboy boots and Stetson hat, I was going to fit right in by the end of the week when we would head off to our host families. With my wallet now considerably lighter we headed back to the university for dinner and the opening ceremony of 4H Congress and the first general session. To put all this into some context, 4H Congress week is where they bring members from clubs all over the state, they stay at the university all week and take part in various activities such as their state competitions, service projects, dances etc. This gives them the opportunity to meet new people, gain new skills and ultimately have fun. The opening ceremony and general session involved sketches and speeches from the state ambassador team and then a guest speaker. A dance followed the proceedings which was, let’s say different to a YFC barbecue. All the members were properly waltzing or jiving all night long, and they were incredibly good at it.

The next day was the first formal day of Congress. As Exchangees we had the opportunity to volunteer to help out at their state competitions day at whatever competition we were most interested in. 4H members can participate in a wide array of competitions just like we can in YFCU. I chose to help with the stockjudging competition, which was very interesting as there are some things they do differently compared to our competitions and activities. This just took the morning to finish so we had some spare time before our next scheduled activity so we visited the Montana Museum of the Rockies. After this step back in time we attended the service project. This time we could get involved. Our task was to fill as many care packages as possible for homeless US Army Veterans. The packages included food, hygiene products, deck of cards, and a letter thanking them for their service. When this concluded, some games were organised such as capture the flag and a treasure hunt which saw us split into teams, meaning I got a good chance to meet some of the Montana 4H members. After a good old barbecue for dinner and we were off to the next general session which involved a presentation of awards for the winners of all the state competitions that took place during the day. The winners would all progress to the National Finals in Atlanta, Georgia. I was impressed with some of the competitions they do like quilting and video editing just to name a couple. A talent show was after this which was very entertaining and of course another dance after this so the entertainment never stopped.

My last full day at MSU saw the international exchangees including myself, give a presentation on our home nation in front of the members of Montana 4H. I focused on Northern Irish food, sport, music and popular culture along with our ridiculous broken English and Ulster Scot colloquialisms. I think (I hope) they found this “crazy Irishman’s” presentation entertaining and insightful. We played some more team games in the afternoon, I found out that I am actually a fantastic lacrosse player. In the evening, there was a banquet to attend and the last general session, marking the end of Montana State 4H Congress.

On Friday 12th July, I finally met what would be my only host family for the entire trip. Bryan and Chelsea along with their two children Teagan and Gracie came to pick me up and take me to their home in Brusett in Eastern Montana which was a five hour drive from Bozeman. I was amazed by the change of scenery in what I would call a road trip to their ranch. The landscape went from the mountainous and well irrigated outskirts of Bozeman, through the central rocky ‘Badlands’ to the incredibly vast ‘Big Sky Country’ of the east. You could see fields, pastures and hills for miles and miles with hardly a tree in sight. I wasn’t in the house for the length of five minutes and the next thing I knew I was on a horse, herding cattle from one pasture to the other. It was suggested that because I had never ridden a horse before that I should take a horse that had never been ridden. The idea wasn’t my favourite. This was it folks my dream had come true… I am officially a cowboy.

The lifestyle I had been so intrigued by continued the next morning as I helped my host family load cattle that would be a part of the upcoming ranch rodeo that afternoon. Before we left for the rodeo, Bryan and I got back on the horses and put the bulls out with the cows. Now it was time for the eagerly anticipated ranch rodeo that would be held in their nearest town, Jordan. A ranch rodeo is not what I was expecting but it was still very interesting and exciting to watch. There are several cowboys that work in teams on horseback, trying to lasso cattle in a variety of different categorised events such as, penning, mugging, branding and loading. The fastest team wins said event.

My host family liked to just relax on Sunday’s which suited me down to the ground. In the middle of the day we went searching for arrowheads and dinosaur bones which at first I found extremely strange but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. Bryan also showed me around the rest of their 11,000 acre ranch, the vastness was just breath taking. The rest of my evening consisted of a water balloon fight with the kids and helping them with our chores which involved collecting, cleaning and packaging eggs from their 40 free range hens. Over the next couple of days I helped out on the ranch, fencing, checking cattle etc. In the middle of the week the Phipps’ took me to Miles City, Bryan and I loaded up one of his bulls to take to a sale and then they showed me around the city. After this they took me to the Ranch Riders Museum. It displayed all the native American history of the state of Montana. Before we went home, I was treated to a trip around all the local shops in the city that sold local goods and produce only made in the state, I felt as if they were very proud of this, but I have to admit their ice cream isn’t as good as Mullin’s in Kilrea.

The Phipps’ decided they would take me to their family cabin in the Lewis and Clarke National Forest. Another five hour drive… But it was worth every second. The scenery was incredible and just amazingly remote. On the way there we stopped in an Amish grocery shop, I don’t think we actually needed anything, I think the Americans just wanted to see my reaction to something that I wouldn’t be familiar with. Once we finally arrived, we went fishing and had a barbecue. Another city beckoned the next morning, we travelled for an hour to Great Falls. A very nice place, we visited the Lewis and Clarke Interp Centre, which is about the discovery of the Western side of the US. They also showed me around the rest of the city which was beautiful as it had the Missouri river flowing through the middle of it, creating a picturesque setting.

The last day at the cabin consisted of fishing and I wrote some postcards to send to both my grandmothers and then we set off for home. Before I knew it, I was back on the horse, shifting cattle. It goes without saying that whenever I got out here I was hoping to be as much use and help to my host family as possible. But when it came to unclipping wire and taking down old fencing, I can safely say I underestimated the sheer magnitude of what had to be done. That Saturday, while all my friends back home would have been at Limavady show, I was rolling up two miles of barbed wire. As a treat for all our hard work from the day previous, my host family and I went to Fort Peck lake with another neighbouring family whom were also hosting an exchangee from Germany. Water sports and fishing took up most of the day and by the time we got home we were ready for some sleep. For the next few days I just helped out around the ranch and because the weather started to heat up a lot this week, it made our tasks limited.

On 25th July, Bryan and Chelsea set off for Colorado for a three day trip with another couple they are friendly with. They had more sense than to leave the kids with me for this period of time so they stayed with their grandmother. For the next three days I had been left in charge of a place that is bigger than the area I live in, total madness. Therefore, I went about the daily routine as well as some additional tasks I saw that I could do while they were on holiday. The first time I went to check on the cattle and the water supply, guess what happens. I got lost. It took me two hours to find my way back to the house. I would need to plan my route to the cattle better over the course of the next few days. When Chelsea and Bryan arrived home, work continued as normal and Bryan and I happened to come close to two rattlesnakes. I had never seen one before, very interesting but dangerous.

Another couple of days passed and it was time for me and my colleague from Germany to go on a road trip to the biggest city in Montana, Billings. We attended a Kip Moore concert which was fantastic. I was in my element due to the overwhelming number of cowboy hats and beer cans. The next day we saw around the sights of Billings such as, Pictograph caves, Swords Park, and Montana Zoo. On the way home from Billings, after I dropped my German friend off, disaster struck as the pick-up I was borrowing from my host family stalled when I was trying to do a u-turn on a road in the middle of nowhere. It wouldn’t start again. I had to wait for half an hour before I could get someone waved down to come and rescue me. Thankfully, after this kind civilian getting me back on the road, I arrived back at the ranch.

The next and last few days of my exchange were filled up with helping on the ranch, which I was very happy to be doing. And helping the family and their kids with getting organised with their county fair, which they are very involved with. Kids in 4H bring steers, goats, horses, pigs and lambs to show.

They normally sell their animal after, also they bake cakes and other goods that are also auctioned off they keep the profits. The fair lasted for three days and it was hard work but I enjoyed being of help to my host family and I loved seeing their kids do well in all their events.

This brought my brief time (while you may not think that after reading this) to a close. I enjoyed every minute.

It wasn’t what I expected in the slightest but I couldn’t have asked for it to have gone better. My eyes were opened into the vastness of this earth and that even though I love “our wee country”, it is just a garden in comparison to the USA. Finally, I couldn’t have asked for better hosts. Thank you the Phipps’ family for everything. Furthermore thank you to my club, Kilrea Young Farmers’ Club, my county (Londonderry) and UFU for their support of this crazy adventure.

I would recommend to anyone apart of the YFCU to take part in long term exchange. It is a fantastic opportunity and believe me, you won’t regret it.