There may be life off the ranch, but any Fremont County farmer or rancher will tell you – The #aglife is “the good life!” #Aglife is a County 10 series, brought to you by Wyoming Community Bank, that pulls the curtain back on farm and ranch life in Fremont County.
The family farm is a vanishing segment of Americana. Once they were the anchor of communities from Maine to California, but corporate farming has eroded this once proud institution. Eroded, but not erased in the case of Kelly and Kim Gardner and their farm and ranch operation centered on Missouri Valley Road but extending across much of Fremont County.
The couple met at Shoshoni High School before Kim and her family moved to New Mexico. Kelly graduated in 1987 and Kim in 1985. They were married in 1988.
Tradition runs deep on family farms and the Gardner tradition began a generation before with Kelly’s parents, Dave and Claudine. Dave passed away in a farming accident in August of 2015, but Claudine remains on the family farm they founded together.
Jim Stoll, Kelly’s grandfather, was a well-known farmer and rancher in the Crowheart area.
The Stolls had four children, Claudine, Patty Jo, John, and Gary. Claudine was born in 1940.
“Our place was on the old Yellowstone Highway, south of the Crowheart Store,” Claudine said.
She and Dave met while both were students at Morton High School. They were married in 1956.
“Our first place was south of Gardner’s Market between Morton and Kinnear,” Claudine said. “Dave grew up at the store. We grew potatoes those first few years.”
A few years later, they moved east.
“We had a little place down below Riverton,” Claudine said. “We ran sheep up above Ft. Washakie.”
The couple had three sons, Greg in 1956, Bret in 1960, and Kelly in 1968.
“Greg and Bret were born when we were at Kinnear,” Claudine said. “Kelly was born when we lived near Riverton. We haven’t moved very far.”
All three boys eventually graduated from Shoshoni High School, Greg in 1975, Bret in 1978, and Kelly in 1987.
Kelly was a three-sport athlete at Shoshoni, playing football where he was a starting cornerback on the 1985 Wrangler Class B state football championship team, a guard in basketball, and the school record holder in the 400 and 800-meter runs.
In later years, he was a longtime member of the Fremont County School District 24 board of trustees, serving in various capacities, including board chairman, and was on the board when the new school was constructed northwest of town.
In 1971, Dave and Claudine purchased what the family calls the “Home Place” from Joe Downey.
They raised corn, hat, oats, and barley on their acreage.
“I remember dad on the combine when I was little,” Kelly said.
Kim returned to Fremont County after graduating from high school. She was used to large families.
“My grandmother had 13 siblings and my grandpa had 10,” Kim said.
They were married at 19 and 21 years of age, and briefly lived with Dave and Claudine.
“We lived here for a little bit before our last year of college,” Kim said.
Both earned Associate Degrees from Casper College, Kelly in agriculture and Kim in elementary education.
They have three daughters, Brittani born in 1990, Kyrstyn in 1993 and Brynn in 1999.
The working heritage of the ag lifestyle extends to generations on both sides of the couple.
“You learn the sense of work and responsibility,” Kelly said. “Our kids have always worked. They’re respectful young adults.”
Farming and ranching are work on a daily basis, with each operation looking at the process slightly differently than their neighbors and friends.
“We raise corn for silage and haylage,” Kelly said. “When we reseed, we plant grain. All the feed goes to cow/calf production.”
The Missouri Valley operation consists of Dave and Claudine’s original place and another farm south of it where Kelly and Kim live.
Claudine, an enrolled member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe has grazing rights on the Wind River Indian Reservation as well.
“We’ve had a range unit on the reservation east of the Wind River since 1962,” Claudine said.
Claudine runs her cattle on the unit from near Gas Hills Road all the way to Shoshoni.
This year has been both a blessing and a challenge with the frequent, heavy rainfall. All that rain created a problem when trying to cure hay before baling.
“This was the best I’ve ever seen it,” Kelly said. “It was green all summer, it never burned.”
The entire Gardner family used to drive Claudine’s cattle up Missouri Valley and across the Boysen Causeway. They were a picturesque reminder of earlier ranching techniques, but they no longer move the herd that way.
“We quit that 12 to 15 years ago,” Kim said. “We truck them now. It’s not as much fun, costs a little more, but it is faster.”
Cattle on unfamiliar range can create problems, especially if the weather gets rough.
“If a storm hit, they’d turn north into the river,” Kelly said. “When it was over, we’d have to herd them back. We decided to start trucking the cattle farther to the south a few years ago. It’s way faster, but not the same.”
In the fall, they bring the cattle back to their home place. They are pregnancy tested, vaccinated, and prepared with whatever they need for the winter.
“Usually around the end of November, we bring them back,” Kelly said. “Our winter range is on the reservation area west of 11 Mile Hill.”
They also have a lease near Jeffrey City on the Crook’s Gap Road and take yearlings to older brother Greg’s place at Lysite.
That makes six locations in all for the Gardner’s to keep track of.
The change in climate this summer with more than three times the normal rainfall was reflected last winter in one of the worst seasons in recent memory.
“The last winter was terrible,” Kelly said. “We had so much snow we had to plow two or three times a week.”
Heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures create an additional burden for cattle.
“The ground was so hard, they couldn’t walk on it,” Kim said. “It was tough on the cows.”
Calving was a challenge as well. Ranchers across the state experienced much higher losses than in previous years.
“We’d go out at night and spotlight,” Kim said. “We’d lay down straw, but the birthing cows wouldn’t lay with everybody else.”
While the majority of their time is spent on their farming and ranching operations, they are all active in the community as well.
Claudine is a familiar face at the Fremont County Fair. Originally, she watched her boys’ show, then the grandkids, and now the great-grandchildren.
“I worked in the 4H Building as the Fabric Superintendent,” Claudine said. “I judged food for 15 years.”
While the fair is an exciting end to summer, firefighting and EMS are as much a part of the family heritage as cattle, hay, and corn are.
“Dave was a charter member of the Morton-Kinnear Fire Department,” Claudine said. “It was the first rural fire department in Wyoming.”
Kelly remains active in the Missouri Valley Fire Department, serving as a past chief and a very active member of the organization.
“Dad was a Chief at Missouri Valley. Bret was on it for about 20 years,” Kelly said. “I’ve been on the fire department since 1989.”
Both Kelly and Kim were BECs (Basic Emergency Care) and Kim went on to become an EMT.
“We just wanted to serve the community out here,” Kim said.
“The fire service is in my blood,” Kelly said.
Kim concurred, “We’ll be in fire and rescue until we die.”
Agriculture remains a challenge, especially with high inflation that raises the price of fuel, seed, chemicals, and replacement parts.
“Our expenses are so high, they just get higher,” Kelly said. “We do 97% of repairs ourselves. We can work on the older equipment.”
“Just look at the cost of diesel,” Kim said.
There is a lot of green in the Gardner operation, not just from the crops growing in the fields but in the equipment they use.
Most of their equipment is later model John Deere. Tractors, combines, and the corn choppers are all John Deere green.
Dave was one of the founding members of the Wind River Flywheelers, a group dedicated to the restoration and repair of classic tractors and other agricultural equipment.
In one of their larger sheds, they have a collection of older “popping Johnny” style John Deere tractors. Including one that arrived in Riverton in 1937 via the Burlington Northern Railroad.
“That was the first John Deere in Fremont County, and Dad bought it later on,” Kelly said.
With three daughters, and sons-in-law who are interested in the farm, but haven’t indicated they’d like to take over the operation, the future of the operation remaining in the family is a question to be answered later. Perhaps one of the grandchildren will get the urge to grow, produce, and raise cattle in rural Fremont County.
At present, Kelly and Kim have no plans to retire and continue their work together.
When asked about all the changes she’s seen since the beginning, Claudine said, “It’s about the same, it’s just life.”
Kelly summed it up as well, “It’s a pretty good lifestyle.”