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Montana Spotlight: Red Ants Pants Grants

Updated: Jan 13, 2019

Photo by Missy Sprouse

Projecting a dedicated community-centered business model, the Red Ants Pants Foundation has awarded over $100,000 in grants to businesses and community projects in Montana. Women-owned-and-run Dropstone Outfitting, poised on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, has benefitted from a Foundation grant for necessary supplies.

“I love the idea that there are so many cool, worth-while projects going on across the state,” says Sarah Calhoun, owner of Red Ants Pants, a company dedicated to making work clothes for women. Calhoun is also the founder of the popular summer music festival of the same name held each summer near White Sulphur Springs, Montana.

With a mission to develop and expand leadership roles for women, preserve and support working family farms and ranches and enrich and promote rural communities, the Red Ants Pants Foundation provides a variety of annual grants to organizations across the state and supporting a women’s leadership program to encourage young women to participate in community engagement through mentorship.

“Even if it’s $1,000 for a woman in Helena to start her first wood-working business, it’s just believing in someone and helping to get their business off the ground,” Calhoun says of the work of the foundation and the broad base of Red Ants Pants Foundation grants awarded in the past years.

Funding for the grant program and the girl’s leadership program comes directly from proceeds generated by the Red Ants Pants Music Festival.

After building a brick-and-mortar and online women’s workwear clothing business, Calhoun launched the annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival in a cow pasture outside White Sulphur Springs in 2011. Since its inception, the annual music festival has become an institution in Montana, winning the honor of 2018 Event of the Year by the Montana Office of Tourism.

Country, folk and Americana performers such as Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, the Steep Canyon Rangers, James McMurtry, Merle Haggard and Robert Earle Keen have all taken the stage at the festival as well as Wynona Judd, Brandi Carlile, Lee Ann Womack, Lucinda Williams, and Pam Tillis among many more. The three-day event also features camping, a variety of vendors and Montana-style demonstrations such as chainsaw skills and cutting horses.

Ticket sales from the Red Ants Pants Music Festival comprise the entire grant program, although donations also figure into the mix, Calhoun says. The grants provide mission-driven boosts to community initiatives, nonprofits and businesses seeking to improve their communities, often in ways previously unimaginable.

Calhoun and the Red Ants Pants Foundation board grant an average of 12 awards per year to businesses and organizations across the state.

Grant awards range from $1,600 in 2018 to Make it Happen Montana, a program that honors student heroes in schools across the state, to $4,190 in 2016 to the woman-owned and operated Dropstone Outfitting in Choteau.

From the first grants awarded in 2012 to a broad base of business and organizations including the Gallatin Valley Farm to School program and the YWCA GUTS! Girls’ leadership initiative, the Red Ants Pants Foundation has now developed a solid track record of supporting girl’s leadership, working family farms, ranches and rural communities. Empowering small business owners and vital, ground-breaking initiatives are all in the foundation’s wheelhouse, says Calhoun.

“The grant program is not an incubator for business, it’s for leadership on the ground,” she adds. “For the grant program, we focus on nonprofit organizations and for-profits with an educational element.”

A Pack Mule Named Calhoun

In 2016, a women-owned-and-run Montana outfitter poised on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Dropstone Outfitting, was in need of a boost to continue packing in the backcountry. Based in Choteau, the guiding business combined the expertise of co-owners Maggie Carr, a Montana State University graduate in range management, and Yve Bardwell, a University of Montana graduate in environmental studies and water resources.

“We’re the only outfitting business in the Bob that does exclusively foot travel,” says Carr, a Choteau native. “We offer the service to people who like to hike, but we provide food, gear, hiking guides and transportation to and from the airport. That’s the main difference.”

Carr and Bardwell bought the Choteau-based company in 2013 but a few years later realized they needed a few bits and pieces for their growing, hike-centric business.

“That’s where Red Ants Pants came in,” says Carr. “We needed another mule, a pack saddle and some bear-resistant food containers. So, we applied for that grant and were the recipient in 2016. We ended up buying the mule in 2017. We were the first fully-funded grant at the time.”

The hiking-based business won a $4,190 grant from the Red Ants Pants Foundation.

Carr says they used $2,300 of the grant monies to purchase a new mule for their operations. Dropstone does not use horses to take clients into the wilderness so it uses mules as packers.

The outfitting company upped the fun ante, collaborating with Red Ants Pants and Facebook on a name-the-mule contest in an example of the creative projects that emerge from foundation support.

“We had a naming competition through Red Ants Pants,” says Carr. “’Calhoun’ was the highest name voted on … we left it in the hands of Facebook users.”

Sarah Calhoun with Calhoun. Photo by Missy Sprouse

“I did get a chance to meet Calhoun the mule,” Sarah Calhoun says. “It was a big honor. It’s not going to get any better than that. I have yet to go on a trip, but I’d like to take our girls’ leadership alumni on a trip with Maggie and Yve.”

After naming the new mule Calhoun, the outfitters purchased a Red Ants Pants Foundation-embossed pack saddle and pad for $1,300. In keeping with the community collaboration mission, Dropstone hired Sun River Saddlery of Frenchtown to stamp the saddle.

The outfitting company also bought two bear-resistant food containers totaling $500. The food containers are required when hiking in the mountains.

“When you travel in the Bob Marshall, it’s a Forest Service stipulation that you properly store your food [in an approved contained] so bears can’t get in them,” Carr says, adding that the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee certifies the containers.

Before receiving the much-needed grant, Dropstone made do with some recyclables.

“We had some old Army ammunition boxes -- big green metal boxes to store med supplies -- that we had refitted, as the committee has certain specs to follow,” Carr says. “We had to wrap them up and tie them to the mule.”

Bardwell and Carr, both North-central Montana natives who previously worked for various guest ranches and the U.S. Forest Service, appreciate the moral and financial support the Red Ants Pants Foundation grant provided.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for small business,” says Bardwell. “I know personally how hard it can be to come up with the capital for some small project that would help move your business along. This grant was a real shot in the arm for us. It helped us come up with the stock and the equipment to run two trips simultaneously and that amounts to some major business growth for us.”

Choteau residents in 2013, Bardwell and Carr bought High Country Adventures, the first backpacking-centric outfitting business in the country, from Bill and Polly Cunningham, now their industry mentors.

“We share a strong affinity for the Rocky Mountain Front and the ‘Bob,’ and we take pride in providing quality backcountry trips,” Bardwell writes on “We feel fortunate that we’re able to share this landscape with others.”

“The Red Ants Pants grant community is a great group to be a part of,” says Bardwell.

“There are some pretty amazing things going on in rural Montana led by women.”

Paying it forward is key to the Red Ants Pants Foundation’s mission, a three-pronged objective supporting “girl’s leadership, working family farms and ranches, and rural communities,” according to the foundation website.

Bardwell and Carr are among the dozens of businesses and organizations exemplifying the Red Ants Pants Foundation mission, says Calhoun.

“It’s a network of inspiration and support,” adds Bardwell. “And as we continue to grow, it’s a community we look forward to working with and helping along. Women in business rock and they like helping each other out.”

“With the women’s leadership element … outfitting is not an easy industry to break into,” Calhoun stresses. Now her namesake will be facilitating trips in the backcountry for Dropstone and continuing to help the woman-led business prosper.

Community Fire Safety Program

The Garfield County Fire Foundation, based in Jordan, Montana, won the biggest Red Ants Pants Foundation grant to date of $5,000 in 2018. The organization plans to develop an online fire safety and awareness curriculum, the Teen Fire Safety Online Program, with grant monies.

After recent wildfires, the Jordan community needed early-suppression fire equipment and an educational curriculum targeting ranch-raised teenagers. Young men and women living in rural areas often drive support vehicles alongside adults operating fire-suppression equipment during a crisis.

“The connection between the Garfield County Fire Foundation and Red Ants Pants happened after the 2017 Lodgepole fire,” says Anne Miller, Disaster Emergency Services Deputy and a volunteer firefighter. Miller and her husband, fire department Engine Supervisor Eric Miller, live in Jordan, a rural community nearly smack dab in the north-central part of the state about an hour east of Lewistown on Montana Highway 87.

Following the wildfires, Miller says Jordan and Garfield County parents expressed a need for teens to learn wildfire safety skills such as helping an adult drive fuel and water trucks to firefighters on the front lines and babysitting younger siblings while adults fight fires encroaching on private land.

“In all situations, we want to make sure kids have the ability to make logical decisions they can fall back on,” says Miller, comparing it to a basic, practiced home fire drill among family members.

Miller says the Garfield County Fire Foundation seeks to secure early-suppression fire equipment for the county and to serve as a recovery agent while mitigating the negative impacts of wildfire on the community.

“We will develop a curriculum so agricultural and vocational-ag teachers across the United States, parents and small communities, can use it,” says Miller. “Experts in fire safety will break down the principles and make [the program] very kid-friendly.”

The five-course series will apply videos, personal testimonies and written materials to develop awareness of fire behavior, educate others on what to do if a piece of farm equipment bursts into fire and demonstrate how to work with firefighters and others. Ideally, Miller says, the lessons will incorporate science, math, FFA, 4-H and other course material for students in grades seven through 12. Miller says she hopes the lessons will also enhance community fire awareness for all ages.

“This is something very unique,” says content creator Geremy Olson of 241ink Productions, a public information officer for the Montana Department of National Resources and a volunteer firefighter based in Washburn, N.D.

“It’s probably something not even possible five years ago,” adds Olson. “With technology, we can share information across the country. The whole purpose of this program is to help people make wise decisions and to give them the facts to help prevent fires.”

The target date for the video modules launching the Teen Fire Safety Online Program is June 2019, said Christine Weder, Garfield County disaster recovery outreach coordinator. The versatile curriculum and design are in the research phase, but the educational potential is ground-breaking as far as delivering fire safety to an increasingly wider audience.

“We are defining five classes and content for those classes will work its way into a multi-media project,” says Olson. “The videos are just one small part of the project.

“When it’s all set and done, the video portion can be used as a stand-alone class, but a high school ag teacher or a volunteer fire department can use the resources to teach the class, also,” Olsen adds.

The multi-week or stand-alone curricula are meant to train folks to train other people, says Olson, who created a similar fire education program in North Dakota.

Ideally, a high school science teacher, agriculture teacher or volunteer firefighter across the nation will be able to teach real-life, hands-on lessons and fire awareness from the program, Olson stresses.

“The target audience is high school students and the secondary audience is anyone who lives in rural communities across the nation,” he adds. “Garfield County folks are really progressive in making this project happen. If they are taking the time and effort to do this happen, it will be national.”

While the grant covers the full amount needed to fund the initial lessons, additional costs are to be determined.

“We estimate that with additional donations, grants and matching funds, we should be able to cover the balance, enhance and expand the lessons, as well as keep the online training current and running,” adds Christine Weder.

Red Ants Pants Foundation In-house Programs

With a mission to develop and expand leadership roles for women, preserve and support working family farms and ranches and enrich and promote rural communities, the Red Ants Pants Foundation also works to provide a timber skills and women’s leadership program supporting young women in community engagement through mentoring.

Besides the annual grant-giving program, the foundation is an umbrella organization for programs intrinsically tied to its multi-level mission.

In October, the foundation unveiled a free, inaugural, year-long Girls Leadership Program for Montana girls entering their junior year of high school. With one of three retreats already in the books, program facilitators helped participants “inspire hope in our youth, develop pride in our rural communities and foster strength and courage in our leadership,” according to the program description on the foundation website.

“The first retreat two weekends ago went so beautifully and beyond our expectations,” Sarah Calhoun says. “The girls are now working with mentors one-on-one.”

The purpose of these programs, Calhoun explains, is to increase girls’ leadership competency and confidence and to create positive social change and positive community impact.

“We had a phenomenal response and loads of applications, from Dillon to Ennis to Browning,” she adds. Eventually, she hopes to expand the program to regional applicants.

“One-hundred percent of the grant program money is awarded to external entities,” says Calhoun. “We have separate line items in our general operating budget for the girls’ leadership program.”

In the girl’s leadership program, young women engage in three webinars throughout the year. Each participant plans a project in their respective community and each is matched with a mentor who offers developmental support and coaching throughout the program.

A diverse, “highly experienced” facilitation team of women from across Montana with a broad range of professional backgrounds serves as mentors.

Another program offered through the foundation is a three-day “Timber Skills Workshop” designed to empower and educate women of all skill levels on the basic understanding, maintenance and operation of hand and power tools.

Participants 18-years-old and older can choose either Chainsaw 101, designed for beginner-to-intermediate chainsaw users or Carpentry 101, designed to teach essential hand and power tool usage in general carpentry.

Safety is the focus of the weekend, ensuring all participants feel comfortable and empowered to learn and practice at their own pace,” reads the course description.

By providing the community with an award-winning annual music festival, the Red Ants Pants Foundation is able to further broaden the scope of their good work across the state.

Calhoun says recognizing and cultivating a strong work ethic, encouraging and building self-reliance for women, educating the public on the importance of maintaining traditional work skills, and providing opportunities for people with different perspectives to connect, build bridges and discover common ground is at the heart of her work with the business, festival and foundation.

The Red Ants Pants Foundation board will meet in January to finalize plans for the next grant cycle, says Calhoun. For more information on grants, the Red Ants Pants Music Festival or participating in Red Ants Pants programs, visit

—Renata Birkenbuel

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