It looked like Mount Everest.
Granted, May’s 11,000 some feet are a pittance compared to Everest’s 29,000, but it looked just as inhospitable to me as that highest Himalaya. Its rocky summit ridge was caked with snow and ice, shining in the setting winter alpenglow sun. From the chill wind blowing around me, I knew it was howling bitter up there.
But I felt warm inside, despite the night chill creeping in.
And I was grateful. As I listened to the cows tearing at the green grass hay and watched the warm vapor coming off their breath, I was struck with thankfulness for the life we lead here, the work we do, and for the sights we see every day.
I made a skating pond for the kids the other day. We had enough $5 garage sale skates that every kid had skates (albeit with different colored laces). Even the 5-year-old had a great afternoon, all bundled up and skate-pushing a folding chair around our pond with wild abandon.
We are getting ready to harness up our little-bit-wild draft horse teams to feed cattle with. They need the work and the practice, as the kids and I are hoping to compete at the county fair next August in the draft horse driving and hay feeding competition.
Sure, it is cold, and there is always more work than I have hours for (the worst of which is that danged office work), but there is fun too and a lot of the work is fun!
Until one takes time to read the local paper.
The Challis Messenger had a legal notice about a Sheriff’s sale to take place on the courthouse steps sometime in March. It was my neighbor’s place. The slow wheel of foreclosure is bearing down on all that a family has worked on the land in this valley for several generations.
I know they worked hard; they are not slackers. Whatever the reason, they are not the first ranch to be under threat of foreclosure that I’ve heard of, and they will be far from the last. Cattle prices are high, folks say…hay is even going higher, maybe higher than ever. So why can’t a ranching family make it these days?
The fact of the matter is that hay and beef prices haven’t changed very significantly for some 60 years. I’ve heard of cattle prices being around a buck in the 1950’s. Now, they are a little over a buck. But everything else is changed. Fuel was 20 cents in those days; land was $100-200 per acre. A fellow could build a house for $10,000 (nice). A nice pickup truck: $1,500.
And here we have these rancher folks still on the same acreage, trying to stuff more cows on the same ground, waiting for the one year that it is going to all come together. A neighbor of mine told me that his dad always used to say that the Pahsimeroi Valley is some of the best ‘next year’ country he knew of.
Caryl and I tried everything to try to make this thing work. We raised beautiful horse hay. We sold eggs. We sold old cows. We sold young cows. We tried to follow the markets. We tried to ignore the markets. We tried every cowman trick we could figure out to make money…sometimes we did. Most times we didn’t.
So we subsidized it. Caryl and I both worked off the ranch. Then we came home at night and weekends and ranched. I remember falling asleep in fields in the middle of the night while spreading ditch water out to keep our fields green. We fed cows in the dark. We baled hay in the dark. We slept in the truck out in the cow pasture on wintry subzero nights catching a few uncomfortable winks between checking calvy cows.
I remember the last year I worked my day job I had cattle on 14 different places. I often would get calls while at work because our cows were heading down US Highway 93 in the Salmon River Canyon- a road with nothing but blind curves. (The old boy we were leasing from imbibed a little too much and left his gates open pretty regularly.) I’d often park our 1959 Chevy Viking truck at work next to the Toyotas and Subarus. It was loaded with several tons of hay that I would deliver in the evening to persnickity horse hay people (each bale had to be hand-picked perfect).
It was a lot of work and not much money (or negative money).
Finally, we figured out how to subsidize our ranching, land, and livestock passion with itself by marketing our beef directly to our customers (they soon became what we call our partners). It meant more long days. Now I could sleep in cars year round- in the fields in the winter babysitting pregnant cows and in the marketing car the rest of the year on the way back home from farmers’ markets. I often will point out to Caryl an out-of-the-way sagebrush pull-off while driving around Idaho and Montana: “Slept there once.”
But the direct marketing was working, and still is. We enjoy it, because we are as passionate about the land and our animals as ever.
But not everyone in the ranch world is cut out for this, and so they subsidize their ranching passion with town jobs, equity, or government subsidies. Unfortunately, this low economy dries up town jobs, equity erodes, and government purses tighten.
Through all of these economic woes, I hope, we will still be selling beef for the long haul to our friends, our partners, because this is what we believe in: connection between the eaters of food and the growers of food. Because I believe that there is a rightness to growing food for people in this pure and beautiful place. And I also believe that we were meant to forge that connection between folks and the land, particularly in this time of industrial mega-agricultural interests whose only mission seems to be to sever it.
Sometimes it’s like Mt Everest up here, though: frigid, cold and lonely. We get short on oxygen. But then one of our “partners” gives us a call and says that was the very best steak they ever had, or better yet, they just tell us that they believe in what we do. They see the pics on the site, read some of the copy, maybe talk to Caryl or I on the phone, and try the steak or burger and the whole thing comes together for them; the connection to the land has been made.
And that makes it all worth it.