The Cowboy Way

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Mommas, Do Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys

With all the environmental, economic and regulatory challenges facing ranchers today, has the American cultural icon of the cattle rancher passed into history like the saloon gunfighter and the flawless politician?
Those challenges are not easy to ignore.

“It’s almost impossible for a young person to get into [cattle ranching] without an ‘in,’ such as family,” says Hutchinson. “I’m 39. There aren’t many 39-year-old ranchers and there are sure not many 29-year-old ranchers. The investment is so high, the risk so much – it is just hard to get into. There are a lot of older farmers and ranchers. You have to have some kind of backing to get into it.”

Despite challenges both man-made and natural, there remain reasons to be upbeat, some feel.

“I think we’re generally optimistic,” says Reese. “Part of that is that the world population continues to grow, and people are more aware of the acreage that is available for food production. Food security is more in people’s minds. We’ve been blessed with plentiful availability of low-cost food since the country was founded. There is so much more technology and information available to this generation.”

Kelsey also says the industry is “optimistic.”

But he also points out that the average age of the rancher is not young. However, “there’s some trends that might lend a clue, and I’m taking some confidence from it. We know that upward of 70 percent of land used for agriculture will change hands. A lot will be transferred generationally, but a lot will be marketed and sold. A lot of widows with children not interested in agriculture will sell. It will be bought.”

Kelsey’s optimism stems from a large number of younger people coming to the organization’s meetings.

“There’s been an influx,” he says. “I think we’re seeing young people with genuine interest in food-animal production. They’re going to figure out how to do it.”

Kelsey indicates he meant from an economic perspective in the current environment. “It might end up like a rental situation or a modern version of something like what used to be called ‘share-cropping,’” he says. “But they will figure out how to make it work. They will think outside the box, figure it out and make it work. We’re seeing renewed interest. It’s hard work, but these young folk show promise in keeping it alive.”