Where have all the cowboys gone?
One Oroville cattle rancher faces tough choices as small farms fight to survive
Cattle rancher Don McIntyre’s daughter, Tyler, at only 4 years old, sees into the future just far enough to decide which toy she wants to play with next. Yet the playful and cute brown-haired child is the only heir to her dad’s cattle ranch, and McIntyre hopes that—if it makes her happy—one day Tyler will decide she wants to raise cattle for a living.
The 34-year-old McIntyre, tall and lanky yet sturdily built, is rightfully concerned about the future of his 300-head ranch, McIntyre Ranching Inc, which operates out of its headquarters in Oroville in the winter, and runs cows on leased land near Greenville, up Highway 70, in the summer. Set against the backdrop of the western face of Table Mountain, sprinkled with rustic, dilapidated and historic wood and brick buildings (or what’s left of them), and representative of the pioneering images of the Old West, McIntyre’s ranch is in serious trouble.
McIntyre will be in his 50s when his daughter is old enough to inherit. His dilemma mirrors that faced by ranchers and farmers of all types, but especially the small-time cattle ranchers whose images emblazon the history of the Old West: More and more of them are choosing to sell the farm instead of pass it on to the next generation.
“Ranches like mine are disappearing all over the country,” confirms McIntyre, who inherited his split ranch from his grandmother in 1991, when he was 23. “The work is pretty tough. You don’t turn a huge profit. So more and more you’ll see the children not want to take over from their parents and go into other fields.”
Besides the oftentimes-backbreaking labor and the lure of other, more profitable opportunities, the offspring who do want to take over are frequently bridled by other considerations.
For example, says McIntyre, if on a small ranch a family has three willing kids, you can’t just divide it up three ways and expect each child to make a living. The smaller the piece of land, the harder it is for a farmer to beat the overhead and turn a profit. The land has to stay together to make economic sense. Or, as in McIntyre’s case, many ranchers and farmers can’t wait until their 50s to pass on the farm because of health problems or other reasons. Owners of small-scale ranches and farms are being backed into a corner.
“Family stuff can get sticky,” assures McIntyre, from experience. “Sometimes tough choices need to be made, and not everybody involved likes them. Sometimes it’s just easier to sell.”
Besides the unattractive profit potentials and consequent trend of small ranchers selling their land to large-scale, corporate ranches or land developers, another trend threatens small-scale farming and ranching: an aging population.
A recent report from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) found that the median age of America’s farmers and ranchers is 54.3 and that the proportion of these people age 55 and up who are still working has increased from 37 percent in 1954 to 61 percent in 1997. The study goes on to say that the number of 35-year-old-and-under farmers has declined from 15 percent in 1954 to 8 percent in 1997 and concludes that there aren’t enough new, young ranchers and farmers to keep the industry fresh.
So what are the beef industry and the government doing to counter the problem?
In a recent issue of the trade publication National Cattlemen, Lynn Cornwall, the new president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, is quoted as saying, “With all the changes going on in the industry and with the land base, my main concern is, ‘How do we get the next generation back on the ranch?’ We need to improve the industries’ ability to attract talented young people and I have some ideas on how to accomplish that. One way we can recruit young people is to work with universities with strong agriculture programs and put a greater emphasis on the beef industry.”
Some legislation based on ERS data has helped the cause. The Agricultural Credit Improvement Act of 1992, for example, made it easier for new or beginning farmers to get loans and make down payments. And the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997: Provisions for Farmers and Rural Communities worked to reduce the likelihood that a ranch would have to be sold to cover estate taxes, among other costs. More needs to be done, however.
The California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) has its own ideas. It has created a Crisis Task Force to address many urgent agriculture concerns. On the top of its list is killing the estate tax, also known as the “death tax.”
Says McIntyre: “If my granddad didn’t set up a trust fund for me to take care of things like this ludicrous inheritance tax, I would have had to borrow too much money in the beginning, and I probably never would have made it out of debt.”
As for the future, McIntyre has his own set of tough choices.
“I only have one daughter, and she’s 4," quips McIntyre. "I’m going to wait around and see if she wants to take over. If not, I’ll probably look elsewhere in the family or pay a trusted ranch hand to be my foreman when I get too old. I know one thing: Cattle ranching has been in my family for over 100 years. It’s a tradition, and I don’t want to be the one that has to face the family if I decide to sell."