Ranch Diaries: The era of the landless agrarian

I’m part of a generation of young farmers and ranchers who will struggle to ever own the land they work.

 

Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first two years of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

There’s an air of excitement and anticipation around Cow Camp Two. The old two-bedroom house stands stripped to the studs, ready for the next steps: wiring, plumbing, running new gas lines. Sam and I will be doing much of the work, and we’re aiming for a move-in date of mid-May. I can’t convey the relief I’ll feel to move things that have been in storage for two years, in multiple states, into a place we can call home.

But it’s not going be a forever home. In fact, it might just be a home for four years, the term of our lease on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. While we hope the future goes smoothly, circumstances could change. If we had to leave here, Sam and I would be without a home and the rangeland we need to make a living.

  • Demolition in progress.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Fenceline in Antelope Pasture.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Mooska surveys camp from Sam's saddle, on Hoot's back.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Possibilities in a building.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Sorting during weaning in the old pens.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Swanky is turning four, and has lived on five ranches already.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The author's horse, Yellowstone, grazing.

    Laura Jean Schneider

The 2012 census reported a declining number of young farmers and ranchers during the previous five years. I think this is a direct response to the availability of a land base suitable in area and quality to make a sufficient living on: the biggest challenge facing young ranchers might not even be acquiring a land base, but simply accessing one. Much of the West is privately owned (including federal grazing rights). There isn’t a lot for aspiring agrarians to choose from.

Most of our friends who are pursuing a ranching career work for landowners. While this is a wonderful way to begin a career, many young ranchers, like Sam and I, want more: ownership. Some landowners offer the ability to run some personal cattle. But there’s a natural tension that enters the dynamic when personal cattle and company cattle both need attention. A conflict of interest is often inevitable.

Leasing rangeland allows for certain flexibilities, but comes with a price one can only feel. In many ranch jobs before this one, we’ve made connections with people and landscapes we ultimately say goodbye to, a bittersweet reminder of the social cost of our way of living. All improvements are often the result of many hours of hard work by the leasee, even when materials are provided. At Cow Camp Two, Sam and I have fixed fences and corrals and hauled truckloads of old scrap materials to the dump. We’ve dug out locoweed and jimsonweed and painted salvaged tin signs to hang on every gate around our pastures. We’ve gutted this old house and will put in many hours of labor before it’s finished and we can move in. Yet this specific property, owned by a sovereign nation, isn’t available for purchase as much as we love and have invested in it, emotionally and physically.

Land ownership in this generation looks different from preceding generations. Maybe our challenge as young, landless agrarians is to treat each piece of land we work with the respect, love and deep appreciation we’d like to give our own imagined landscapes, accepting that it will draw emotionally, mentally, and physically from us in a difficult but rewarding ways. Yet the one who nurtures the land is just as important as the one who holds the deed, and one doesn’t have to own, to nurture.