A final hats off to rancher Doc Hatfield

  • Doc and Connie Hatfield at their High Desert Ranch in Brothers, Oregon.

  • Doc and Connie Hatfield (above) on their ranch in 1992, when Ed Marston interviewed and photographed them for an HCN cover story.

    Ed Marston
  • Ed Marston

 

Doc Hatfield died March 20 at his home in Sisters, Ore., just after his 74th birthday, soon after his and his wife Connie's 49th anniversary, and an extraordinarily long three years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which usually kills within a year of diagnosis. Many Westerners may not have heard of them, but the couple changed the face of public-land ranching in the West.

In their business-as-usual way, the couple held a kind of "memorial service" for Doc last August, while he was still there to appreciate it. And naturally, the day was tied to public-land ranching and cattle. The outfit they had founded -- Country Natural Beef -- was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and 350 or so of their friends and associates gathered to give Doc a final sendoff. There were ranchers there, of course; Country Natural Beef has grown from the original struggling 14 ranch families to 120 families spread across 14 states. But the gathering also included the people who run the slaughterhouses, the retailers, the bean counters, and so on.

The 350 people came not only to say goodbye to an extraordinary man, but also to mark a shift in how ranching is done on the nation's hundreds of millions of acres of public land.

The Hatfields helped found Country Natural Beef because they hated the fact that cattle often beat up the land. They disliked the conflict between ranchers, bureaucrats and environmentalists. And as businesspeople, they resented the negative way urban people looked at public-land ranching.

So the Hatfields tried something radical. They started talking to people outside of the ranching world.  The conversation began in Sisters, Ore., with 30 or so ranchers and environmentalists and federal agency people sitting in a circle and talking about ways to bring back grasses, heal gullies, convince springs to flow again, and manage cattle to coexist with wildlife. Doc and Connie were the glue that h held the group together and the grease that helped even quarrelsome individuals slide past each other.

The story of the marketing co-op's birth today has the status of a creation myth. Doc and Connie had been going broke, selling breeding bulls to neighboring ranchers who were also going broke. Connie dreamed of someday earning enough money to pay income tax. Out of desperation, 14 local ranchers formed a marketing co-op to sell their cattle directly to stores. The ranchers chose Connie to do the selling.

Doc recalls: "They sent Connie out ... because we men knew it wouldn't work." Supermarkets didn't like to deal directly with ranchers. But "She sold them. She went into the stores and said: 'We have 10,000 mother cows. How can we serve you?' "

Doc was also a born marketer. When Portland stores handling the co-op's public land beef were picketed by Earth First! and the Oregon Natural Resource Council, the couple drove to Portland to speak to them. "It is the rancher's job to find out what the consumer wants - even if the consumer is carrying a picket sign - and then deliver it," Doc said.

Today, "natural beef" is common; back then, cattle raised without hormones and pharmaceuticals and largely on grass were unique. The Hatfields marketed both the sizzle -- the high-desert grazing lands -- and the steak - the low- fat, nutritious, marbled-just-enough meat.

The co-op was hard work. Twice a year, all the ranchers, both husbands and wives, had to come together, sit in a circle, and make decisions by consensus. Several times a year, the families spent a weekend in the meat department of a store like Whole Foods, telling people with facial jewelry, pink hair and outrageous political views about the virtues of their cattle and public-land ranching.

Doc understood that the best way to build support for public-land ranching was to sell a person a tasty and nutritious product of that land. He also knew that the quickest way to get his fellow ranchers to open their minds was to guide some urban money into their pockets.

But money was never the point for Doc or Connie or for most of their ranchers. The point always was the land, and their lives on it.

Early on, Doc discovered that his cattle were trampling on duck eggs, so his ponds had only adult ducks. He learned that from a group of environmentalists he had invited to the ranch to demonstrate what great stewards he and Connie were.  At first, Doc was defensive. "That's a pond for adult ducks," he joked. But then he learned how to keep his cattle away from the ponds during nesting. Quickly, he said, in telling another of his creation stories, their High Desert Ranch had baby ducks, mature ducks and old ducks.

That pond full of generations of ducks became a perfect metaphor to describe his dream: That every Western ranch should endure, populated by ranchers of all generations.

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. He published the newspaper from 1983-2002.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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