Blood, Sweat and Steers

Ranchers who run cattle on State Trust Lands may soon have competition for the publicly subsidized grazing leases they've always enjoyed. But not every rancher is getting fat off the land.

Ranchers are the welfare mothers of the Western economy. Everybody picks on them.

They're easy to pick on. Ranching is an anachronism. In Arizona, it's not economically viable. Raising cattle here makes about as much sense as growing palm trees in Alaska. The Arizona Cattlemen's Association is unable to say how much of the nation's beef is produced by Arizona, but no more than 5 percent of U.S. beef comes from west of the Rocky Mountains.

So why do people still ranch here?
Because they like it. And because they always have.
How do they survive?
Government assistance.
Why do they receive such assistance?
Because they like it. And because they always have.
But a change might be on the way.

State Trust Land is supposed to be used to make a profit, which goes to schools. Last April, the state auditor general declared that the State Land Department was failing in its duty to put the leases on grazing rights out for competitive bid. When a 10-year lease expired, ranchers were simply allowed to renew it.

In July, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Dann reached the same conclusion.

Jean Schwennesen is one who stands to lose if grazing policy is reformed. She and her husband, Eric, own the Double Check Ranch near Winkelman. She's only been in the cattle business for two years. "But my husband and I have lived on ranches most of the time. I grew up on a small farm. We both have degrees in agriculture. We managed a ranch in Nevada."

When I suggest that ranching isn't viable here, Schwennesen surprises me by agreeing.

"There's no denying it. There's an old saying that the only way to get a ranch is by the womb, the tomb or the altar, because they're so expensive. The asset that you have is quite valuable, and returns very little. I read somewhere that the average ranch only returns 2 percent on your investment. So there aren't many people foolish enough to do that."

Why are returns so poor?
"Partly because cattle prices fluctuate greatly, and the expense of running a place is great. Year in, year out, you probably gross about $300 for every cow you have on the place. Which is why it's impolite to ask how many cows a person has on their place."

So how many does she have on her place?
"A hundred. About 250 head is considered an economic unit."
Of her 10,000 acres, she owns about 10 percent. About 1 percent of the land her cattle graze is owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management, and the rest is State Trust Land.

There are 9.4 million acres of State Trust Land in Arizona. Most of it, 8.5 million acres, is grazed. Grazing leases bring in a total of nearly $2.15 million yearly. BLM controls 16 million acres in the state, of which 11.6 million are grazed. The Forest Service has 11.25 million acres and leases 10.2 million acres for grazing, bringing in about $1.2 million annually.

Schwennesen says that many ranches survive only because they have been in the rancher's family for a long time, and so no payments have to be made on the property. "But this is why a lot of ranches are becoming developed [for other uses]--the asset is very valuable, so when one generation dies, and there's not much income being generated, the estate taxes can mean that the ranch has to be sold. A lot of ranchers live off bank loans."

Although she professes to be "full of hope and optimism," Schwennesen believes that to survive she'll have to do more than let cattle eat the scenery. "We intend to be in the resource business," she says. "The cattle will make the payments on this ranch, but there's virtually nothing left to live on or make improvements. So we're going to be doing a bed-and-breakfast kind of thing. We're going to be making a living off of the open spaces the cattle do provide."

She says Double Check Ranch will take on a partner to develop a pasture poultry operation. The Schwennesens run a little packing house on the ranch, direct-selling meat to consumers and selling some to organic-food stores.

"So that's how we're surviving," she says. "Ranchers who're not willing to be creative are an anachronism and can't stay forever."

There's a whole mythology attached to ranching. Think of Louis L'Amour. Zane Grey. The Marlboro Man ads. The heroic outdoorsman taming the land, controlling the forces of nature to make his living. John Wayne. Randolph Scott. The High Chaparral . . .

The way it was. Or, rather, the way it never was.
Going back to the days of the Old West, to the likes of John Slaughter, ranching has been about exploitation. The cowboys employed by the ranchers led lives of bleakness and squalor. Ranchers attained, and retain to this day, undue political influence because they were the major landholders outside the cities, and therefore the major employers in rural areas. In these areas, it was ranchers who opened the gates for large-scale capitalism. The first people to live in an area would be trappers. Then miners. Then farmers. And then there would be ranchers, who brought railroads to rural districts so that cattle could be transported. Once upon a time, ranchers ruled the West.

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