Friday, January 4, 2013

The Road to Ranching

Today we welcome Shelli Mader. She writes to us about her parent's road to ranching and how agriculture has been part of her life. Her story is one that I think a lot of people can relate to in agriculture. She also offers advice for beginning farmers and ranchers.

Like a lot of young couples who grew up in the country, my parents wanted to farm and ranch when they got out of high school. Unfortunately, even though both sets of my grandparents farmed, neither place was big enough to support another family. My parents had to find a way to start farming on their own.

The summer after they both graduated high school my mom started work in town while my dad helped his dad farm. That fall my dad started working with mom’s dad and her brother on some construction jobs. What was supposed to be a few days ‘work turned into a few years’ worth of construction for him.

My dad was focused on saving up for his farming goal, so when he wasn’t doing construction work he picked up odd jobs roofing, pouring concrete, digging basements and hauling hogs. In 1980 my parents got married. Just over a year after that, my mom’s dad and her brother stopped doing the construction work to start a dairy farm. My parents joined them.

My dad thought that having a dairy might be the best way for him to get into farming, so he was excited about the prospect. I was born just a few months after they started and it became apparent pretty quickly that even though my mom was working, my dad needed to get another job too. He called up a guy that was in the oilfield and started contract oil well pumping on the side.

The dairy lasted for about 2 years until my uncle and grandpa decided that they wanted to sell. My grandpa sold everything for just enough money to pay off the note – less than a year before the big government dairy cattle buy out that would have gotten $3,000 a head. My parents walked away from the dairy a few years older, but not any closer to their farming dream.

Thankfully, my dad had started the contract oil well pumping, so he had a decent job. He and my mom bought some dairy heifers with the goal of getting back into the dairy business someday. But that summer during wheat harvest, when my dad was helping his dad work on a combine he got a piece of metal in his eye. He was laid up for almost a month and lost most of the vision in that eye. He was able to keep his contract job with the help of some other pumpers and my mom driving him around to the wells.

But by the time he healed, oil field production and his contract work slowed some. Just after that though, a local gas plant hired him for 2 weeks to overhaul an engine. The work at the plant continued and he was able to keep his contract work too.

My folks decided to sell heifers with the plan to use that money to make a down payment on a place. Unfortunately, that spring taxes took all of the money they earned from the sale. But, like most of my parent’s story, there was another opportunity waiting for them.

About that time my parents found some pasture to rent, so they were able to get a loan to get their first 12 cows. The day they bought those cows was one of their most exciting. I was only 6, but I still remember it. They bought some black and red Chianina cross cows. We named them all and spent a lot of time driving around the pasture admiring them.

About a year later, my parents bought their first farm – a place in Lyman Nebraska. I think we were all excited about moving up there (my folks had 3 kids by then) and we were even trying to figure out which bedroom in the house was going to be whose. But, the place turned into more of a headache than a blessing for my folks. Problems with the rental house and irrigation were a financial drain. Worst of all, we couldn’t move up there – my dad’s job wasn’t easily transferred and he couldn’t find another good one in Nebraska.

Owning a farm and yet not being able to farm it wasn’t my parents’ idea of being farmers. Yet, once again, there was another, unexpected opportunity waiting for them at just the right time.

During the late 1980s my parents bought their first farm – a place near Lyman, Nebraska. Though they were excited to own their own land, they spent the rest of that decade and the early 90s trying to find a way to actually farm their own place.

Meanwhile, back in Strasburg, Colorado my parents rented a little country house about 15 miles from town. My dad continued the contract pumping business he’d started during his dairy farming days and my mom did his business paperwork and stayed home to take care of my sister, brother and me.They continued to rent the pasture land they’d found a few years earlier and built their cattle herd up from 12 to 20 head.

In 1991, just after my third sibling was born, it worked out for us to move to another rental house about 10 miles south of Strasburg.My grandpa and grandma lived just a mile up the road from it and my grandparented and farmed the place the house was on.

By 1993, it was apparent that it wasn’t ever going to work for my folks to move to the place in Nebraska –my dad couldn’t find a decent job there – so my parents decided to sell it and look for another farm. 

The selling process took three years, but they finally found an unexpected buyer – a foster family living in downtown Denver. The couple bought the place, pending the sale of their house near Washington Park.

About that time my grandpa decided to retire, and the landowner’s son planned to take over for him and farm the place our rented house sat on. My parents knew that they were going to have to move soon, so they eagerly searched for a new place to live.

They looked at several farms to buy in Nebraska and Kansas. Our favorite (well, the one I actually liked best was near Great Bend because it included a horse with purchase) was a farm near Smith Center, Kansas. The place had a big, beautiful, older two-story house and some crop and grassland. We were all pretty excited about it – so much in fact, my parents wanted to put a contract on it. But, the seller wouldn’t let them put any kind of claim on the place until the sale of their Nebraska farm was final.

The house and most of the land on the Smith Center place sold just 2 weeks later. We were all bummed about it, but in hindsight it turned out to be a blessing.

It took a few months to find out why so many things hadn’t worked out for my folks, but later that year my dad got an unexpected call from the landowner. Her son no longer wanted to farm the place, so she offered to lease it to my folks.

My parents graciously accepted the completely unexpected offer. And thanks to the sale of the Nebraska place, they had money saved to make a down payment on machinery.

Now it’s been nearly 17 years since my folks started farming the place south of Strasburg. They both acknowledge that they never could have begun or expanded their operation without the help of friends, neighbors and other area farmers who offered them support, help and opportunities to rent land. My folks always wanted to move out of the busy Colorado Front Range area, but looking back, there was no better place for them to get a start.

Today, my parents’life isn’t ideal – my dad still has to work a full-time job contract pumping oil wells in addition to running the place (he’d love to just farm and ranch) and my mom works full time too – but they are both grateful to get to be people who are living their dream.

Lessons I learned from my Parents’ Road to Ranching
My parent’s farming and ranching story gives me hope that the ranching dream is still possible. My folks didn’t start out with much, but today they are doing what they always dreamed they would do.

Here are some things that they did right:

Live Below Your Means
Though my parents admit that they haven’t always been good savers, they’ve never spent more than they’ve made. Overspending is a serious problem (and ranching roadblock) for many people – especially those my age and younger. Whether you are religious or not, if you have ever been in consumer debt you know that the Proverb “the borrower is servant to the lender”is so true. Staying out of unsecured debt helped my parents more than anything else.

Make Sacrifices
When I was growing up my parents rarely took more than a weekend vacation and they usually drove older, used vehicles. Instead of buying a house, they lived in old, inexpensive rental houses so that they could put money towards their goal.

Live by Farming Family or Friends
My parents always wanted to move out of the Strasburg, CO area, but ultimately living in the area they grew up in was the best way for them to start. My grandpa lived nearby and helped run the tractor when my dad had to check oil wells. Neighbors knew my parents, so that gave my parents a better chance of getting land to lease from them.

I didn’t follow this advice, but I wish I would have. Staying by farming family or friends (if you can get along with them) is the best way to get a start.

Don’t Dwell on Mistakes of the Past
My parents will tell you that they’ve made lots in mistakes in life. There are places they wished they would have bought, things they wish they wouldn’t have bought and opportunities they missed. Ultimately though, today they try not to focus on all of the “what ifs” and just look forward.

Take Your Dream the Way it Comes
If it would have been up to my dad he would have started farming right after he got out of high school. Instead, he was in his 30s before he got his farming start. Today he’s in his 50s and still has to work a job to support the farm. His road to ranching isn’t what he would have chosen, but he’s wise enough to focus on the fact that he is getting to live part of his dream.

I encourage you enjoy whatever part of agriculture you are in now (even if it is just reading The Fence Post!) and have hope that if everything aligned for my parents to get a start, it can for you too.

Thanks Shelli for this important story. The road to owning a farm and ranch is often full of trials. It takes hard work and perseverance to make things work!

You can follow Shelli and her family on their road to ranching on her blog. You can also check her out on Facebook.