Friday, October 19, 2012

Cooking in the west

Dear Roundup Participants,
   I can't be with you tonight because I am cooking for hunters in a tent in the Scapegoat Wilderness. Although I am somewhat concerned about being eaten by a grizzly bear in a cook tent that reeks of bacon grease, I am more concerned about making enough money at my extreme cooking job this week to buy a month's worth of Crystalyx supplement to help our cows get through this drought.
   As a ranchwife, my primary function is to supplement the income from the sale of our calves to keep the cattle healthy, the bills paid, and meet the annual land payment. Even though the ranches we operate now have been in our families since the early 1900's and both my husband and I are fourth generation Montana ranchers, we still have to work hard on and off the ranch to keep it solvent. 
   We started out 30 years ago with 25 cows, a couple jobs in town, some leased ground, and a dream to own our own ranch. Three factors made that dream a reality--the recession of the 80's that allowed us to buy a small place over across the river, inheritance of two nice places from family members that placed deathbed trust in us to hold on to the places they had created with sweat and perseverance, and the fact that we are too stubborn to admit that our ranching dream is sometimes more like a nightmare.
   For example, last year, a year of record rainfall, our summer pasture and our home place suffered more flood damage than the value of the calf crop. This year, we sold calves for record high prices right in the middle of a wildfire that burned up 1300 acres of our pasture, several miles of fence, and left a huge mess to clean up including 5 charred outbuildings. Fortunately, despite the drought and the fire, we will be able to hold on to our cows barring another bad hand dealt by Mother Nature. Being gamblers, we are going to double down and bet she deals us some aces in the form of normal moisture in the next year. Only God knows if it will rain, so the fate of our ranch is literally in His hands as it has been every year for the hundred plus years our families have been ranching in Montana.
   Ranchers don't get days off. They don't get to sleep in. Our family vacations consist of attending a bull sale in a neighboring state. Our investment is at risk from the economy, the weather, fluctuating prices, death loss from illness and predators, governmental regulations, radical environmental groups, noxious weeds, grasshoppers, wildfires, and floods to name just our top ten.
   Four generations of our family currently live on the ranch, and we want to pass it down to the fifth and sixth generation, our kids and grandkids. That will not be possible if the Death Tax is not reformed. If a bear eats me this week and that causes my husband to have a fatal heart attack, our children will have to sell the ranch to pay the inheritance tax, and that is just plain wrong since their ancestors will have paid over a hundred years of property tax on that property.
   I am not trying to evoke your sympathy, because we chose this profession, and we can walk away from it if we choose to do so. I am trying to explain our motivation as something other than the I word (insanity), so I will propose that we do this because we love the land, the livestock, and the lifestyle enough to lie awake at night trying to figure out how to hang on year after year and pass the ranch down to the next generation. Bottom line is that as a profession, ranching defies logical explanation. I cannot explain why this choice makes sense to us nor why our children want to follow in our footsteps, but the next time you eat a burger, I hope you will have a better understanding of the insane people who made that burger tasty, affordable, safe, healthy, and plentiful. Enjoy your ranch visit and know that I really do wish I could have been there!

Note from Susan Metcalf at the Lower Deer Creek Ranch: 
Every year, Bob and Susan Burch, who own the Hobble Diamond Ranch across the river from us, host an amazing Literary Arts Roundup at their ranch. They invite students from their other hometown of Philadelphia to join students from our area to stay at the ranch and explore fine arts with professional artists, writers, photographers, and actors. Their generosity and courage in hosting that many teenagers is astonishingly commendable.
    This year, Kathy Agnew, my former English teaching colleague, invited me to do a little presentation at the Roundup on what it is like to be a ranch wife, because suffice it to say that a visit to the Hobble Diamond is not an immersion into the reality of the average rancher's life. Unfortunately, I can't attend the Roundup, because I will be cooking in hunting camp. Nevertheless, I decided I would sit down and pen a few comments to the participants.

“Cooking in the West” routinely appears in the Western Ag Reporter, which covers the 14 northwestern states and is considered  the best read ag publication in the West.