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Reinventing Ranching

How today's farmers are adapting to environmental demands

(page 3 of 3)

Young rancher Phoebe Bean, her family, and their neighbors John and Diane Peavey share a vision: to protect three million acres of world-class landscape that stretches well beyond the bounds of their respective ranches.  photograph: Nancy FareseInitially, Brian and Kathleen scouted for ranch property in Wyoming. They wanted a ranch that had some “action and ecological interest,” not just a remote and scenic place for idle time. Ultimately, they found it here in Idaho.

At the outset, the Beans sought a passive ranch investment. Their intent was to purchase acreage and put an easement on most of it. They had no plans to actively raise cattle or sheep. They then recognized that if they did not continue to graze these adjacent public lands, they would surrender the ability to control how those lands would be used. This could undermine the quality of their streams, their water rights and the ecological health of their ranch and the adjacent public land.

To enforce their ecological standards, Brian and Kathleen launched headlong into sheep ranching, but sheep ranching in a way that aligned with their conservation values. They actively studied and adopted lessons from “seasoned ranchers like the Purdys, the Cenarrusas, and the Petersons,” and from the foremen and herders who worked those operations. They melded old traditions with new. Their goal is to engage sustainable grazing practices that are economically viable. Lava Lake Lamb sells branded, all-natural and organic lamb to a market that increasingly seeks out such products. Today, Lava Lake Lamb is sold across the country through the Internet, in restaurants in the Wood River Valley, Boise, and Salt Lake City, and in local farmers’ markets.

John and Diane Peavey’s Flat Top Ranch is next door to Lava Lake Ranch. Flat Top is the largest private ranch in the area. Through the generations, the Peaveys assembled 48,000 acres of deeded and privately leased land. Including federal grazing areas, the Peaveys’ ranch is similar in size and scale to Lava Lake. John is the third generation of his family to work Flat Top. His grandfather established the ranch in the 1920s. John raised his own two sons and daughter in the 120-year-old cabin on the property brought here in the late 1800s from the nearby Muldoon mines. Today, his son Tom runs the family livestock operation. 

The Peaveys are rooted in the tradition of working ranches, but they worry about the economic pressures on their operation.  New equipment makes ranching easier, but more expensive. Hay prices have skyrocketed and the access to rotational grazing is more limited. They do not have the capital from other careers to invest in their business. Like other working ranchers, they are less in the position to capitalize on the tax benefits of an easement. Their land, their determination and their inventiveness are their working assets.

Twelve years ago, the local sheep industry was under assault by “recreationalists” who neither understood nor appreciated the value of sheep on the Western landscape. There was growing concern about how hikers and mountain bikers could happily share use of the public lands in the area with the sheep ranchers. The Peaveys started “The Trailing of the Sheep” festival to bring alive the storied past of sheep ranching, and cultivate appreciation for this local ranch tradition. It has grown into a celebrated three-day festival and very much relates to the current local food movement.

In 2001, the U.S. lamb industry was losing its market to New Zealand product. The Peaveys, with other sheep ranchers throughout the West, started a marketing cooperative that virtually saved the American lamb industry. The cooperative made it economically viable to stay in the sheep ranching industry. The Peaveys are inventive in their determination to support their business.

Despite radically different backgrounds, the Peaveys share a fundamental mission with the Beans. Both value working ranchlands, ranch traditions and the broader ecological landscape. Their mission has mushroomed into a large-scale conservation movement well beyond the bounds of their respective ranches. The Craters of the Moon National Monument and a region that constitutes one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48 borders their two properties. The Peaveys and the Beans see an opportunity to leverage their ranches to protect “a world-class landscape that has tremendous diversity of terrain and species, and supports wildlife migrations and large predators,” Stevens says.

“Neighbors Helping Neighbors, That’s the Way It Has to Be…” Stegner once observed, “Myth has taken up the image of the Westerner as a loner, the wandering cowboy or gunman. In actuality, the true tradition of the West is different . . . Neighbors helping neighbors, that’s the way it has to be in country anywhere near as rough and harsh as a lot of the West.”

In the past, pioneers, ranchers, neighbors had to work together to survive natural elements. Today, they conjoin to preserve their lands and legacy. They invent and they innovate. They balance an increasingly complex constituency—their families, their livestock, their neighbors, numerous federal and state agencies, and the increasing demand of recreational users and environmentalists.

This novel cooperation is rooted in a community spirit that is wholly Western. The grassroots efforts of ranchers, environmentalists and public officials require and deserve direction and support from their counties and communities. Thanks to Bud Purdy and his neighbors, the Beans and the Peaveys, working ranchers and those that cherish the “true West” are giving us reason to hope. 

They are redefining the very role of the working rancher. Ranchers no longer “work the land,” they work for the land. Ranchers are no longer a band of cowboys; they are becoming true stewards of the West.

Heather King is a part-time Hailey resident, and a Board member of the Wood River Land Trust.

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