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The 21st-century cowboy

The modern cowboy has a lot on his plate, including climate change

Ariel Ramchandani | July/August 2014

The San Luis Valley is called “the valley” by its residents, as if it were the only place on Earth. It’s a narrow gash of land in southern Colorado, about 50 miles across and 100 miles long, depending on where you measure. The soft San Juan range rises to the west; to the east, the spine of the Sangre de Christo mountains, with the low curves of the Great Sand Dunes National Park in front like a ghostly shadow. At 7,700ft, the valley floor feels like a hammock, strung up halfway to the peaks and then snapped straight across. There are very few trees, which gives the impression you could see straight across the whole thing. Around 50,000 people live in a place where you know if the police are at your neighbour’s house, or if someone has been poaching elk on your property. Your pickup is probably the only pickup sputtering down the track, but if it isn’t you probably know the other driver, and will roll down your window to chat. 

On the November night I enter the valley, ours is the only car on the road. We’ve shaken off skiers, tourists and cops on their way from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. Drew, the apprentice manager at George and Julie Whitten’s Blue Range Ranch, is driving. The snowstorm we saw coming from hundreds of miles away in the flat western sky is upon us, falling in fat, dry cottonball flakes.

Drew is 24, a California boy from the Bay Area. He scans the road for the turn on the county line. We’ve both been at a conference in Albuquerque for Quivira, an organisation that promotes land stewardship in the west. When we met, on the last night, he was hoping to find a job for after, but all anyone was peddling was internships. That, plus sitting still for three days, and this restless cowboy is thirsty for a beer.

Drew is handsome, almost ostentatiously so, with bright blue eyes and thick lashes. Within 30 seconds of meeting him I had somehow given him a dollar to help pay for his drink. He has that slow, California way of talking, where the words come in languid, cresting waves. He writes stories but finds them hard to finish.

We pass glistening irrigation sprinklers, great metal things on wheels, spanning the alfalfa fields like birds, wings spread, legs thin. The green circles of irri­gated land, Drew tells me, are visible from space.

George and Julie have beaten us to the ranch. They rarely leave home because of the 230 or so cattle in their care, needing food and water, always needing something. The same goes for their dogs, Zeke and Hope. Zeke is a dignified border collie, Hope a less dignified collie-mix. As Drew says, “she always looks like she’s done something wrong.”

George fills the cast-iron stove with wood. It heats the house, keeping costs down. George built the house himself, putting the windows low enough to capture all the sun in winter and none in summer. A package has arrived for Drew: a pair of White’s ranching boots, custom-made, so stiff they’re nearly impossible to lace. 

Julie makes us herbal tea. She is a petite woman, 57 years old, with delicate features and fairy prettiness. Her straw-blonde hair hangs straight down in the dry air. “I like it when Julie gets off the plane from California [where she’s from] and her hair is all soft and curly,” George says. He is 60 and solidly built, with a flat face and a child’s stare, steady and curious. They dress alike: flannels, work boots, straight-brim hats, bandanas around their necks. 

“By the way,” Julie says, as Puta the cat slinks behind the stove, “we’re not like most ranchers: we believe in climate change.”

In this isolated alpine desert, water is all-important. And George and Julie will tell you that climate change is taking it away from them.

When white settlers began making permanent homes in the San Luis Valley in the mid-19th century, they found a miracle. Water, flowing abundantly in the desert, pouring through the creeks, streams and rivers, bubbling out of the ground. This is where the Rio Grande river is born, gathering melted snowfall from the Rockies and feeding three states on its way to Mexico. And in addition to the river and streams, the settlers discovered an aquifer under the valley, a huge lake of groundwater, 300ft deep in places.

The first individual surface-water rights in Colorado were filed in the valley in the late 1800s, on a first-come, first-served basis. Free-flowing artesian wells were tapped into the aquifer in 1887, and for decades residents used these, combined with surface water, to flood their crops on farms that perhaps should never have been. In the 1960s they switched to centre-pivot irrigation, which uses sprinklers to deliver water more efficiently to plants and allows for intensive production on otherwise arid land. It’s this that paints those Seurat patterns on the landscape. It also means that less water returns to the aquifer beneath.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, encouraged by the state, a boom in farming and relatively high levels of precipitation, valley farmers and ranchers drilled almost 6,000 wells into the aquifer. For a long time, it was easy enough to replace what they took with water from the melting snowpack. But, from 2002, drought made it impossible to refill the aquifer. Ground­water levels have plummeted. Most troublingly, the confined aquifer—trapped by layers of clay and silt underneath the free-flowing aquifer—began to fall. Droughts came again in 2010, 2011 and 2012. 

“Mother Nature just didn’t send it,” says George, who has been president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District since 2010, when the previous president died in a snowstorm. “We built this whole civilisation on something not real.”

The issue of water rights in a time of drought has created tension (and not just in the valley: in California, there has been a series of legal and political battles over water ownership). Last year, the Conservation District ruled that its members should stop pumping and return almost 8,400 acres of land to fallow, and the water division passed a law decreeing that the water in the confined aquifer needs to be restored to 1978-2000 levels within the next 20 years—or the pumps and wells will be turned off.  

The problem “makes you realise” something, says Kent Price, a second-generation potato farmer from the middle of the valley. “We’re all in a big pool, the people who have water and people who don’t. The haves get mad at the have-nots when everybody’s wells are going down. You get a lot of grumbling.”

On Price’s farm, the drought has spurred innovations such as new seeds and more efficient wells. But it’s still hell for his bottom line. “Even if you make your irrigator more effective, ground that once was being farmed is not farmed any more.” He does some maths. “If 40,000 acres are taken out of the valley, each with a $1,500-an-acre return on cash crops, that’s $60m lost to the local economy.”

In the morning, the world is white. Through the eight-foot panoramic windows of the Whitten ranchhouse, the mountain peaks appear hazy. A bull has hopped the electric fence, and Drew and George are trying to urge him back. I watch the two men and the furry black bull, baby-faced and steady as a boulder. When they’re done, the men shuffle back in. 

In the valley, the sun shines hard for around 320 days a year. In the spring, an unrelenting wind pulls the loose dry soil off the potato fields, coating faces and windshields. The temperature swings to desert extremes, with winter nights down to -34°C (-29°F). There’s little precipitation: after averaging eight inches a year from 1948 to 2011, it’s been far less lately. And when it comes, it’s apt to come all at once. 

The weather leeches the colour out of everything, buffing the paint off doors and fences, bleaching the reds and blues of Julie’s Buddhist prayer flags to pink and watery aqua. 

George and Julie show me the valley. It has both softened them and roughed them up. “Everything about the valley is intense,” George says. “The weather, the landscape, the people.” 

To top up their income from the cattle, George and Julie have started growing food. What they don’t sell, they eat. We drive to the farm, to check on the herd, and to see the crops they have planted. 

On the way, with Hope the dog slobbering and flirting with Drew in the back seat, George and Julie tell me how they met. In 2000, Julie was teaching environmental studies at a university in the north-east. The class travelled around the country in a school bus, looking for interesting environmental practices. One of the students wrote to George and arranged a visit. At the end of it, Julie says, “George and I both felt, we don’t want to walk away from this.” They kissed. George had been married before, and already had three kids. His best friend, Everett, kept trying to get him to go out to meet women, saying, “it’s not like one is going to drive in off the highway.” But Julie had. 

Three weeks later, she came back to the ranch. They spent three days in bed talking about why they shouldn’t get married. They were completely different. Julie was from southern California, a vegetarian, a Buddhist. She had protested against the Vietnam war. George is a third-generation rancher. His grandfather, a schoolteacher, came to the valley from Iowa. His father was a John Birch Republican, burying his guns in the yard; he fought at the battle of Midway, and then at Iwo Jima, one of only four or five men in his company who survived. “The war marked him,” George says. “He was not an easy person.” 

When the Whittens stopped ranching sheep and switched to cows, his father’s heart went out of the ranch. He called George back from college. “He said I was wasting my time in school and to get my ass home. I have been here ever since.”

Somewhere during those three days in bed, among the conversations about gun control and abortion, George asked Julie to marry him. The wedding took place in a cottonwood grove in the mountains. George wore a cowboy tuxedo: black Wranglers, black tails, tall hat and shoestring tie. Julie wore a princess dress she had bought on sale at home in San Diego. They posed for pictures with George’s collie, Chico. 

They are happily married. Except, “once you fall in love with a hippie,” George says, “you can’t get drunk and shoot prairie dogs any more.”

“Especially,” Julie adds, “when your wife tells you that prairie dogs kiss each other indiscriminately.” 

After her arrival, things changed. They switched to producing grass-fed organic beef. The cattle spend their whole lives on pasture and are killed humanely at a tiny local place, Mel’s Custom Meat Processor, open only on Mondays and Fridays. This makes them rare beasts. According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2004 40% of all the livestock in America was raised on 2% of the farms; and according to Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation”, in 2006 the great majority of America’s beef emerged from 13 slaughterhouses.

When we get to the farm, we check the finish herd—the cattle that will soon be on their way to Mel’s. The two-year-olds have filled-out rumps. Creating tender grass-fed beef is an art: George and Julie do ultra­sound scans to make sure the meat is well marbled. 

The cattle, mostly Black Angus, with silky coats and sweet eyes, ignore the humans. Right now the finish herd is grazing on a cover crop—planted to help the soil—of collards, winter rye and sweet clover. When I take a bite, the collards are still sweet, flash-frozen in last night’s snow. The land looks green and fresh. 

Moving herds and planting cover-crops are part of a land-management strategy developed towards the end of the 20th century and trademarked under the name Holistic Management. Its aim is twofold: to help the ranchers manage their land more efficiently, and to restore the world’s grasslands. 

The system has its critics. A 2002 review of initial trials in Africa found issues such as lack of improvement in grass cover and the need for supplemental feed. The methods are unproven on a large scale and run counterintuitive to the idea that overgrazing, deforestation and farming led to desertification in the first place. Methane emitted from the digestive processes of ruminant animals is a greenhouse gas. But George has been practising the system for many years and he believes it helps to deal with drought.

“Weather tends to keep doing what it’s doing,” says Peter Blanken, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, “and superimposed on that are these longer-term trends. Droughts are sneaky. They sneak up on you; you realise it’s been dry for four years, and then it’s been dry for ten.” 

In an area dependent on mountain-snow run-off, Blanken says, the prognosis is bleak. “There should be a decrease in snow cover as it gets warmer. The snowmelt will happen earlier. Snow is the big factor.”

David Gochis, a hydro-meteorologist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, echoes Blanken’s point. “Uncharacteristic dryness could become more common. Even if there are not appreciable changes in rainfall, the increased heat could drive the south-western American climate to become like northern Mexico: extremely dry, very hot and even more water-limited.”

When I ask Gochis how easy it will be for the valley residents to refill their aquifer, he replies with a question of his own. “How do you save every month when your paycheck is already spent?”

But to many Valley ranchers, the drought doesn’t mean the world is getting warmer; it’s just a bad cycle.

“You see times where there’s drought and times where we have water,” Kent Price says. “Right now we’re in the cycle of a drought. If we had heavy snowpack, that would fix everything. The true answer is Mother Nature has got to start bringing us water.”

Just after the water stopped coming was when George and Julie took on their first apprentice. Their apprentices are strong young people, often from non-ranching backgrounds. Instead they have studied environmental science and tend to be excited about ecology and holistic management, and have fresh insights. “Someone who didn’t grow up in [ranching] asks the ‘stupid’ questions, because they don’t know what’s possible or impossible,” George says. “If you grew up in it, you don’t always question the ideas.” 

None of George’s children has gone into the ranch business. This is common among the children of farmers. It is hard work, even without a drought. George and Julie think Joseba, George’s grandson, a six-year-old who loves tractors, and one of Julie’s nephews, who goes to cowboy camp, might continue their legacy. “Sometimes,” George says, “it skips a generation.”

After visiting the finish herd, we head to Saguache, a town that rose at the turn of the 20th century, nudged into growth by the narrow-gauge railroad, and fell with the Depression. Victorian houses sit empty, paint licked clean by the valley wind. The streets are still, as if waiting for a gunfight. We go to the Fourth Street Diner and pay a two-dollar premium to eat burgers made with meat from George’s herd.

Over lunch George reveals he’s going to retire from the water board. After the decision to refill the aquifer, someone shot out the windows of his truck. His opinions created too many conversations that ended with people looking at their shoes or George hanging up the phone. There are too many folks he can’t have a beer with any more.

He tells a story about going into Alamosa, and seeing two queues. “There was a long line at the food bank, people who work in agriculture and were starving. And the other line, five deep, at the gun store.” 

But “they are really good people,” George says of his community, when we get home that night. Drew cooks dinner, a minestrone he learned while working on a farm in Italy. Julie makes herbal tea. 

“It’s easy to call someone a redneck, but [the way they act is] out of desperation,” George says. “It’s like a religious belief. The ranches, the water laws, every­thing we have been brought up to believe in has no value. In the end there will be no water and we’ll be metering it out to the last drop to those who can afford to buy it. The south-west has cancer.”

In the morning, the winter sun is shining brightly through George’s windows. He looks at the mountains. “A great place to starve to death.” 

Today they will be weighing the animals and parcelling out those which will go to the slaughterhouse tomorrow. There’s paperwork to be done, and the butcher’s cutting instructions to fill out. 

“We usually cry,” Julie warns me.

It’s decided that Drew is going to deliver the animals to Mel’s. People will finally take Drew seriously, George says with a glint, because of his new White’s boots. I go over to the farm with Drew to check the tyres on the truck that will take the cattle. He leads me out to see the finish herd again. One of them, a tiny one, Abby, lets you get close if you’re patient. The cows come towards us, mooing as if they need food.

“Lying bastards,” Drew says. “Stinkers.” 

The others arrive to weigh the cows. George, Drew, Julie and the dogs start moving them towards interlocking corrals. The dogs work accurately, res­ponding to the humans’ gentle demands. We move the cows by working behind them. It’s subtle, and careful. Twice the cows almost enter the chute and then make a break for it, galloping away.

The sun begins to set. All the cattle are released except the final three—a blonde that incited some of the trouble earlier, and two black ones. One of these had his back bruised during branding and was nursed back to health by Julie. They will eat him themselves. 

After the cattle are herded up, Zeke refuses to take himself off the job, and keeps his nose pressed up to the fence. Drew gets the cows some hay. Julie finally leaves, to check on the other dog. The setting sun is cooling the air, turning the valley a cold purplish blue. George waits a long time before walking away.

On his potato farm, Kent Price needs a good year to survive. “I just don’t know. Another bad year, another hard drought and that’s it.”

It might snow next year. It might not. George will have stepped down from the water board. Drew will be gone. Maybe Joseba will take over the family farm one day. Maybe Holistic Management will save the grasslands. It’s hard to know what will happen in this economy of sunlight, soil and water.

The last night I’m there, the night before the cows go to Mel’s, we talk about all the places to be born, all the lives that exist. George says he’s thankful to have been born right here. “When we’re out with the dogs and the cows and the horses, that’s a good day.” He leans against his woodstove to warm his hands and then turns back to the centre of his house.  

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