Forging ahead |

Forging ahead

Next generation of ranchers sees future in agriculture

Christine Metz

Almost 100 years ago, George Rossi dreamed his South Routt ranch would pass from generation to generation, providing his family with a means to make a living for decades, maybe centuries, to come.

In 2004, his dream is alive in the pastures and hay fields that spread beneath the Flat Tops. From George, the land passed to his son, Joe, and from Joe, the land passed to his sons, Mark and Phillip Rossi.

Mark and his wife, Ceena, have four girls: Sarajane, 13, Ceanna, 11, Josie, 9, and Jessica, 7. They are in line to carry on George Rossi’s dream. They also are part of the future of agriculture in Routt County.

“This land here, he always dreamed of continually passing it on,” Ceena Rossi said. “He hoped this land would make a living over and over for the family.”

The Rossis’ ranch has changed a lot since George’s day. The family sells its cattle over the Internet, unlike the days when Mark’s parents would drive them from horseback to the Yampa Stockyards to board the trains to the Denver markets.

Four-wheelers, or what they dub the “Japanese Quarter Horse,” are used for ranch work more than real horses. They wear mesh ball caps that are usually free and sport the logos of agricultural products.

You won’t find a Stetson on the whole ranch, Mark’s mother and family matriarch Virginia Rossi said.

With three generations working together, the Rossis’ summers are busy haying, tending cattle and doing 4-H projects.

Virginia teaches the girls to sew; the girls help their father with hay and feed their 4-H steers, rabbits and goats. This summer, Sarajane is learning to drive a tractor.

“It seems like we always have stuff to do,” Sarajane said.

The girls belong to the Flat Tops 4-H Club, a club their grandparents helped start more than 60 years ago.

Sarajane, who is involved with the 4-H livestock judging team, wants to study agriculture at Colorado State University and be on its collegiate judging team. When she finishes school, she hopes to coach livestock judging and train horses at the ranch.

Sarajane said she could live in a town — for a week, maybe. Ceanna wants to be a veterinarian.

Their younger sisters have similar dreams of remaining on the ranch.

“It is a big dream for this age, between 7 and 13. It is a way of life,” said Virginia Rossi, the mother of nine. “Later, it’s whether they can bite the bullet and be able to do without the fancy things for that way of life.”

Modifying expectations

Staying on the family ranch is a dream that is getting harder for the next generation to fulfill. With the rising price of land, the increasing cost of equipment and decreasing margins of profit, keeping family ranches in tact for the next generation is a challenge for many.

Mary Kay Monger, who ranches with her husband, Larry, near the base of Sleeping Giant Mountain, used to think there would be a place for her children, Krista, 31, and Mark, 26, to continue the business.

“I always thought my kids would stay right here with us, up until three or four years ago. We decided it was not going to happen. It wasn’t going to become a reality,” she said. “The thought wasn’t very nice at all.”

Besides the 40 acres that their house and other buildings sit on, the Mongers lease their land for cattle and haying. Much of the land they lease is owned by Larry’s parents and eventually will be split among five children.

The Mongers can’t afford to buy the land from their siblings’ and the revenue generated by its agricultural production would never cover the costs.

Doug Monger, Larry’s brother, knows the dilemma well.

“When parents die or grandparents die, the land is divided equally. But how do you all divide it equally without selling land, and when you sell the land there goes the ranch,” Doug Monger said.

Doug Monger split from the family operation more than 10 years ago and bought land outside of Hayden with his wife, Lauretta. They hope their three children will be wiser than their generation in facing the challenges of the business. It is something they have discussed as a family.

“We tried to instill in them, you guys have to get along and come up with a solution, because it isn’t us who will solve it,” Lauretta said.

The Mongers are like many ranching families — the next generation likely won’t be able to buy land or buy out their siblings if the ranch is divided.

For some, the alternative is to sell the land and get out of ranching altogether or to move where land is cheaper. For others, it is to cut back on production and find a second job. For still others, it is looking for creative ways to generate additional income, such as incorporating a more lucrative recreational component into the family business.

“It’s not a question of who is going to take the ranch over. It is, what is it going to become?” Krista Monger said. “I’d love to be able to take it over, as I am sure the rest of our generation would.”

Turnover coming

The question will be asked more as ranchers age and retire. Once land sells out of a traditional ranching family, it rarely goes to another traditional rancher.

The 2002 U.S. Agricultural Census indicates the average age of the principal ranch operator is 52, with 70 percent of all ranchers being 45 or older.

A study by the University of Colorado’s Center for the American West showed that between 1990 and 2001, just 7 percent of all large ranches sold were purchased by traditional ranchers. Most land, instead, sold to developers or buyers interested in the amenities rather than the business of agriculture.

Those statistics, along with rapidly disappearing agricultural land, the agricultural industry’s small direct contribution to the economy and the seemingly decreasing potential of turning a profit in traditional ranching have people questioning the viability of agriculture in Routt County.

Andy Seidl, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at Colorado State University, said it is hard to assess the health of agriculture in the community.

“There is this sense that agriculture is in crisis and it maybe is, in some ways. It’s hard to figure out how you would decide,” he said. “Is it in crisis if people take pictures of cowboys, if they are some sort of tourist attraction? If you can’t walk into a place on Main Street with boots on anymore?”

Re-evaluating goals

Siblings Mark and Krista Monger grew up surrounded in the agricultural community, with their parents taking turns serving on almost every agricultural board in Routt County.

They never had day care; they went with their mom in the tractor or were watched by neighbor children. They showed animals at the Routt County Fair and fondly recall neighborhood picnics and parties.

Now, Krista is a math teacher in Kansas and returns for two weeks each summer to help with haying. She and her brother share a cattle herd on the family ranch.

A fifth-generation rancher, Mark said, his goal always was to own a ranch. But for him, the major obstacle is being able to afford the land and equipment.

“I can’t even get a loan on a pickup truck, let alone enough money to run an operation,” he said. “There is no way you can do it, unless someone gives you money. There is no way we would ever get it back.”

Instead of taking over the family ranch, he now hopes to manage a ranch for someone else or do consulting work.

“The dream of growing up and owning your own ranch is gone, but it certainly is not gone to be a rancher,” he said.

It’s not just the next generation that has to re-evaluate its goals. Five years ago, Larry Monger decided that, to make the bottom line work, he would have to work an additional full-time job.

For years, he had worked winters at The Lodge in Steamboat, but he started working in the summers at the asphalt plant for Connell Resources.

It was a tough decision for the family and one that meant cutting back the cattle and hay operation. Mary Kay and Larry had worked together for 24 years, and Mary Kay said it was hard to be alone on the ranch.

The family looked at moving somewhere else where land was cheaper.

“At that point, I was still pretty attached to here,” Mark Kay said.

Refusing to give up

Not quite out of college, Tyler Knot said the thought of selling his family ranch in South Routt and moving elsewhere is something that runs through his mind daily.

“Bottom line, it’s not something I want to do,” Knot said.

Instead, Knot is looking for other ways to make the ranch pay the bills. When he graduates from the University of Wyoming and comes back to his family ranch, he would like to add recreational uses, perhaps a hunting business, to generate more revenue.

He also is considering other ways to diversify the family’s cattle and hay ranch and talks about bringing back sheep, which the family had a few years ago but sold because they were too time-consuming.

“I never had any other plans, I’ve always wanted to come back to the ranch,” Knot said. “It’s what I enjoy, for some strange reason.”

And, if the ranch cannot support him, Knot said he would find a second job. That is one of the reasons he is getting a degree in range ecology and watershed management.

” If the ranch doesn’t work out, you have to have something to rely on,” he said.

Knot is a fourth-generation Routt County rancher, who grew up working the land with his father and grandfather.

Knot was active in 4-H, showed cattle, sheep and pigs at the fair and served as a state officer for FFA. At school, he is part of the agricultural fraternity.

His parents hope he will take over some of their local agricultural board duties when he graduates from college.

The challenges Knot faces will be much different from those faced by his grandparents or parents. Knot said he knows of few others in his generation who are willing to return to their family ranches.

He can count on his hands the number of classmates in high school and college who grew up in families reliant on a ranch for their living, and even fewer classmates who want to go back to them. Some don’t want to work with their families and others don’t want the work schedule, he said.

“A lot of people don’t want to come back and work on Sundays, to get up at day light and get back at dark. You don’t have a lot of vacations,” Knot said.

Corporate ranches, which have become more prevalent near his college, might be the wave of the future. The big businesses’ demand for meeting the bottom line each year runs against the traditional family ranchers’ management practices, Knot said.

“My grandpa always said, ‘Don’t try to make all your money at once,'” Knot said. “You make a little each time and in the long run, you end up better.”

To expand and survive, Knot knows the answer is to lease land, likely from new landowners who want agriculture on their land but do not want to manage it.

Knot will start his ranching career in a world where much of his information comes off the Internet, where cattle records are kept on computers and scanning devises can track the movement of cattle from state to state and even country to country. His operation will be competing against ranches not just in Texas and Nebraska, but also in China and Brazil.

Along with the local challenges of increasing land prices and the cost of living, come the more global challenges of building consumer confidence and diversifying products to weather the sometimes stormy markets.

“Agriculturists are set in their ways. But we’re willing to change, because we have to,” Knot said.

Confidence in the future

Despite the changes in the industry, Routt County agriculture extension agent CJ Mucklow does not expect commercial farming to go away anytime soon. Routt County will always remain one of the top places in the country for grazing cattle in the summer, he said.

“It will still be here because of our advantage,” he said.

Steamboat rancher Jim Stanko, whose grandfather ranched the land he works today, said there is a reason why Routt County has been so attractive for agriculture for so long. It is typically immune from the natural disasters seen throughout the rest of the country. It doesn’t have tornadoes, floods, severe blizzards and damaging hailstorms.

“It is just a unique valley, all up and down it. It is conducive, has been conducive to agriculture,” he said.

— To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail

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