Jameson Ray Jr. says when he graduates high school in two years, he’d like to go to college and then become a large animal veterinarian. Amber Montaño is mostly a city girl, but considers the agricultural industry an option for using the business degree she plans to pursue as she heads off to college this fall.
And Michael Purdy already has a year of college under his belt at the University of New Mexico, where he’ll be back for a second year earning prerequisites for the agricultural or environmental science degree he plans to get from New Mexico State University. He says he’ll probably pursue a career “somewhere in agriculture.”
Ranging in age from 15-19, and already with ties to farming and ranching, these four young people represent precisely the kind of kids organizers were hoping to attract to the New Mexico Youth Ranch Management Camp held last week in Cimarron, in the state’s northeast corner between Taos and Raton.
About 25 trainees learned how the next generation of farmers and ranchers can apply the latest science-based concepts and new technologies to meet the challenges the agricultural industry faces in the 21st century.
“This whole initiative came about with the industry having a major concern about what we can do to prepare the next generation of farmers and ranchers,” said Patrick Torres, department head for New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service’s Northern District and member of the camp’s planning committee.
“We’re finding that fewer kids are following in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents.”
The idea for the youth ranch management camp came about after New Mexico agricultural industry leaders met for a strategic planning session in 2010 and discussed the need to cultivate the seeds for the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
In addition, a survey of participants at 13 regional meetings identified “The Next Generation of Producers” as the No. 2 priority for New Mexico’s agriculture industry behind only “Water.”
While there has been an increase in the number of young people getting jobs in agriculture in recent years, there are fewer traditional family-run operations passed down from one generation to the next – a big part of New Mexico tradition and culture for centuries.
But even with the influx of new “producers,” the average age of those working in the industry has increased. Torres cites a recent report that says the average age of a farm operator in New Mexico is 58, and 61 for the principal operator. Only 3 percent of those fitting the profile are under 35.
Times have changed, he says. There are more opportunities for kids these days to pursue careers in fields that didn’t exist before the new millennium. And farming and ranching isn’t easy.
“There are a lot of well-paying jobs these kids are finding off the ranch and, as these kids learned yesterday, the average return on investment is not that high, only 2½ percent. By the time you pay all your costs, the ranch doesn’t generate a lot of money. It’s a tough business with a lot of ups and downs,” he says.
A report titled “Resilience in New Mexico Agriculture” produced by New Mexico First, an Albuquerque-based public policy group, and NMSU – which received funding from the Thornburg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation and the Santa Fe Community Foundation, among others – cites a USDA study that warns of all the knowledge, skill and experience that will be lost if the trends don’t change.
“National data suggest the rate of farmer and rancher retirement could very well outpace the rate of new entrants into the industry,” the report says. “The USDA estimates the nation will need 100,000 new producers over the next decade. If that goal is not reached, the industry will become even more consolidated and our food supply more reliant on imports.”
“We’ve seen results almost immediately,” Tom Dean, the Cooperative Extension Service’s southwest district department head, said of the NMSU-run youth camp.
The camp was held its first few years on a ranch at Valles Caldera National Preserve, but was moved to the CS Ranch in Cimmaron when management of the preserve was transferred from a private trust to the National Park Service in 2015.
Dean went on to tell a couple of stories about second- or third-generation farmers and ranchers who have attended the camp and have decided to keep the family business going or pursued careers in other related fields.
“We may not be putting all the kids back on the ranch, but we’re preparing them for jobs in the food industry and what comes out on the plate is a big part of it,” he said.
Hard to take it all in
The CS Ranch is a 130,000-acre, privately-owned working cattle ranch that’s been in operation since 1873. There, campers, who pay a $300 fee to attend, receive intensive instruction in ranch management. The campers are divided into groups and are tasked with generating a management plan for CS Ranch by the end of the week.
“A lot of the information the youth receive is college-level education,” Torres says, starting with “All things Beef” on Monday. They begin with butchering a cow to food industry standards, which provides them with the meat they’ll eat throughout the week. They also learn about nutrition, genetics and reproduction, proper handling techniques and resource management.
Each day of the week, the focus is on a different aspect of farming and ranching.
“Yesterday, the focus was on marketing and economics,” Torres said. “Today, it’s wildlife and natural resources, and tomorrow there will be a heavy emphasis on range management and grazing.”
It’s a lot to take in, like “drinking water from a firehose,” says trainee Purdy, who came back for a second year.
“There’s so much information to absorb, it’s hard to take it all in in one week,” said Purdy, whose family has a small ranch in Chamita, north of Española.
Halfway through the week, Ray, a 15-year-old from Acoma Pueblo, said he already knows he’d like to attend the camp again next year because the students are provided with so much information it’s hard to process it all at once.
“All of it is pretty interesting, though,” he said, adding that he liked learning about the role genetics plays in raising cattle. Ray said he plans to take what he learned back to the pueblo, where his family is a member of a farming association.
Mitchell said he found exploring the innards of a fistulated cow most interesting.
Probably not something for city slickers, fistulated, or cannulated, cows have holes cut into their sides, allowing campers to reach inside the animal’s digestive system.
“The coolest part was when I got to stick my arm down a cow’s rumen to see what was in there,” said Mitchell, adding that he found “mushed hay, sand and minerals.”
Montaño, who lives in Albuquerque, but whose two sets of grandparents own ranches – one in northern New Mexico and the other in the south – said she liked the seminar on the economics of farming and ranching.
“People don’t realize there are so many numbers and so much math that goes into running a ranch. What we’ve learned is super-intense,” said the future business major.
On this day, the emphasis was on natural resources, though the campers also learned more about marketing and economics from Randy Davis, whose family runs the CS Ranch.
Davis heads up what he calls a “nice, small, family-run” outfitting business on the ranch. He charges up to $9,000 for a five-day elk hunt, $5,000 for a deer hunt and $4,000 for an antelope hunt.
Competing with three other outfitters on adjacent properties, he said prices are set so not to be the most expensive, but on the upper end.
“You’re in the customer service business when you’re in the outfitting business,” he told the group. “My deal is to get them on the property, show them a really good time on CS Ranch, and hopefully they’ll come back.”
Most do. He said 95 percent of his clients are repeat customers.
He went over in some detail the costs of the outfitting business, which includes liability insurance, room and board for the hunters, meals, paying a cook and hunting guides, and gasoline. Later that night, the campers broke up into groups and conducted a “spotlight survey” of wildlife on the ranch to get an estimate of how many antelope, elk, deer, foxes and coyotes were on the property.
Earlier in the day, the students visited the nearby Chase Ranch, which is even older than the CS Ranch. The Chase family ran the ranch from 1867 until 2012, when the founders’ great-granddaughter, Gretchen Sammis, died. It’s now operated as a working ranch by the Chase Ranch Foundation and the Boy Scouts of America’s Philmont Scout Ranch. The ranch house and other buildings on the property have been turned into a museum.
With the youth management camp, organizers and sponsors are hoping to keep more ranching operations as family enterprises.
The camp’s sponsors include the New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau, the Beef Council, the Cattle Growers Association, the Soil and Water Conservation District and Singleton Ranches, Inc., among others.