The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding.
Organizers have planned a full weekend of entertainment, music and dancing. But while the festivities are similar to those planned for 75 and 50 year bashes, the industry itself has changed quite a bit over the last century.
The Klamath Basin’s Wood River Valley stretches 7 miles across and 21 miles long. Tens of thousands of cattle feed on the grasses here.
Cheri Little is a 4th generation rancher. She grew up on these lands.
“It is the most amazing place in the world. Water just gushes up out of the ground. There’s artesian wells everywhere. This is what my father said was cow paradise.”
For many ranchers in the Klamath Basin, this year is shaping up to be anything but paradise. Drought conditions are worsening.
Little just got word that much of her surface water will be shut off now that the Klamath Tribes and federal government have invoked their senior water rights.
Those rights were formally recognized by the state earlier this year after decades of fighting in the courts.
Hundreds of ranchers could see their water cut off by the end of the summer.
Oregon Cattlemen’s Association President Curtis Martin says of all the issues facing Oregon ranchers today, this one’s the most pressing.
“I think the situation in the Klamath Basin, where it’s at right now has such far reaching impacts. It could set a huge precedent for all of western water law.”
Martin says the association is knee-deep in efforts to fight the water shutoffs in court.
Throughout it’s history, the group has been a voice for it’s members, who by the very nature of the business are often out of earshot from from the power centers of Salem and Portland.
When the association began in 1913, the big issue of the day was cattle rustling.
The group’s founders convinced the Legislature to pass laws establishing a standardized form of cattle ownership as a way to deter thieves.
In the century that’s followed, the group has grown from 51 members to just around 2,000 thousand. That’s a little more than 10 percent of all the ranchers in the state.
But Martin says while membership grown, so too has the gap between the city dwelling population and Oregon’s agricultural base.
“The disconnect between where their food comes from and the way that it’s produced. To the consumer, there’s a much wider gap of not knowing how that happens. And I think that’s probably one of our biggest challenges is getting that connection back with our consumer.”
Martin says today much of that story has been driven by the environmental movement. Andy Kerr is a noted Oregon conservationist. He’s long been critical of grazing practices on public lands.
“It costs someone more to feed their cat for a month than to graze a cow and a calf on public lands. That’s the financial costs to the taxpayer. The cost to the environment is dirty streams, polluted water, less native wildlife. So what’s that trade-off worth to society?”
But cattlemen President Curtis Martin says ranchers are stewards of the land, and not polluters. Dirty water isn’t good for anybody, he says certainly not for cattle.
He says ranchers regularly make investments in in public lands though things like riparian fencing which protects water quality.
He says it’s only been in the last few years that ranchers gotten better at sharing what it is that they do with the public.
Bend’s Newport Market is one of many specialty grocers in the west carrying Country Natural Beef.
The co-op was started in early 1980’s at a time when interest rates were through the roof, beef prices were low, and health concerns over red meat permeated the public consciousness.
It was against that backdrop, that ranchers Doc and Connie Hatfield focused on lean hormone-free beef.
Rancher Stacie Davies is Marketing Director and a producer in the co-op.
“Doc and Connie were very involved in environmental issues within the state of Oregon bringing ranchers and environmental groups together to find solutions to the complex issues on the public lands and on the rangelands.”
Davies says one of the co-op’s core principles is it’s commitment is to sustainability. Producers need to adhere to specific guidelines for sustainable rangeland management. And each rancher spends a few days a year at a retail stores speaking with customers about how their food got to the table.
But Davies says there are many others who aren’t in the the co-op who are just as committed to sustainability and long-term viability of cattle ranching.
“When I travel the West most rangelands are managed in a healthy manner so our action is in no way to say that the rest of the industry is doing bad, it’s just to assure our customers that we’re doing well.”
Jose Mendoza has been ranching in Jackson County since the mid-1980’s. He first started working with cattle as a boy growing up in Mexico.
He says although there have been a lot of changes in the cattle business over the years, the essence of ranching hasn’t really changed at all. Mendoza says he’s spent his entire life out field working with animals.
He speaks to his cows and they speak to him. They let him know when they’re hungry, or when something’s wrong.
Ranching is not only a way for him to support his family, he says, it’s in his blood.
And for that reason he doesn’t doesn’t see ranching going away any time soon.