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Rancher Perspectives: A Primer

File from the Field: Fire, Water and Hooves on Local Strategies Research (December, 2012) followed by preliminary descriptions from Sandhills data (Summer, 2017 and Summer, 2018).

“We are the original conservationists. If the land hadn’t been taken care of ahead of us, we wouldn’t have the resources to take care of now.”


Over the course of several years of occasional but consistent contact with cattle ranchers in Nebraska, I have heard several people express this notion linking ranchers to conservation. Usually, the claim that ranchers are good stewards of the land is grounded in the economic logic that ranchers would not want to do anything to hurt the land because their livelihood depended on the health of it. Therefore, I was not surprised when a rancher from the Sandhills region of Nebraska introduced himself during a conference on environment and sustainability by saying,

"[name removed]. I ranch north of [place removed], Nebraska. Member of the Grazing Land Coalition and past member of Cattleman. I think we’re the original conservationists."
To hear this individual introduce himself by claiming affiliation with the “Grazing Land Coalition” and “Cattlemen,” in reference to the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association, was something I have become accustomed to. That others in the region consider ranchers to be (the original) conservationists is supported by the number of times I have heard such statements but also by another participant in this particular discussion who spoke up immediately saying, “you still are.”

In his initial formulation of the concept of Local Strategies Research (LSR) in the ethnography of communication, Gerry Philipsen (Professor Emeritus, Department of Communication, University of Washington) posits that it “starts with walking around, so to speak, looking, and listening, and trying to figure out what people, here in this place, are saying, how they describe their hopes and concerns, how they engage the reality they experience, the schemes they employ to get through the day or through a given encounter.” This is an approach I have tried to incorporate in my research.

I support Philipsen’s dictum: "when trying to change or improve how people live and work together, it is crucially important to have early, active, and genuine consultations with them, actively seeking their own sense of the problematic and their own sense of what might be done to improve matters."

The question I pose is what value can LSR add to ethnography when studying resilience in the Nebraska Sandhills? Below, I display excerpts of talk from Nebraska residents (some from the Sandhills, but all ranchers) that show, definitively the value of seeking,and listening for, local understandings of environment, land, and land use. Taken together, these excerpts, transcribed from video and audio records of public events, illumine a local logic of the importance of cattle grazing on grasslands that is crucial to the success of any interventions, social or ecological, in these regions. The excerpts show how cattlemen-as-conservationists is a more sophisticated notion that pure economic self-interest.

The two excerpts displayed below were recorded during a session on the topic of Nebraska’s land resources. The location for this conference was on the campus of Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. In the first excerpt, a wildlife biologist who lives and works in the region expressed several dimensions of meaning about ranching and conservation. In so doing, he elaborates on the importance of grazing cattle for wildlife vitality, something that he says is lost on owners of private lands who are new to the region.

Excerpt 1:
I work a lot in the Pine Ridge where we’re seeing a lot of that, a lot of changes in ownership from traditional agricultural families to people from Colorado or Texas or Florida. And it’s like what was mentioned from a from a wildlife standpoint. A lot of these people are doing a really good job. They have that interest and you know they’re they’re doing what they think they should be doing to help wildlife or things like that. What they’re not doing in a lot of cases is continuing to graze that site. They there’s there’s not that connect that you know to do good things for wildlife we actually still need to do these agricultural things as well. And you know so there’s some shift that needs to take place there if we are gonna to transition away from the families that have been working on that ground for a hundred years to this new subset of people that are moving into this country-they wanna they wanna do the right thing they just don’t know what that is. The the agricultural components (.) they need to realize that can all exist (.) along with doing good things for wildlife.

The speaker in Excerpt 1 weaves together many of the themes and topics on environment and agriculture that I have heard in forums like this across western Nebraska. Most notably, the speaker points out the ways in which absentee or new ownership, in spite of positive intentions for the health of the land, can have a negative consequence because of a misunderstanding of the relationship between land management, grazing, and wildlife.

The second excerpt I display references the prior excerpt. In it, the speaker, a board member on a local environmental group, expresses an even more developed sense of the importance of grazing on grasslands. The speaker links agricultural practice with ancient natural systems. The speaker offers evidence of local mismanagement because the cattle (“hooves”) have been removed from the land.

Excerpt 2:
One of the observations that I think I look at some of these you know lands for example that the state of Nebraska has out here. Game and Parks and you know some of the poorest management is on those properties unfortunately because they’ve taken grazing off. You know the ecosystem here was created with (.) in the valley it was created with fire, water and hooves, buffalo hooves. If you take any one of those off for an extended period of time, you change those systems. And what the Game and Parks has done for example on their property is they’ve taken the hooves off of there. For how many years? You can go out and take a look and it’s not a healthy ecosystem.

Here, the speaker builds on the notion of poor land management not because of absentee ownership, but because of poor practices on the part of a state agency, “Game and Parks.” To do so, he builds on a premise, rooted in a historical ecology of the land, that land “in the valley [of the Panhandle] was created with “fire, water and hooves, buffalo hooves.” From this premise, he argues the “Game and Parks” land is “not a healthy ecosystem” because “they’ve taken the hooves off of there.”

One of the oft-cited reasons for new owners buying land in the region is for hunting. Changes in land management often occur with the hope of improving wildlife for hunting. This speaker refutes this notion by offering an account of a conversation he had in which his interlocutor expresses displeasure about hunting on land with cows on it. Ultimately, he makes a plea for an education in local ways.

Excerpt 2 (cont.):
One of my competitors from down South came in and talking to me a while back about what we we’re doing with some of our properties and he was quite concerned that the hunters would have to step in cow shit to hunt. And you know I said “well maybe the Native Americans stepped in buffalo shit and I think that probably was about the same” (quiet laughs in the group). It is a matter of educating because an awful lot of people think, just what [Speaker 1] said, if you take those cows off of there, it’s going to improve that for wildlife and that’s not going to be the case. The guys who are buying this with that in mind, there’s a major education has to occur there.

There is potentially much to dispute in this development of a local logic of grazing practices and wildlife including, most notably, that cows are not bison. Perhaps the most eloquent illustration of the difference between cows and bison is posed by author and bison rancher Dan O’Brien when he states cows “on the Great Plains always seem slightly lost, and more than a little clumsy, like someone picking their way through pasture wearing stiletto heels.” Second, the critique of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Excerpt 2 may not be fair and would certainly require opportunities for listening to their perspective on land management. Nevertheless, what these excerpts, taken together, display are local beliefs about the relationship between agriculture and environment, particularly the relationship between grazing cattle on grasslands as a method of preserving the health of the ecosystem. The excerpts make plain local understandings about agriculture, conservation, natural history, grasslands management, hunting and ecosystem health that are critical to understanding how to proceed in discussions of and decision-making on land management. They provide depth and scope to the assertions that ranchers “are the original conservationists.”

Such expressions of the relationship between the land and those who live on it extends beyond discussions of grazing and wildlife and into almost every topic on ranch life that ranching families speak about, including fundamental ranch operation. For instance, cultural and agricultural practices are built up on the cultural premise (a belief about what is/how the world works, and what is good or valuable) that ranching requires embracing tremendous risk associated with simply running a ranch operation. Ranching requires the capacity for synthesizing, responding to, and, to the degree possible, managing the risk that the complexity of ranching presents. It means especially limiting the overall damage to the ranching system when hardship sets in through a great deal of preparation.

Culturally, there is evidence in the data suggesting many of the local everyday practices (politeness, maintaining relationships with neighbors, strong religious commitments, limiting conflict, raising children the "right" way, being cautious of outside influence, being skeptical of change to ranching ways, preserving tradition, making sure at least one child in the family returns to the ranch) may also all be ways to increase or preserve predictability and, therefore, limit the number of variables that would increase risk to the ranch.

These are not simply features that preserve a kind of rural way (something that gets celebrated as quaint or a relic of a time gone by) but are functional and productive ways to maintain the livelihood of ranching. They are as important as calculating feed, preventing disease in livestock, and attending to the economic markets.

The sociocultural practices, and the everyday communication that reinforces and regulates these practices, are in and of themselves resilience strategies in otherwise turbulent economic, ecological, and agricultural conditions. Our summertime visits, for instance have been during annual hay harvest. Ranching families talk about not only this year’s hay but also tell stories about how haying used to work.I n stories told about slide-stacking, a traditional practice for putting up hay that is rarely used today due to technological innovation, ranchers report how the practice was a challenging task which required a large family and community social group for completion. From a social perspective, slide-stacking built up a group capacity for problem-solving through social order and coordination. It builds group cohesion through collective accomplishment. In our hearing of these stories, slide-stacking provided a durable narrative for family members to say "we did that together," and thus gain a sense of confidence that they can overcome difficulty, together. Thus, slide-stacking is a cultural topic to put on equal footing as both an agricultural necessity AND a sociocultural one. “Putting up hay” is not only a matter of preserving a traditional way of life but serves as a contemporary set of narratives to teach the community members how to manage risk (by providing winter feed) and conquer difficulty together as a family.