Trade Wars

The Quest to Rescue the Dude Ranch, One City Slicker at a time



Cinco, my gray and white speckled quarter horse, lets out a loud neigh as he trots faster and faster through the mugwort-strewn landscape. It’s all reminiscent of a John Ford movie set: the herd of buffalo roaming lazily in the distance, the stealthy coyote that flexes between patches of yellow-tinted brush, the wide open terrain with no designated trails.

I am the head of wrestler Lauren O’Toole and her mare, Campbell. It’s spring, which means the cows have just given birth. O’Toole tells me to keep the moms and calves together by gently pushing my horse to their side, then effortlessly uses his rope to grab the legs of one of the youngsters. She dismounts, gently turns over and unties the animal which stuffs itself, and holds it down while administering vaccines and marking its ear. The whole process takes two minutes. It’s life on a working ranch, and I’m here to familiarize myself with all of its wild splendor.

Kate Matheson, manager of Zapata Ranch, with her horse Pistol and Pearl, the dog

Source: Ranchlands

The wild, 103,000 acres Zapata Ranch, east of Colorado’s San Luis Valley, can accept tourists like me, but its income still comes primarily from raising cattle, not distributing spa treatments. Hospitality here is more about education than entertainment, although multi-course meals featuring ranch beef may convince you otherwise. It is one of three so-called guest ranches across the American Heartland run by Ranchlands, a company that tries to revolutionize business by harnessing Americans’ appetite for adventure tourism.

Since 2013, American ranchers have suffered an almost 50% drop in net farm income, largely due to corporate farming, urbanization, trade wars and climate change. Over the past 30 years, the country has lost 31 million acres of farmland. Some of the last vestiges of a traditional American way of life – a way of life that helps conserve the country’s prairies and all the species that inhabit them – are gone. Ranchlands is trying to change that. It leases and manages land from private ranchers, state governments and, in Zapata’s case, the Nature Conservancy, adding tourist experiences focused on fieldwork.

relates to The Quest to Rescue the Dude Ranch, One City Slicker at a time

Zapata Ranch has 103,000 acres of mostly untamed Colorado land.

Source: Ranchlands

Company founder Duke Phillips III has Sam Elliott’s gruff Wild West look, but he will also recite poems by Pablo Neruda. A third-generation breeder, he has never been taken aback by the back-breaking work of maintaining large areas for pasture. It was, however, blocked by the economy.

In 1999, after assuming management of the 87,000 acres Chico Basin Ranch near Colorado Springs, Phillips began inviting artists to paint the shortgrass and sandy sage prairie, eager to present art exhibitions and commission their work. Despite a sub-zero snowstorm, 500 people came to his first show in Denver. “It showed me that there was a real interest in the culture around ranching and the American West,” he says. Offering overnight stays was the next logical step; surprisingly, city dwellers were eager to roll up their sleeves and dispel the myths sustained by the ever-growing urban-rural divide.

relates to The Quest to Rescue the Dude Ranch, One City Slicker at a time

You will be able to live the cowboy life at Chico Basin, performing tasks such as branding cattle, performing pregnancy checks, weaning calves, and repairing fences.

Source: Ranchlands

“There is a major misconception that ranchers exploit the land, when in reality we are stewards of the land,” says Phillips’ daughter Tess Leach, who oversees the hospitality arm of the company. “Without healthy soil, we don’t have healthy livestock.” Without healthy soil, you also get erosion, fertilizer runoff, polluted waterways, and fewer pollinators. That’s why the World Wildlife Foundation and other environmental groups say ranching is a vital part of America’s future.

Today, customers can live the cowboy life at Chico Basin, doing all kinds of daily chores such as branding cattle, checking pregnancy, weaning calves, breaking ice in them. water tanks and repair of fences. They retreat, sore, to May Camp, a historic adobe building with two simple but comfortable rooms. It’s not as posh or as famous as the five-star Rock Creek ranch in Montana, but the intimate and very private Chico has hosted the executives of the London Stock Exchange and the Rothschild Foundation, who both chose to spend some downtime there. Leach says it’s the genuine work experience that seals the deal.

Income from stays at Ranchlands properties, which cost approximately $ 2,000 per week, helps the company manage up to 8,000 head of cattle on nearly 400,000 acres of land. The company made $ 4.2 million from its cattle business and an additional $ 1.3 million from its leather manufacturing and hospitality businesses in 2020, a year in which tourism was largely shut down. .

relates to The Quest to Rescue the Dude Ranch, One City Slicker at a time

View of Reed Canyon in Vermejo

Source: Ted Turner Reserves

Its only real competitor is Explore the ranches, established in Texas in 2018. Less focused on livestock than luxury hospitality, it has so far selected 20 operating ranches for their upscale accommodations and national park-worthy landscapes. He organizes excursions, manages civil liability, organizes private chefs and takes care of marketing, all for a 20% commission. Its crown jewel is 550,000 acres by Ted Turner Vermejo in New Mexico, where modern mid-century ranch homes can command $ 18,000 a night.

Explore co-founder Allison Ryan sees demand grow – bookings have grown nine-fold in 2020 – and expects to have 30 hotels in the collection by 2022. Her family home, Withers Ranch, in the West Texas, was one of Explore’s first properties. “You have 100,000 acres of seclusion here,” she said. “People want it more than ever.”

relates to The Quest to Rescue the Dude Ranch, One City Slicker at a time

Withers Ranch

Source: Explore the Ranches

I understand. During my three days in Zapata, I see more bison than people. Under O’Toole’s tutelage, I work my horse in a round paddock and go from trotting to galloping. Crossing the prairie, I ogle so many animals – moose, porcupines, red-tailed hawks – I feel like I’m on safari in the United States.

Later this year, Phillips is planning a membership-based platform for conservationists; for annual donations of $ 500 to $ 15,000, it will offer discounts on ranching and exclusive access to cultural events. The proceeds will offset the cost of its first independent ranch, Paint Rock Canyon, with 92 rooms on 75,000 acres in Wyoming. Like the other properties, hands-on ranch work will be the raffle, as well as painting, writing and music workshops rooted in the culture and history of the ranch.

At Zapata, I don’t miss the cowboy kitsch of barn dances or cattle croquet or fake beef on the rope. I don’t miss cowboys either; most wrestlers are women. Turns out the romance of ranch life isn’t a guy with a lasso. He drives a van to feed the horses sliced ​​apples as the sun sets over the vast pasture. This is what I do when I realize that ranchers don’t just love the job, they love the soil. And thanks to them, more of us are learning to love him too.