Saturday, May 18, 2024
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Managing Across Boundaries For Mutual Success

An old farmer once told me, when I was getting my start in the ranching business, “You don’t control the wind, but you can at least set your sail.” To me, that sounded like a fair deal.

If the ranch is the ship, than beyond the perimeter fences lies the ocean. When I stand there, I am looking at a thin strand of gaucho wire that separates the self-reliant center of my universe from an ocean of properties that belong to other people. They can do what they like, as long as they don’t bother me.

I’ll be the first to admit, this makes sense to me. Humans have always had territories, and property lines and courthouses are one of the ingenious inventions that we’ve come up with to enforce territories–otherwise we’d all be clubbing each other over the head and there would be no such thing as civilization.

But the fact remains that our “territory” which we call the 88 Ranch is only one of thousands overlaid on our land, some contained within the property but mostly overlapping with others. In the Gulf Coast region, the line that separates Bleiblerville sand from Georgia clay often defines the territorial extent of Post Oak trees versus Cedar Elm trees.

These territories aren’t likely to cause much controversy and most territories that cross our fence lines have invisible borders that we can only guess at. Others receive our visible ire. Huisache and feral hogs don’t care about fencelines. So I often wonder why I’m spending so much time and energy clearing huisache from my land when my neighbor across the fence has such a nice, thick stand, or what will happen when my neighbor hunts the hogs off his land right onto mine. Or a neighbor sprays his pasture with insecticide, and another neighbor loses a beehive. The one didn’t mean to affect the other, but he did anyway. Of course, those are just a few examples of thousands I could list. The point is that the actions we take on our land affect our neighbor’s land every day, and we’re increasingly realizing that it may affect our neighbor across the world as well.

But instead of affecting each other blindly through our decisions, and incurring so many unpredicted costs along the way, maybe we can think of ways to cooperate and save ourselves some time, energy, and money. A stockshare might be one of those ways.

In my last article I wrote about how a Stockshare, in which ranchers continue to own their land but decide to stock their cattle in a common herd, might make a lot of sense in terms of the ecology, economics, and cycles of drought that create the geographic landscape of cattle producers in the Gulf Coast region. Unsurprisingly, this idea would bring up a lot of questions regarding property lines and access. If a person who owned cattle in the herd wanted to check up on them while they were on another person’s property, how would they work out the access issues? Who would ultimately make the decisions about how long the cattle stay in each pasture, and who would shoo the cattle out of a garden or retrieve a stray animal on the road?

I know these questions would give me pause. One of the things I cherish most about having our own ranch is the fact that I am on my own territory, for all the reasons I mentioned above. When I’m up at the pens welding a gate back on I am using tools and skills that I acquired the hard way. I really do feel like the captain of my ship, and I pity people who have to work for corporations like just another cog in the machine.

But answering these questions and finding ways to work together could be an important part of ensuring a ranching future.

According to the Texas Monthly, a whopping 88 percent of Texans now live in the city. That means 88 percent of people will raise children that will rarely, if ever, go hunting, fishing, or raise any kind of crop. Pair that with the alarming statistics relating to the average age of the American farmer, and it is clear that we have a “future” problem. I know why. When I decided to move back to our land to become a rancher, everybody thought I was crazy. My godfather literally looked me in the eye and asked me, “have you gone insane?”

One thing I’ve heard over and over from men and women in agriculture are the words: “Don’t go into agriculture. There’s no money in it.” When I think of this sorry accumulation of facts, I am reminded of an important new piece of evidence that has come out recently in the realm of ecology. It is the recognition that certain trees in a forest connect to each other through their root systems via mycorrhizal fungus, across species, in order to share resources and nutrients. The mycorrhizal fungus exchanges nutrients for sugar from stronger trees to feed weaker ones, in order to preserve both. These facts do not controvert evolution or natural selection. They reinforce it.

Here’s an On Pasture post about how communication and sharing resources among trees keeps a forest healthy

The truth is that community cooperation can create a competitive advantage in a world “that is red in tooth and claw.” Perhaps the reason so many livestock producers feel “there’s no money” in livestock is because we have destroyed some of the roots that connect one rancher to another. In a forest, trees that must compete on their own fall prey to insects, wind, and competition from other trees. Perhaps ranchers suffer from a similar problem and this pessimism is the result. Indeed, many ranchers now run themselves ragged in order to be their own producers, distributors, marketers, and accountants. I applaud those people who can accomplish this herculean task, but others struggle and burn out. Is this any way to show young people a way forward in agriculture? Other organizations I admire seem to accomplish miraculous feats of restoration on their land, but digging deeper, realize they can do so because they have access to financial resources from some other fortune. Others use this financial padding to take big risks that very often pay off in the long run. Sadly, I cannot follow their path.

So now, when I’m patching fence on our property line and I look at my neighbor’s land I see land that is both connected to mine in so many ways and also strangely distant. Whether we like it or not, we are tied together economically, ecologically, and culturally. I hoped that a Stockshare might help ranchers grow together and stay strong–one solution to a large problem with many possible solutions–because when I think of the self-reliance I cherish now, I picture it a little bit differently. I’m setting my own sail, but I am just one ship among the fleet. The only question is, which way is the wind going to blow?

What do you think about Will’s Stockshare concept? Are their ways you might work with your neighbors for mutual success? You can read all four articles in this series here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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Will Kearney
Will Kearney
Will Kearney is a rancher living in Columbus, Tx with his wife Laura Dorsey. His primary focus is thinking about how to combine economics and ecology on the family ranch without screwing any one of those things up. He has worked on ranches in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in a variety of climates and with a diversity of different landowners. He has learned a lot from watching and paying attention to his dogs, his horses, and his cattle. Even more from books. And almost nothing from people who have all the answers.


  1. On the Canadian prairies, the indigenous peoples distinguished territories by landforms. The grid pattern also threatened the Metis way of strip farms, based upon access to riversides, for example. I thank you, Mr. Kearney, for helping us step back and think about issues like geography, and–perhaps more importantly–co-operation.

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