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I recently received a letter from Fred Hargrove, the cowboss of our partnership ranching operation in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Fred writes to me all the time to keep me posted on what’s going on when I’m traveling. These letters usually talk about the mundane things in our cattle operation that don’t fall in the categoryr of Geat American Cowboy stuff–things like “We need a new trailer,”“Send money for a load of feed tubs,” or “We could really use a four-wheel-drive vehicle in this mud.”
courtesy Fred Hargrove
Portrait from a Kansas ranch: Joleen, Preston and Fred Hargrove.

But this letter stood out from the others I’ve received. It got me ruminating on a few things most people never think about when it comes to people who live on farms and ranches.

The dedication of farmers and ranchers to their work goes far beyond the loyalty most people have for their job. In fact, loyalty to a job–a sense of duty toward your employers, backers, or partners in the working world–is certainly disappearing faster than any other value. Most workers today spend more time complaining to their union, suing their employers for firing them when they don’t perform well, or looking for a way to use their current position for a stepping stone across Cash Flow Creek to the greener pastures irrigated by Income Stream and Revenue River. How many people do you know who would be willing to risk injury–even their lives–for the job they hold? How many people so love their way of life that they will endure years of hardship, financial risk and physical injury to keep it?

For those who think that ranchers are taciturn rednecks who are busy trashing public land, exploiting resources, and laying waste to everything in their path, I present the following letter. It wasn’t written for correctness of grammar or syntax; it’s straight from the heart and mind of a good Kansas cowboss. He wasn’t thinking about publicity. He was thinking about his responsibility to the land, the animals in his care, his family, and me–his friend who happens to be a partner. The exact words of Fred’s letter appear in italic and my comments on the letter appear in the standard typeface of this article. And so, the letter begins:

Dear Murph,
Had another wet, turning cold, storm yesterday. I worked very hard to prevent any more calf losses. Joleen helped me last night and we worked in the rain and cold until 9:30 p.m., doctoring two calves. I also picked up two and carried them 300 yards to the old shed.

A couple of things strike me about the first few sentences. First, there is the immediate presence of the lady of the house. Fred’s wife, Joleen, is a Kansas-born lady of considerable strength and determination. She’s not the only woman I’ve met in cow country who will drop what they are doing at home or in their job to get out in the weather and work with the men. And like Joleen, they’re usually right back again at their other duties, looking pretty and cheering up the depressed men in short order.

Next, there is the matter-of-fact statement that Fred carried two calves 300 yards. What I know–and you wouldn’t know–from this letter is that it hasn’t been too long since Fred’s pelvis was split in half in a horse accident. The accident happened in the line of duty on a ranch job, and no, not all of it was covered by “workman’s comp.” The doctor warned Fred not to lift heavy things or put too much pressure on his bolted-together pelvis. But just try to tell a cowboy that an endangered calf is not more important than his pelvis. I guarantee you’ll be shouting into a gale-force wind–probably a Kansas tornado!

I was so proud of myself for the fact that I went back there to the lease today and all the calves were alive. The bad part was I didn’t get to check the older, larger calves from older mamas, which are right here at home. I even went back to the lease earlier tonight thinking this is where my biggest dangers existed. Everything was OK over there. When I returned home, after dark, it was time to check the six calves here. To my heartbreak I found a well-developed calf which had just died two hours before I found it.

How many partners or employees in business honestly admit, without hesitation, that they made a mistake in judgment that cost the operation a valuable asset? And how many are sincerely heartbroken about the mistake? For most people who make a costly mistake, the concern is about covering up the error, and for saving their own hide. But for Fred it’s not just about admitting a mistake; it’s genuine sorrow for the loss. Read on.

It was Preston’s and my favorite calf. It was a solid, red-bodied, white-faced calf. Kind of rare for a Longhorn. Looked more like a Hereford. I know I am doing everything I can for the time I have, but it is still very tough to take these losses. I feel very bad inside when this happens because I feel I let the little fellers down. It continually reinforces to me just how precious life is among all God’s creatures.

Preston is Fred’s stepson, a bright seven-year-old boy who is full of energy. Knowing him the way I do there is no doubt that he and his stepfather shed tears over the death of this calf. Kids who grow up in the country are much more sophisticated about the realities of life and death than their city counterparts, who think they are so “cool.”

That’s why people like Fred and Joleen sacrifice to raise their children in the country, if possible, where contact with the forces of nature is an everyday occurrence instead of an inconvenience or disaster that comes out of nowhere. The scene here is one of shared loss, regret, and resignation to go with determination into God’s incomprehensible creation. Sometimes you conquer the forces and sometimes they conquer you. After the tears and laughter you have to go on. Back to Fred’s letter.

The TV had a local rancher on last night, and he was on specifically to talk about how hard the weather has been on everybody’s calf crop. He personally has lost a quarter of his calf crop already. I haven’t talked to one rancher around here who hasn’t lost a number of calves. Mother Nature is starting to look like the Wicked Witch of the West, which is appropriate for Kansas.

Just when you think a rancher is going to talk nothing but heartbreak there’s always a sense of humor that comes crashing in. There is an unspoken law that troubles never quite justify whining and moaning–the wind does that for you in places like Kansas! And while it’s acceptable to ask a neighbor for help, ranchers and farmers don’t like welfare much. Everybody knows that The Land of Oz is a fairy tale and the only Yellow Brick Road is the one that you get on after the tornado rips your outfit to pieces and whirls away your cows. It’s a beautiful road but only in your dreams! It’s a long way from Oz back to The Planet Pard. Guys like Fred stay on the Planet Pard most of the time, as the next part of the letter reveals.

I will continue to fight the battle and save the calves I can. I feel like [I am] in a war and watching casualties come in, and being helpless to do anything about it. Of course it is drizzling again tonight and the temperature is going down to 18 degrees. It’s not supposed to warm up until Sunday or Monday. I can’t wait until we seem to be in the clear and the danger of losing calves is over.

Well, I am still strong of heart and mind and just wanted to share some of my eternal thoughts with you. I think it makes me feel better to discuss these tough times and relieve a little of the burden I seem to put on myself.

I hope that you are hanging in there in your world. Write when you have the time.
Adios Amigo, Fred

So ends the cowboss’ letter from Kansas, The Planet Pard. In that universe, people keep on fighting. And if you hear them tell you their troubles they’re always going to tell you, in the same breath, that it just makes them stronger. And like Bob Nolan’s great western song, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” there’s always “a new day born at dawn.” And for people like Fred and Joleen, it’s always going to clear up sooner or later. Until it does, you tell it like it is. You don’t cover up, you don’t blame someone else, you don’t whine and moan, and you always look for the Wicked Witch to change into Glenda the Good Witch. And don’t call the federal, state or local government–they’re too busy studying land management to carry a calf 300 yards!

Michael Martin Murphey, writer, rancher, entertainer, and record company owner, is adjunct professor at Utah State University and the University of New Mexico in Taos. He also guides pack trips with another partner named Willard Forman. His websites are <>, <>, and the web portal for the American West, <>

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last page update: 04.03.05