LEARNING TO BEND
Like the tall Oregon pines that hover over the bright green meadows
of the Warnock family's Baker County ranch, their roots are firmly
planted in the land.
© 1998 by Jean Nelsen.
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The bucking chute gate flew open and a thousand pounds of horse
flesh exploded into the arena, but the young cowboy stayed solid
in the saddle. His spurs moved in perfect time with the horse's
jumps and gyrations and he won the saddle bronc event. Next, he
placed third in the bareback event. Then he dashed to his car
and drove about a hundred miles to coax Handel's "Messiah" out
of some violin strings at an evening concert with the Oregon State
Some 40 years later, Dan Warnock Jr. sips iced tea in a bustling
small-town cafe with his wife and ranching partner, Jo. Her mischievous
brown eyes dance as she inserts appropriate quips into his story
of the rodeo/concert day. They laugh and decide together that
playing the violin is probably the safer hobby for him to pick
Bronc-riding violinists are not the norm in Eastern Oregon
ranch country, but the Warnocks are unfettered by normalcy. Like
the tall pines that hover over the bright green meadows of their
Baker County ranch, their roots are firmly planted in the land.
But to survive life's storms, they have learned to bend a little,
like tree tops in the wind. As did their forefathers.
Dan Jr.'s grandfather came west on the Oregon Trail with five
brothers, three sisters, a widowed mother, and a wagonload of
dreams. He settled in Wallowa County 100-plus miles north of the
present day Warnock holdings. Grandfather Warnock got ahead by
raising cattle and selling horses and mules to the U.S. Cavalry.
The army's want of horsepower surged during World War I and the
settler prospered greatly-until he invested in a bank. When it
went broke, he lost nearly everything.
With most of his money gone and his health failing, Grandfather
Warnock moved to Western Oregon's Willamette Valley because doctors
said the lower elevation would do him good. His son, now known
as Dan Warnock Sr., went with his father and helped him raise
orchard crops, but his heart still belonged to Eastern Oregon's
Alice Brown lived across the river from the Warnocks' new home,
and taught Dan Sr.'s nephews the three R's in a two-room schoolhouse.
These "darling boys," Alice says, would come to school and report
Dan Sr.'s many attributes. He could for instance, stand on his
head in a saddle, they told her. After school the matchmaking
fourth graders would run home and tell their uncle, "You oughta
get acquainted with Miss Brown, she's really nice!" The youngsters
efforts worked and Dan Sr. and Alice married in 1929. Soon after,
Dan Sr.'s dream of returning to Eastern Oregon to raise beef cattle
became Alice's dream, too.
And they did more than dream. They worked and scraped and worked
some more, finally managing to acquire a little bit of acreage.
They also got into assorted agricultural enterprises to finance
the way back home. "I was bound I was going back to Eastern Oregon,"
Dan Sr. says.
Step by step, the couple walked the trail leading to their
dream. The final mile came during a trip to a state grange convention
in Baker County. Dan's sister lived there and they thought it
would be a good place to settle, so they looked at 280 acres near
the small town of Sumpter.
While Dan Sr. was outside assessing the land and cattle, Alice
looked at the house. She was not impressed. The back porch was
falling off, the roof leaked, and chickens had lived in one of
the upstairs bedrooms. But Dan Sr. loved the ranch, so Alice supported
him. "In all these years, I've done some wild and crazy things,"
says Dan Sr. "But she just grins and says, 'Well if that's what
you think, I'll go along with it.'"
The bronc-riding violinist, Dan Jr., was 15 when the family
moved to Sumpter and he shared his father's passion for land and
livestock. Majoring in animal husbandry at Oregon State seemed
a logical step toward building a life connected to the land, so
he left the ranch and went to school. By the time he graduated
in 1953 he had married Jo and begun a roller coaster career path.
But like his father before him, the goal was always to get back
At various times between 1953 and 1968, Dan Jr. was an extension
agent, a banker, and a ranch manager, twice. Through it all, he
helped his father run the Sumpter ranch and in due time bought
some beef cattle of his own. He was still working at the bank
when he and Jo bought a farm just outside of Baker City.
Tradition had it that when you ranch in hard-winter country
like Baker County, you raise hay in the summer and feed it in
the winter, and that was one purpose for the farm. Dan Jr. also
took another piece of conventional wisdom for granted: more is
better. More technology, more work and more money poured into
the land were supposed to result in more profit. So, unable to
live solely off the income from the beef cattle, he and Jo did
They bought 80 head of dairy cows to help pay the bills and
3:30 a.m. found the couple heading to the barn to milk cows. Then
while Jo fixed breakfast and cleaned out the barn, Dan would don
a suit and tie to go work in a bank. In the afternoon, their junior
high-aged sons Dan III and Randy handled the milking. All for
the sake of making money enough to run beef cattle and make payments
on the farm.
After about three years Dan Jr. "finally got smart and sold
the dairy cows." The same year, 1970, he turned to raising barley
and hay, but as his children began leaving home, he realized that
his haying crew would soon be gone. He also began to face the
fact that what he was doing wasn't working. "One day I sat myself
down and gave myself a 15 minute lecture," he says. "'Dan,' I
says to myself, 'You're calling yourself a cowman when you are
spending 11 months a year in a hayfield.'"
About then, he began hearing about Holistic Resource Management
(HRM), which offers a different approach to land management than
the agricultural traditions he cut his teeth on. "At first, Jo
and I were too skeptical to go to the meetings ourselves, so we
sent our son Randy who had come back from college wanting to work
the ranch with us," Dan Jr. says. "As we got into it, the word
'sustainable' came up a lot. I took a hard look at what we were
doing and I realized nothing we were doing was sustainable."
That's when changes began to happen -- changes in land management,
changes in cattle management, but most of all, changes in philosophy.
Dan Jr., Jo, Dan Sr., and Alice incorporated their holdings in
1968, and the Warnocks started to look at all segments of their
operation as equally important -- the land, the cattle, the people
-- all needed balanced consideration. The family began reassessing
their goals and priorities and taking an honest look at what they
wanted in terms of quality of life. They decided that for them,
that meant getting rid of the farming operation, which they did
"I can proudly say today that we do not own a tractor," Dan
Jr. quips. That works just fine because there's nothing left to
farm. The family sold all but five acres and the house on their
Baker City farm and bought 28,000 acres of winter range in Central
Oregon, about 250 miles away. Randy and Jeanne Warnock live there,
and Dan Jr. and Jo ship the cattle to them every fall. Climate
and grass conditions are such that cows do well with a minimal
amount of supplemental feed during Oregon's coldest season. In
the summer, the livestock come back to the lush meadows at Dan
Sr. and Alice's place, which has expanded quite a bit beyond the
original 280 acres.
As part of the late '70s management changes, the Warnocks decided
they wanted to work closer to the natural rhythms of the land
and animals instead of trying to force things with more technology,
more work and more money. "We quit trying to be efficient," Dan
Jr. says, "and started trying to be effective."
Their land stewardship efforts are clearly working, and so
are some other changes on the ranch. One is the way they market
their beef. Conventionally, the price beef producers receive for
their product is dictated by a cyclical and unpredictable market.
In 1986 the Warnocks joined Oregon Country Beef, a marketing cooperative
made up of several other Oregon ranchers. "We got started in OCB
to take the humps and valleys out of cattle price cycles," Dan
Jr. says. "Also, there's a lot of satisfaction in raising cattle
for a market, rather than hoping to find someone to buy them."
Their hormone-free product ends up in trendy supermarkets from
California's Bay Area to Seattle, and the Warnocks and their fellow
co-op members spend a lot of time passing out free samples to
customers and listening to what they think at in-store demonstrations.
Dan Jr. is current chairman of OCB, which keeps him on the
phone frequently dealing with feedlot managers, retailers and
fellow co-op members. "I swear the receiver grows out of his ear,"
"It's a bit of a change," he says, "for a cowman to be worrying
about supplying enough prime rib for Christmas and enough steaks
for the Fourth of July."
But these days, Dan Jr. is a good listener. "I used to be a
guy who would just tell people what to do and expect them to do
it," he says. "Now I try to motivate and educate, while offering
a little guidance. I try to create a relaxed, friendly, work environment
and then stay out of the way. Decisions are made by the people
involved after discussion, not by an autocrat."
The Warnocks attend several ranching workshops and seminars,
and they also send their two employees. "We've spent a lot of
money on the people thing," says Dan Jr. "But all successful businesses
continue to do management training. What you learn at those deals
is how to think."
A willingness to learn new things seems to be a genetic trait
boldly threaded through the Warnock generations. In 1985, at 77
years old, Alice Warnock finished her college degree in general
studies through extension classes from Eastern Oregon State University.
("It was just something I wanted to do," she says.) And long before
that, she and Dan Sr. learned how to fight through the obstacles
that threatened to quench their dream. Without really trying,
they taught the same to Dan Jr. who, along with his life's partner,
found his dream by learning to bend with the wind.
* * *
Jean Nelsen is a freelance writer always looking for more work
specializing in issues affecting the West. You can reach her at
<email@example.com> or c/o RANGE magazine.