Ranch­ers Wran­gling A Liv­ing His­tory

Escalon Times - - NEIGHBORHOOD VALUES -

LAMONT, Wash. — Tucked within miles of barbed-wire fences and basalt columns south­west of Spokane re­side what’s left of the Amer­i­can West: Ranch­ers who scratch out a liv­ing from hard work and prairie grass.

Henry and Linda Harder live in a place where his­tory flows as full as the swollen creek that feeds emer­ald­green grass, wild flow­ers and song birds.

“It’s a good place to be,” Henry Harder, 52, said as he watched his herd of Here­ford cows and their calves.

The Harders ride the tail end of an in­dus­try full of ag­ing Wash­ing­ton ranch­ers who rely on beef prices that can fluc­tu­ate be­cause of ev­ery­thing from droughts in the Mid­west to threats of a trade war in China. While the in­dus­try is dom­i­nated by huge com­mer­cial oper­a­tions, a few small ranch­ers like the Harders re­main.

They live a his­tory started by Henry’s great-grand­par­ents, Hans and Dora Harder, who came to th­ese grass­lands in 1881 from Ger­many. They set­tled near Kahlo­tus, Wash­ing­ton, where they raised sheep and sold horses to the Palouse In­di­ans to make ends meet.

The rem­nants of their ax­hewn, split-rail cedar cor­ral, built in 1896, sur­vive at the old home­stead.

The main win­dow of the ranch home out­side of Lamont re­veals the same view that Lt. James Alden chalked in 1859 that he later memo­ri­al­ized into a paint­ing. Alden, who would even­tu­ally be­come a U.S. Navy ad­mi­ral, stood on the same hill 159 years ago as part of an in­land ex­pe­di­tion for the United States Coast Sur­vey.

Be­hind the home is the field of honor where ranch trucks, former mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles and trac­tors of past, present and “maybe some­day” get equal billing.

The me­chan­i­cal hulks bake in the sun next to a tin­roofed barn that is los­ing its long bat­tle with thun­der­storms and bliz­zards. In­side hang leather sad­dle bags and fence posts stamped “U.S.” — as in U.S. Cavalry.

“You can see the Blue Moun­tains on a clear day,” Henry Harder said. “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t live here.”

Some 8 miles past the bend in the road out­side of Lamont, which counts its pop­u­la­tion with tally marks on the city sign, is Harder’s Hang­out.

Along the gravel road out of town sit aban­doned foun­da­tions, shel­ter belts of trees used to block the wind and flat spots that once marked home­steads.

The road passes the sa­loon-turned-school house that hasn’t hosted a math les­son for decades. The holes in its in­te­rior plas­ter walls now make homes for barn swal­lows and western king­birds.

As the farm­ers left the land, through death, bank­ruptcy or a neigh­bor’s of­fer, the re­main­ing ranches grew. That is a na­tional trend that con­tin­ues to­day, said Sarah Ryan, the ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the 1,200-mem­ber Wash­ing­ton Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion.

“It’s re­ally chal­leng­ing in Wash­ing­ton . to get started in ranch­ing,” she said. “If you don’t have fam­ily, it’s tough. You might have some­one will­ing to let you run their place and get own­er­ship, but

how do you get fi­nanc­ing?”

Even if a de­scen­dant has the fam­ily land handed down, he or she may have to down­size just to pay off the in­her­i­tance tax, she said.

“It feels like it comes at you from ev­ery direc­tion in agri­cul­ture,” Ryan said. “At the same time, it’s the great­est life­style. What’s more re­ward­ing than the suc­cess of rais­ing an an­i­mal and pro­duc­ing some­thing that is safe, whole­some and nu­tri­tious.”

Henry Harder’s father, Carl Harder, had to sell his 180 cows in 1985 as he faced the fi­nan­cial chal­lenges of kids in col­lege, high in­ter­est rates and too much debt.

“I al­ways dreamed of own­ing my own cows,” Henry Harder said. “You’ll never get rich at it, but you’ll have a pretty good life.”

Henry and Linda mar­ried in 1993 and moved to the cur­rent ranch house. Three years later, Linda cashed out the $10,000 she had socked away for re­tire­ment while work­ing for the Soil Con­ser­va­tion Ser­vice and they bought their first 10 cows.

The Harder herd now in­cludes 147 cows, 38 heifers, 143 calves and seven bulls.

“Ev­ery cow here to­day was born here. I’m proud of that,” Linda Harder said. “You im­prove your herd by in­tro­duc­ing new ge­net­ics. And you can’t build your good ge­net­ics if you don’t buy good bulls.”

The Harders are try­ing to grow their herd, which Henry said must have 200 head just to make the op­er­a­tion pen­cil out. They ex­pected to get about $942.50 for a 650-pound steer at cur­rent prices.

“We were get­ting ($1,300 to $1,430 for the same steer) six years ago,” Linda said. “That was won­der­ful. But, it’s very cycli­cal.”

The Harders own or lease about 3,000 acres to sup­port their herd, which of­ten must be moved to pre­vent over graz­ing in an area where grass of­ten turns brown by mid-June. They also run cat­tle on 2,000 acres owned by an un­cle.

“If you count all of the aunts and un­cles, we run 12,000 to 13,000 acres,” Henry Harder said. “There is a slug of us Harders.”

He will never for­get what his grand­fa­ther, Harry Harder, told his dad in 1964 just be­fore he died. “He told my dad, ‘It will be harder to keep it than it was for me to put it to­gether.’ “

A rancher must be a me­chanic, welder, vet­eri­nar­ian and home­steader all wrapped into one.

“If you said there is noth­ing to do, you’ve never left the house or you are ly­ing,” Henry Harder said. “There is al­ways some­thing you need to do.”

The fam­ily uses a home­made ATV trailer, which has re­cy­cled alu­minum haz­ard signs for walls and an old-iron hay spike welded onto an axle to al­low ranch hands to roll out the spools of barbed wire needed for fenc­ing.

Asked how much time he ded­i­cates to fenc­ing, Harder replied: “Not enough.”

Post-hole dig­gers mostly find rocks just be­low the soil’s sur­face, so Harder’s grand­fa­ther bought a jack ham­mer in the 1950s to bore holes into the basalt. “Fire can go through, and that post (in the jack­ham­mered rock) will still be there,” he said.

The fam­ily uses a 1982 Chevy flatbed to haul hay. It has a front bumper that got pulled out­ward when a young ranch hand failed to un­der­stand that you don’t al­low slack in the tow chain be­fore you hit the brakes. Its left front blinker light hangs by its wires. But it runs, and that’s good enough.

“It’s a low-bud­get op­er­a­tion,” Harder said.

The fam­ily found 13 rat­tle snakes in the front yard last sum­mer. Linda Harder han­dles the ranch’s book­work and her fa­vorite thing in all the world is Ama­zon, fol­lowed by the UPS driver who de­liv­ers what she needs.

“Be­fore that, you had to go to Spokane to try to find what you were looking for,” she said. “And noth­ing ever breaks down un­til noth­ing is open.”

Even some­thing as sim­ple as phone ser­vice was an ad­ven­ture at the ranch. The rem­nants of the old phone line sit slack on the ag­ing poles all the way from the Harder’s turnoff to Lamont.

In 1996, the fam­ily buried 5 1/2 miles of cable, which the phone com­pany do­nated as long as the Harders in­stalled it. Prior to that, Henry had to check the phone line by horse­back when­ever they lost ser­vice.

He would ride out, shimmy up the pole with climb­ing spikes on his boots and put al­li­ga­tor clips on the phone line. “If you had a dial tone, you knew it’s good to town and the prob­lem was be­hind you,” he said.

When he couldn’t find the prob­lem, he kept search­ing. Each of the 26 miles of line had 16 poles to check.

“In the old days, I’d have to do that four or five times a year,” Harder said. “I wouldn’t trade those mem­o­ries for noth­ing.”

Just be­fore Mother’s Day, the fam­ily started gath­er­ing forces for the an­nual cat­tle drive and brand­ing.

The crew in­cluded sheep rancher and vet­eri­nar­ian Jill Swan­nack and Mike and Stephanie Lewis, of Gra­ham, Wash­ing­ton. Mike Lewis said he has worked 29 years for Boe­ing and 26 years as a far­rier, a spe­cial­ist who trims and shoes horses.

“One of my clients is a nephew. (The Harders) said they needed help,” Lewis said. “We came out and helped them a cou­ple years ago. They can’t get rid of us now. We love ‘em.”

Among the six rid­ers was 20-year-old Thailor McQuis­tion, Linda Harder’s step­grand­daugh­ter, who will work at the ranch as a hand this sum­mer.

“I’ve been help­ing for eight years,” McQuis­tion said. “I’m prob­a­bly not go­ing to make a ca­reer out of this, but when­ever I get the chance, I come down and help.”

The crew hauled the horses and rid­ers in a trailer over to one of the fam­ily pas­tures and be­gan the drive that would end back at the ranch.

PHOTO CON­TRIB­UTED

A ranch hand herds cat­tle feed­ing on prairie grass.

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