Living Off the Land
TCU’s Institute of Ranch Management sends graduates abroad to improve the world’s agricultural practices.
Amanda Dyer ’08 grew up on her family’s ranch near Fort Davis in West Texas. After working as an investment banker in New York City, she returned to rural life and Rancho Espuela Cattle Company with a keen environmental and business acumen for ranching in a sustainable manner.
After earning a ranch management certificate at TCU, Dyer toured agricultural operations in Scotland as an Institute of Ranch Management fellow. She said the assignment allowed her to teach the skills she acquired in the program and recommend improvements in Scottish operations.
The rancher had a head start in considering farming conditions in other countries. Fort Davis is about 30 miles from Mexico.
“Some people, they grow up on a ranch and they’re kind of in their own little bubble,” said Dyer. “They’re not thinking globally.”
In Scotland, the climate is cooler and more humid than in West Texas. Scotland subsidizes its agricultural sector, but Rancho Espuela has to turn a profit to survive.
The differing realities necessitate different priorities, but Dyer felt a kinship with Scots who also earn their living off the land. “We have the same vision to preserve the land, to produce a safe product and to conserve our natural resources,” she said.
Outmigration and Exploration
While demand for food is at an all-time high, young people continue to leave America’s farming regions. U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows total population in non-metro areas is in slow decline.
“Not too many people in our generation know how to make a living off a piece of land,” said Clay Bebee ‘06, who traveled to Panama as a 31-year-old institute fellow.
After receiving a degree in management from the Neeley School of Business and working in real estate development, Bebee shifted gears and entered the ranch management program.
Bebee is one of 10 fellows to take an international assignment to observe and exchange ideas about 21st century ranching and food production techniques with ranchers and farmers in other parts of the world.
The institute serves as the international outreach arm for the larger program and a form of continuing education and research. Its fellows “have been able to engage and actually do what they’ve been taught to do,” said Jeff Geider ’81. The William Watt Matthews Director of the Institute of Ranch Management said the fellows are able to learn experientially, perform applied research and teach the stewardship skills they learned in the program.
As part of the fellowship, Geider said fellows return to TCU to deliver a report of their observations and share their international experiences with students.
Out of the Bubble
Craig Cowden ’10 and his wife, Jessica Corn Cowden ’10, were two of the first participants in the fellowship program. The couple met as students in the ranch management program and later married. Today, they live and raise cattle outside of Pampa in the Texas Panhandle.
In 2013, the couple spent two weeks in Panama. They crossed the country from east to west in a whirlwind tour of cattle ranches on behalf of the institute.
Craig Cowden said the experience “really opened [his] eyes.” Cowden’s wife documented the trip with photos and videos while he conducted interviews with the Panamanian cattle ranchers. He asked about watering schedules, beef prices, common diseases and learned that the ranchers are “still struggling with the same things that we’re struggling with here.”
Bebee also toured ranches in Panama as a fellow in 2014. By his summer assignment, the World Health Organization had partnered with the institute to find ways to increase milk production in the Central American nation’s dairy farming operations.
The Fort Worth businessman visited 21 Panamanian farmers to observe and recommend practices that could produce a 50 percent increase in overall milk production. Doing so is “easily attainable by some education, some knowledge and some technology,” said Bebee, who owns a ranch real estate and consulting business.
During Dyer’s eight-day fellowship, she learned that Scottish farmers approach their land resource problems in different ways.
“The focus in the U.S. is more on profitability and economics,” she said. But in Scotland, the emphasis is on “climate change, renewable energy and sustainability.”
One place Dyer visited was Peelham Farm in Berwickshire. The organic farm-to-table operation has local distribution channels and generates enough energy through wind turbines to achieve self-sufficiency.
Dyer said the fellowship “got the wheels turning as far as considering implementing some different practices.” In the future, she plans to consider grazing field rotation and raising multiple species. “There are ways to actually use the livestock and your natural resources to improve the land versus using chemicals.”
But learning is a continuous process, especially in the age-old practice of land management. Given the pressing problems of resource management and feeding a growing human population in a changing climate, teamwork is a necessity. “We’re all trying to feed the world,” said Dyer.
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