Switzer Ranch staying resilient with long-term outlook

Source: Farm Progress. The original article is posted here.

Switzer Ranch staying resilient with long-term outlook

In its 120 years, the Switzer Ranch has undergone changes in operations but not ownership. Fourth-generation rancher Sarah Sortum said her family hopes to keep it that way.

"Our goal is for our family to live and work on the ranch for as long as our family wants to basically," Sortum said. "What that means is we have to be economically, environmentally, and socially sound."

She and her parents, Bruce and Sue Ann Switzer, and brother, Adam Switzer, co-own and run the ranch in Loup County, Nebraska, as four LLCs. Like their ancestors, they still keep their own herd and sell cattle from that, but they also offer custom grazing to others in the summer, custom backgrounding in the winter and tourism throughout the year. Their tourism business, Calamus Outfitters, offers a taste of rural living with Jeep tours, lodging, an event space and river trips.

Sortum’s husband and her brother’s wife work as teachers, providing health insurance and retirement funds. This helps the ranch stay financially sound, Sortum said, because the old retirement model of the younger generation buying the place from the older generation is no longer affordable with taxes and other costs.

While ranchers used to be able to buy land and pay for it by grazing cows on it, she said they can’t anymore.

"That's just the finances of it," she said. "In fact, if you buy grazing land, especially here, because our land values are affected a lot by recreation, you can't even pay for the interest on your loan through grazing. So, unless you have another outside revenue stream to pay for the land, it's so, so hard for young people to get into agriculture unless they already have a standing family operation."

Between her and her brother’s families, they have five children to inherit their ranch.

What the ranch means to her and what she wants to pass on to her children is much more than a physical location, she said.

"It's the intergenerational relationships that are there," she said. "Also, having them learn about nature itself and how things work and learn about animals. It's all of that tied up and, hopefully, instilling in them a really strong stewardship ethic that, even if they didn't end up in agriculture, that would carry over in just taking care of things, taking care of your environment wherever you are, taking care of your relationships wherever you are."

Having seen other families get torn apart working together, Sortum said her family focuses on keeping their relationships healthy and staying resilient socially.

"Family comes first as far as the land," she said. "As much as we love it and everything in the lifestyle, that does not get in the way of our family relationships."

They work hard but try to laugh and have fun every day. The adults give the children a lot of ownership so they feel part of the operation. Family members contribute to the rural community.

This social side of ranch life is probably where they have changed the least, Sortum said.

Environmentally, she said they pay more attention to species depending on grasslands than what they did when she was a child. They try to support wildlife on their grazing lands and leave the grassland untilled to carry on beneficial natural activities like filtering water, storing carbon and preventing erosion.

They especially love grassland birds and try to prioritize them in managing the ranch, she said. Since insects are food for birds, the family puts up with some buzzing and bites.

Sortum said she used to have strong opinions about the best ranching and grazing practices but has realized that having a mix of styles is good.

"Looking at it from a literal bird's eye view, we want everything to be just a little bit different, because that's what the wildlife needs," she said. "Some birds like bare ground, short, short, short grass. Some birds like tall grass, and everywhere in between."

She sees the spread of redcedars into grassland as a different ecological matter, though. She listed the trees as probably the biggest threat to ranching and said ranchers need to stay on top of their spread. She and her family have been working with neighbors to burn or mechanically remove the trees.

"We are really at war with the invasive cedar tree because it's trying to make our grassland a forest," she said. "When our ecosystem changes, everything will have to change, and we want it to remain a grassland."

In general, she said she believes a lot of farmers and ranchers manage in such a way that they're always thinking toward the future. She said she is trying to make a living off the land while keeping the land, water, air, and wildlife healthy and resilient for future generations.

"This is what I live and breathe for," she said.

Ronica Stromberg

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