he oil and mineral sector is Wyoming’s leading industry, and the tourism folks proudly claim their spot as second, but there’s another group that just might lasso them for that honor. “We like to say that a lot of those tourists are coming here to see our agricultural lands and have the cowboy experience,” says Ken Hamilton, executive vice president of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation in Laramie. “There’s a cowboy on our license plate. That tells you something.”
Since settlers started coming to Wyoming in the early 1800s, Wyoming has had cattle grazing in the fields and mountains. The reality is that since those early times, not much has changed. The land may now be irrigated, and, thanks to myriad laws, cattle can graze on federal lands, but largely Wyoming’s agricultural arm consists of ranching and growing feed, dry beans, malt barley and sugar beets.
“Agriculture remains the cultural and economic backbone of our communities. Kids go to the same schools as their grandparents,” says Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “We still dress the way they did decades ago and the work is pretty much the same. The only change, and it’s disappointing, is that a number of ranchers use four wheelers instead of horses. It’s kind of a loss of something that was culturally important.”
Wyoming’s agricultural sector totaled $1.35 billion in 2013, and has been above the $1 billion threshold since 2010. In 2013, there were 11,500 farms and ranches operating in the state with a total land area of 30.2 million acres. In terms of total land in farms and ranches, the state ranks 11th nationally.
The cattle industry is by far the largest component and accounts for more than half of all revenue. Cattle value of production in 2013 was $706 million, while all livestock production was valued at $833 million, up 10 percent from 2012. The state started this year with 1.27 million head (by contrast, there are about 582,658 human residents) with an inventory value of $1.65 billion.
Sheep and lambs also figure into the ranching mix, but less than in years past. In 2013, the inventory of sheep and lambs was down 5 percent from 2012 at 355,000 head, valued at $64.4 million. Hogs and pigs inventory, on the other hand, increased five percent to 90,000 and was valued at $14 million.
“Agriculture is the third leading industry in the state and 70 to 80 percent of the industry is livestock,” says Cindy Garretson-Weibel, director of the Agribusiness Division for the Wyoming Business Council. “ Agriculture provides other important benefits that don’t show up in a statistical analysis — people appreciate the open space, wildlife and agricultural lifestyle. The Western culture is still alive here and it’s genuine. We’re getting a lot of tourists coming to our communities’ farmers markets to pick up great produce and some homemade jellies and jams, visit our fairs or spend time on a ranch.”
On the farming side, hay is the dominant crop, worth about $390 million in 2013. Sugar beets is the second biggest crop, with an estimated value of $53.4 million, followed by barley at $38.2 million, corn at $35.8 million, dry beans at $33.5 million and winter wheat at $19.9 million. Total crop production came to $520 million in 2014.
“Several sections of the state are irrigated, and that’s where crops are raised,” says Hamilton, “We have about 120 to 130 growing days and it gets down to about 60 to 70 frost-free, which makes it hard to grow tomatoes. Sugar beets are refined into sugar, and we have three sugar refineries in the state. Then we grow malt barley, which is refined into something even better. The tops of the beets are given to cattle. The corn and alfalfa go into animal feed and the dry beans are for people.”
Most of those who service the ranching and farming communities are small businesses located in small towns. Large chains are relatively rare, so ranchers and farmers get their supplies — everything from tractors to groceries to tires to veterinary services — from local businesses such as Cody Feed in Cody.
“We sell feed, animal health supplies like dewormers, vaccines, grooming stuff for the animals, the list goes on,” says co-owner Helen Rosenbaum. Every month a truck travels 400 miles away to get her feed because the feed ingredients have to be processed. “We sell a combination of different ingredients and we don’t have the processing mills in Wyoming. One of the benefits of doing business in the state is the lack of taxes — that’s always a benefit.”
Not only does the state lack an income tax, but it taxes the agriculture sector differently. The state taxes on productive value rather than market value. It’s a five-year formula that is used every year to rate the value of the production and determine its accessed value. This way, the state takes into consideration such things as droughts or market fluctuations. “Some years your land can go up 30 percent and in some down to 20 percent,” says Magagna. “Things smooth out and it keeps taxes relatively lower than if it were done on a market basis.”
Quality Livestock, Quality Lifestyle
While the industry is truly at the mercy of the elements, life for ranchers and farmers is improving. Well established electric associations provide enough power for most rural areas, although some farmers opt for a combination of wind and solar power. The Internet reaches throughout the state, and Wyoming’s attractiveness to high-tech companies has significantly improved wifi, Magagna says. “Most places may not have a cable connection, but they do have satellite.”
While life for those in the agricultural sector and the supporting businesses is improving, the biggest challenges may not come from markets or the elements, but in passing down the business to the next generation. The average age of a rancher is about 58.
“In the ’80s and ’90s ranching was struggling and a lot of parents told their kids to leave and get an education,” says Magagna. “You have to have a passion for this life, and we have a number programs to help attract young people back to ranching. And we have to assist other young people who want to come and take over the ranches. We have to make it affordable. It’s an ongoing challenge.”
Hamilton says, “We’re having a tremendous year. Livestock is at a record high, and we have adequate water. It’s still all about family ranching, generation after generation.”