Ranchers wrangle living history out of scablands
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 emerald-green 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, Wash., where they raised sheep and sold horses to the Palouse Indians to make ends meet.
The remnants of their ax-hewn, split-rail cedar corral, built in 1896, survive at the old homestead.
“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.”
Big get bigger
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 ranchhouse. 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.
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.
The cattle drive
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, Wash. Mike Lewis said he has worked 29 years for Boeing and 26 years as a farrier.
“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.”
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.
Linda rode a newly acquired mare Kit Kat. Within minutes, the horse had bucked Linda off, and Henry raced over in a truck to check on her.
“I had a notion yesterday,” she said. “As soon as I felt her about to buck, I bailed.”
Linda landed on her shoulder and back, and the fall bent her glasses. She would later have to go to town to get treated for a mild concussion.
“Congratulations. You bought a horse,” Linda said as she passed the reins of the skittish horse to Henry.
Henry and Kit Kat then trotted off to catch up with the drive. “He’s a lot bigger to buck off,” Linda said of her husband.
As the line of horses advanced, the cows started to bawl, calling to their calves. They nervously looked about and began to bunch up into a herd.
The cows approached the fence along the road, prompting one of the Harder’s new Black Angus bulls to stick his swollen neck over the fence. The parade of bawling cows passed by as the bull watched with long strings of saliva swinging down from his mouth.
Eventually, the riders, including the Harder’s 24-year-old son, Harry, popped over the basalt ridges and ravines and herded the cows toward an open gate.
Among them was Henry Harder on Kit Kat.
“He’s happy being out there,” Linda said as she watched. “We have a heckuva time finding good horses.”
Just a minute later, Kit Kat went one way and Henry went the other. The saddle slipped, and Henry bailed off a just a few feet off the ground and hit with a thud. Choice words were spoken. Kit Kat scampered over the hill as she kicked at the empty saddle riding on her side.
Despite the horse drama, the riders got the bawling cattle pushed to an open gate, where they followed the loaded hay truck down the road to the corral.
“You are always learning,” Harder said. “Herding calves is like herding field mice: They go everywhere.”
Within a few minutes, the cows and calves were confined to the corral near the ranch.
Henry and Linda then trucked out enough food to feed a small army.
“Today was, well, I don’t know what it was,” Henry Harder said. “It’s never pretty.”
“Are the cows in the corral?” Linda shot back.
“There’s the right way and there’s the Harder way,” Henry replied. “Just when you think you have everything figured out, that’s when it jumps up and bites you.”