This month we are introducing you to the Bakers, an Idaho ranching family. I met Sarah Baker, the 6th generation to carry on her family’s ranching tradition, through Leadership Idaho Agriculture. She brought a lot of fun and entertainment to our classes, and is a strong advocate for Idaho agriculture. In this interview, Sarah gives us a wonderful glimpse into her life; I know you will enjoy learning about her family’s 126-year history.
Your name/family names:
My Grandparents, Dick and Betty, live and ranch on the East Fork of the Salmon River near Clayton, Idaho. They have two children and four grandchildren. Both of their sons (Doug and his wife Cheryl and Wayne and his wife Melodie) also live and ranch on the East Fork. The four grandchildren also live close by: Stacy and her husband Dusty live and work in nearby Challis, Sarah lives on the ranch and works in Challis as the Custer County Extension Agent, Ashley lives in Boise where she is studying to be a teacher, and youngest grandchild Justin lives and works on the ranch alongside his father Wayne. First cousin JR and his wife Lura (Custer County Clerk) and their son Jesse also live and ranch on the East Fork.
The Baker Family after shipping cattle in 2013
Where do you live, your ranch name?
Most of our family lives on the East Fork of the Salmon River near Clayton on the following ranches: East Fork Ranches LLC (Wayne & Melodie Baker), Baker Ranches (JR and Lura Baker) and P Bar Ranch (Doug & Cheryl Baker). Other family members live nearby.
Sarah and her Grandpa fixing a headbox at the head of Pistol Creek in 1985
How long have you been ranching?
My family has been in the ranching business for over 100 years. I am the 6th generation on my family’s ranch. My Grandpa’s great-grandfather, Elias, arrived on the East Fork in 1888. They ran cattle and Elias was a wagon master. His son, Ed Baker (my grandpa’s grandfather) was also a freighter; he drove teams and hauled freight to the booming mines along the Salmon River. Jocko Baker, my grandpa’s father, and his wife Mary were also ranchers. They raised three sons – Eddie, my grandpa, Dick, and Babe, and one daughter,Viola. The original house where my grandpa was born and raised still stands today, surrounded by a field owned and operated by my cousin JR Baker. (see photo below).
Old original house in JR’s hay field
After being honorably discharged from the Service, (Grandpa was called home to help run the ranch following a horse and wagon accident that left his father crippled), my grandpa and his older brother Eddie took over management of the ranch at an early age. Good business sense and a hard work ethic set the Baker brothers out to acquire more ranchland to provide feed and grazing for their cattle herds.
Moving cattle on the ranch
In 1950, my grandpa married my grandma Betty, who was the daughter of a sawmill operator on Slate Creek. It was here that they began their own ranching legacy. Here Dick and Betty raised their two sons, Doug and Wayne. Working side-by-side, they acquired more cattle, equipment, and land. In 1993, they purchased the original Fred Gossi Homestead Ranch with their oldest son Doug, who is my dad. In 1997, they sold their ranch to their youngest son Wayne, my uncle, but continued to live and work on the ranch.
Why did you become a rancher?
I think my family became ranchers because they wanted to see the ranches passed on from generation to generation and they were not afraid of hard work. I feel very fortunate to have been born into a family with a great work ethic, pride, and family ranching values. As a kid, I spent a lot of hours with my grandpa helping feed, ride, and hay on the ranch. When my dad and mom purchased their own ranch in 1993, I had even more chores added to my to-do list, including the dreaded moving handlines (portable irrigation pipe) in the summer! I was always volunteering to go riding with my grandpa, so I didn’t have to move pipes or irrigate!
Grandpa at Joe Jump Basin
What are your ranching words of wisdom?
Keep it simple! Family is most important! Hard work, determination, and perseverance… being able to pass on the work, the knowledge, and the legacy to future generations of Bakers.
What type of cattle/crops do you raise?
Cattle and Hay! All of my family runs commercial Black Angus cattle. Most of the private land on the Baker Ranches is in the valley bottom (East Fork of the Salmon River) and is used for hay ground in the summer months. Because of the short growing season, one crop of meadow hay is usually all that is harvested. In addition, my uncle has a few hundred acres of irrigated alfalfa that will normally yield two crops each year, but most of the hay comes from the meadows, or is purchased from hay growers around the state.
Tell us about your operation.
Running a ranch in Custer County is unique and presents many challenges. Regarding the weather – it can snow on the 4th of July, or be 60* in November. We always say you need to dress in layers when you live here – because it can start out at 0* in the morning when you saddle up, and be up to 70* by mid-day. If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes and it will change!
Sarah and her Grandpa steelhead fishing
The growing season is very short, and our soils (well, we don’t really have soil here), are very shallow and are comprised of a lot of rock. We are definitely not farmers and always joke about our ability to grow grass. Feed is our #1 cost, which is not unusual for a ranch. We can graze our cattle on native pastures usually April through October, and don’t have to feed them hay during this time. Most years we have to start feeding them hay in November. However, some years, depending on weather, we will have to start feeding hay as early as October, and then have to feed hay until we are able to turn the cattle out on our Spring BLM* grazing allotments in April and May. That is a lot of hay!
Another challenge is that Custer County is 97% public lands – which means there are very few private pastures available for our cattle to graze on. The private pastures that we own are used to grow hay in the summer months, so we rely very heavily on federal range grazing permits for our cattle to graze in the late spring, summer, and early fall months. Unfortunately, grazing on public lands is getting harder to do. Increased environmental regulations, an abundance of endangered species, and conflicts with cows and the uneducated public, have made it very difficult to keep cattle grazing on public lands. Endangered Species – we have them all here!
Turning out Dad’s and Justin’s cows on Spring BLM, 2012
The extra regulations for the listed fish (salmon, steelhead, and bull trout), and the ever presence of wolves, makes things interesting to say the least!!! These are just a few of the unique challenges that we face ranching. A normal year for the Baker Ranch consists of:
Winter – calving
Spring – turning cows out on BLM allotments
Summer – irrigating, haying, move cows up to USFS** allotments
Fall – bring cows back home, wean, ship calves, preg-test (pregnancy test), get ready for winter!
Do you use any sustainable practices?
I think all of our practices are sustainable! I think ranching for 6 generations on the East Fork is pretty sustainable or we wouldn’t still be here! I always say that ranchers are the true environmentalists. Our livelihood depends on the long-term health of the land and the natural resources that our cattle utilize.
My family plays an important role in protecting private and public lands, both by enhancing productive agriculture land and rangelands, and keeping that land safe from degradation and development. Without stewards of the lands like my family, much of the vast, open West that we all love so well, would be lost forever.
Dad and Grandpa checking the time
Our private lands boast some of the best habitat for wildlife in the country – that is proven with all the elk, deer, bighorn sheep, antelope, and moose that live and eat on our ranch! The fishing in the river that runs through our private lands (East Fork River) boasts some of the best fisheries habitat – for salmon, steelhead, bull trout, and native rainbow trout in the west.
My family has also been active members of the Challis Experimental Stewardship Program (CESP), one of three in the US authorized and established under Section 12 of the Public Rangeland Improvement Act in 1978. One of the primary objectives throughout the history of CESP has been to mitigate the grazing reductions to area ranchers and help stabilize the local ranching economy.
Justin, Sarah, and Grandpa showing off their (found) antlers after riding
My family’s ability to set down at the table with all interest groups and federal agencies, and lead tours of their ranch and range allotments, all led to the development of allotment management plans, mitigation of stocking reductions, range improvements that provided better livestock distribution, and development of irrigated-early-spring-use pastures to relieve pressure on some of the lower range and privately owned hay land and pastures. I am now proud to say that I am the Chairman of that group and hope to keep the good work of the CESP continuing on into the future!
We have also worked closely with the local Soil and Water Conservation District, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed program to protect and enhance salmon, steelhead, and bull trout habitat on the ranch on the East Fork River. Fencing off streams to promote fish and waterways, reclaiming, filtering and re-using water whenever possible, creating man-made irrigation ponds, and proper grazing all have encouraged the growth of healthy, riparian areas in the river bottoms, and encouraged clean water and abundant wildlife habitat on the ranch.
After the wolves were introduced into Central Idaho, my family worked with local Fish and Game (F&G) and Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) personelle, to help collar and identify problem wolves, monitor wolf activity, and report depredations when confirmed. Our family were featured on national television when Peter Jennings and his NBC crew flew to Idaho to film a documentary on wolf re-introduction. Telling our story, and the stories of other hard working ranchers, has always been important to our family.
Sarah and her grandpa vaccinating cattle
Is there something interesting, cutting-edge, fascinating, you would like readers to know?
Most people think it is strange that we do not have cell phone coverage on the ranch, and that we only get mail delivered twice a week!
What are the biggest challenges you face as a rancher?
Radical environmentalists! Uneducated public who think they are “green”. I think that the “green” environmental movement (whether it is activists trying to stop public lands grazing, or a working mother who believes that organic, free range, non-GMO, natural, sustainable, blah, blah, food is the only thing they can feed to their family, or a conservation group lobbying to “protect” vast acreages of Custer County), is the determent of the country! When people are uneducated and base decisions on emotion, rather than facts, agriculture and ranching are in a world of hurt. The people that are making decisions in this country need a healthy dose of reality about where their food comes from – and what it takes from ranchers and farmers to make it happen.
Heading home after turning yearlings out – what spectacular scenery!
What are ranching’s biggest rewards for you?
Ranching is not just a business, but a way of life! Family! Doing something that we love every day. Working in the outdoors. Not having a boss, except for Mother Nature and Father Time!
I am fortunate that I can work in a job with the University of Idaho Extension Office to help ranchers in the county, including my family, and then on my days off, be at home and help on the ranch.
Do you participate in any civic or industry organizations?
Custer Soil & Water Conservation District, Upper Salmon River Basin Watershed Program, Challis FFA, Custer County 4-H, Clayton Historical Society, Clayton 4th of July, Challis Area Chamber of Commerce, Challis Experimental Stewardship Program, Idaho Cattle Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (and many, many others, Sarah is everywhere!)
Are there any stories about farming that you’d like to share?
We lost my grandpa – who was my partner in crime – on June 27 of this year. He was 92 years old. It has been an extremely tough time for my family losing him, although we know he lived a rich and full life. He was born on the East Fork, and he passed away on the East Fork – on his ranch. He was the last of the Baker Brothers on the East Fork. We spread his ashes on November 1 – his and my grandma’s 54th wedding anniversary – on a mountain overlooking the ranch in the sage brush and pine trees. I can look up every day from my house and see his final resting place. He is now watching over us as my family continues on his ranching legacy.
The Baker Family toasting Grandpa – Shipping 2014
When next you eat a delicious hamburger or a fine steak, think of the Baker Family, and say a big THANK YOU to them, for producing our beef. We also thank the Bakers for their diligence and duty in the care of their land. They are an excellent example of fine, sustainable stewardship of the land.
THANK YOU BAKER FAMILY RANCHES!
* Bureau of Land Management
**United States Forest Service