Generational cattle farms face reckoning as younger generations opt out

Published: Aug. 31, 2022 at 10:35 AM EDT

WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - For Will MacDonald, cattle ranching is in his blood.

“I’m the fourth generation here,” said MacDonald,”My great grandfather homesteaded here. So we’ve we’ve been here for a while, I guess since the 1880s.”

During that nearly century and a half - they’ve weathered it all.

“Everything from the Depression, the dirty thirties, a couple of world wars and agriculture’s continued to survive and we’ve continued, our families continue to stay here,” said MacDonald, “So I’m hoping that that can continue, you know, for the, for the future.”

The future of MacDonald’s ranch looks bright. That’s thanks to his three boys who have all signed on to pick up the reins once Will retires.

But not all generational cattle farms face the same stability.

Sixteen hundred miles away in Washington D.C., Nate Stephens swapped the cowboy life for a coastal one.

“My dad and I, we’re very similar, but his path was completely opposite to mine in that he always knew that he wanted to be a rancher,” said Stephens, “It’s where he draws his passion, and his meaning, and he’s really good at it”

Nate was born into a fifth-generation cattle farm in South Dakota, but left after high school.

“As a gay man, as somebody who is interested in different cultures, Western South Dakota is kind of a difficult place right now and not the most welcoming.,” explains Stephens, “As much as I love it and really hold it in my heart”

With the encouragement of his parents, Stephen’s education and career brought him to Washington, where he now runs a consulting company. He explains that he loves the life he’s created, but has mixed feelings about the one he left behind.

“There’s certainly maybe some sadness around a path that might have been or some alternative universe where I was excited to start a rodeo at six years old”

As for the future of their farm - he says he and his sister want to honor the legacy of what their family has built.

“One element of the plan that I feel really certain about is that it’s hard to imagine an amount of money that would attract my sister and me to turn it over to a real estate developer” said Stephens.

“Maybe it’s not a cattle operation, but there’s something else agriculturally that we’re doing maybe there’s something more sustainable. There’s something a different use for that really incredible place.”