ND monks mirror concerns of SD ranchers
Dakota Digest - 09/29/2011
By Jim Kent
A century-old tradition of Benedictine monks in North Dakota is about to come to an end. This Fall the men of Assumption Abbey are saying goodbye to their cattle herd - descendants of animals that have been with them since 1899. Today we visit with the monks and find that the reason for the loss of their herd is a concern for South Dakota ranchers as well.
There's a chill in the air as high plains winds beat against the walls of Assumption Abbey. The Benedictine monastery stands like a great stone fortress at the edge of the small town of Richardton, North Dakota.
Inside the Benedictine monastery, sounds of the daily activities of 25 monks fill the air.
Nearby, there's another sound not usually associated with the Catholic Church - from some of the 300 head of cattle the Benedictine monks have cared for since the monastery was built. Brother Placid Gross has been the main wrangler for the black Angus herd almost since his arrival at the abbey in 1957.
"The monks came here, started a monastery here in 1899 and they've had a farm right for the beginning," explains Gross. "It was a way of raising our own food. In the early days, everybody had beef cattle and dairy cattle. But now, in recent years, we're selling most of the cows...or the claves, We still butcher our own, but we don't butcher very many. So, it is a source of income for the abbey."
A source of income that's about to disappear. The monks are preparing to sell their herd at auction, probably around Thanksgiving. Abbot Brian Wangler, who's in charge at the monastery, says it's strictly a matter of manpower.
Well, it's people willing to do the work, knowing how to do the work" Wangle comments. "It almost requires somebody who was raised on a farm. I mean, you can learn the work - but you've really got to have an interest in it. And we just don't have enough young people who are really interested in that kind of work."
Interested in that kind of work and willing to live the life of a monk - which includes group prayer sessions 4 times a day. At 76, Brother Placid is finding the requirements of handling the substantial herd with just one 40-something fellow monk assisting a bit taxing.
"The hardest part of the work is the calving time," Gross explains. "Very often we get really bad weather. You have to be out there to help bring the calf inside to a warm place. So...so we get up during the night...oh, we check at least every 4 hours."
Taking time out from a Rapid City meeting of the Stockgrowers Association, Marv Kammerer says South Dakota faces the same problem as the monks: a shortage of younger ranchers.
"We've got the average age of the farmer/rancher in the Upper Great Plains as 58-years old," Kammerer advises. "And that's dangerous for the economy and the industry."
Kammerer was fortunate to have 5 of his 7 children follow his footsteps into ranching, but he says that's not the norm.
"There's a lot of things drawing the young people away from the ranches and farms," observes Kammerer. "They're going for better wages, schools, otherwise a lot of economic factors drive them off these places."
R-CALF USA, a national stockgrowers association reports the number of cattle operations in South Dakota alone has dropped by more than 13,000 since 1980. More than 147,000 cattle operations have bit the dust across the country since 1996.
Alex Romero-Frederick and her husband run a small ranch on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. Speaking from her home, the young Lakota woman expresses the same concerns for the future of ranching as Marv Kammerer.
"I mean, we're losing the family ranching business," Romero-Frederick remarks. "You know, the next generation takes over after the other generation retires. And I'm not seeing that anymore. And it's kind of scary. It's like....I mean, are my kids going to do it? Did I instill in them the right stuff to want to take over after I'm gone?"
Her 3-year old son, Cedar, recently answered that question for Romero-Frederick when she expressed concern over whether there would be another cowboy in her family.
"He said, ‘Yes, Mom. Just me and you ranch," Romero-Frederick recalls.
Whether at a North Dakota abbey or on ranches in South Dakota, Marv Kammerer describes the opportunity to raise cattle as the gifts of providing food and caring for the land.
He hopes they're gifts that young ones besides Cedar will choose to accept.
Click here to play Real Media: