Black Ranchers Embark on Rare Endeavor
Black History Month: Extension’s Programs Support Ranchers
For a small family in Gilbert, Arizona, what started out as a simple suburban home search in the time of COVID, has turned into a mission to produce diverse and quality food from their newly-acquired 10-acre ranch just outside of Douglas, Arizona. With little more than a passion for physical fitness, nutrition, and a savvy business background, Rachael and James Stewart set off to become one of a handful of minority-owned ranching and farming outlets in the state.
Meet the Stewarts. Rachael, of Filipino-Mexican decent, and James, who is African American, have four children who are coming along this journey: James, 11; Zinaye, 10; Zeyana, 9; and Javon, 8. What would normally scare a small family out of venturing into a farming and ranching operation and competing with several external elements – including, being first-timers – the Stewarts are jumping in headfirst. Their secret weapon to take on the daunting challenge: Rachael’s 4-H experience!
“I grew up in a small mountain community in Northern California and members of the community wanted to start a small 4-H program,” Rachael said. And without having many resources to get started, Rachael was able to keep her first animal, a pig, at her program leader’s house. “There were just so many positives and no negatives to joining,” she said. “I was able to go to my leader’s house and take care of my pig.”
She quickly learned that taking care of her animal was not the only lesson she was receiving from the 4-H experience. In addition to learning about care and treatment of the animal, there’s an economic component to the 4-H curriculum.
“You have to take account for all of your spending,” she says. “Materials and cost of animal is the first thing. But they guide you through it, which is so helpful.”
4-H, which stands for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health, is a youth-development program that is facilitated by University of Arizona faculty and staff through the Arizona Cooperative Extension system. With offices in all 15 counties across the state and on five Native American Tribes, programming focuses on hands-on, real-world experiences for youth.
“We make the best better,” said Jeremy Elliott-Engel, associate director and state 4-H program leader. “We provide experiences where young people learn by doing – by completing hands-on projects in areas like healthy living, STEM, agriculture and citizenship, in a positive environment where they receive guidance from adult mentors and are encouraged to take on proactive leadership roles.”
According to Elliott-Engel, Arizona’s 4-H program is committed to ensuring high-quality, positive youth development experiences for all youth in Arizona. This falls in direct alignment with 4-H’s national commitment to ensure programs reflect the population demographics, vulnerable populations, diverse needs, and social conditions of our state.
In Arizona, over 200,000 youth experience educational and personal growth opportunities through the University of Arizona Cooperative personnel and volunteers in all counties and Tribal communities.
“Reaching all youth in Arizona is vital as there is tremendous value in having a diverse membership of 4-H youth working together to solve tomorrow’s issues,” said Elliott-Engel. “We do our very best to ensure our programs are inclusive of all youth in the state. If you have the interest, we have a place for you.”
At a young age, Rachael had the interest in farming as it was something her grandparents did very well. She recalls, as a little girl, being in awe of the gardens she grew up in. Prior to her Filipino grandfather being put into a Japanese internment camp as a youth, his family and parents had a very successful farm operation growing tomatoes, she said. She also recalls her Filipino-Mexican American grandfather, who marched with Cesar Chavez during the migrant worker strikes in Los Angeles, having an amazing garden she loved visiting. And through the racial tensions in the country at that time, she still developed her agricultural passions.
“Farms and ranches are the foundation of our society,” she says. “They are the most important people, even though they don’t get the glory. I have a huge appreciation for where our food comes from.”
It’s this same level of educational and professional growth which Rachael credits to her confidence in running the business side of their ranching and farming operation. James, on the other hand, didn’t get this experience. In fact, he had no 4-H experience while growing up in Oakland, California.
“I played sports, got into body building, and started really understanding nutrition and the entire food ecosystem,” he said. “I went to Fresno State, a huge agricultural community, but never did anything ag-related. So, this is way out of the box from my upbringing.”
But what James lacks in experience, he makes up for in passion. “We’re not about being the richest ranch,” he said. “It’s about actually giving people good, nutritious food. Whatever growth we experience from there is above and beyond.”
Arizona is tough ranching, according to Trent Teegerstrom, associate director for Tribal Extension programs and
agricultural and resource economics. He mentions Arizona’s rugged terrain, water access, drought, and heat as
all contributing factors to making ranching tough.
“First-time ranchers have several challenges to overcome, but Arizona Cooperative Extension has several resources available to help you get started and be successful,” Teegerstrom said.
One such resource Teegerstrom points to is the Building your Business Part 1: Ten Basic Questions That Every Livestock Operation Should Consider. This video presentation provides a way to examine your ranching operation and develop your own action plan. Part of that initial plan includes land and capital – two of the first items Teegerstrom recommends addressing.
“Purchasing the animals and the equipment to move, handle, and work them are things we tend to prioritize,” he said. “This would include horses, trucks, trailers, welders, and saddles, to name a few.”
In the case of the Southwest Black Ranchers, the name of the Stewart’s newfound venture, this is something they addressed by selling James’ 1972 Chevy Caprice. In addition to starting a GoFundMe campaign, the Stewarts were able to purchase their 10-acres and begin acquiring some of their capital equipment.
For the labor, well, that’s where James Jr., Zinaye, Zeyana, and Javon come into the discussion. When first told they were moving to a ranch, they collectively believed they were moving to a forest. What they didn’t know is their ranch would be in the desert. But that’s not a deal-breaker for them.
“I think it’s very nice out here,” said nine-year-old Zeyana, an aspiring veterinarian. “I love the ranch because we have a ton of animals.”
Jayvon, 8, was excited to add, in amazement, that he’s learned turkeys can fly very high. “If you love animals and stars, this is a great place,” Jayvon said.
Zinaye, 10, says her favorite thing is being outside. “I like it because you’re not stuck inside a house. You can run around and play a lot when we’re not helping our animals,” she said.
It’s not all fun and games. Zinaye, also an aspiring veterinarian, mentioned they’ve had to deal with animal health issues, but it’s all part of the experience.
“I love the animals,” she said. “But a baby calf died of pneumonia and a chicken had an eye disease and had to be separated or else the other chickens would harm it.”
Although the animal diseases and health issues may sound grotesque, it’s the lessons Rachael hopes her children receive and understand so they can fully grasp the entire end-to-end food ecosystem. In addition to a rigorous state-approved homeschooling curriculum, Rachael enjoys the fact that the children are still learning by watching and documenting the animals and their behaviors.
Even Rachael and James are continuing to learn. Something Teegerstrom highly recommends.
“We have some really great ranchers, both tribal and non-tribal, in the state who have been ranching successfully for generations and they’ve learned to select the right animals and work with the rangeland,” he said. “They would be great to talk to.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2017 Census for Agriculture, of Arizona’s 32,796 farming and ranching operations, only 54 are Black-owned – less than 1%. With nearly 73-million acres in Arizona, just over 32-million are used for farming and ranching. Of those 32-million acres, only 3,200 are operated by those identifying as black (the least amount of any demographic).
Despite the lack of representation for minority-owned farming and ranching operations in the state, the Stewarts say the reactions to their presence have been positive.
“We’re growing right now, so we go to a lot of different ranches,” Rachael said. “We have experienced so much hospitality,” she describes as they visit other ranches in their area. “They always give us a full tour. They want everyone to know what’s going on and people are very open with information for us.”
The Stewarts plan to continue making connections with other ranchers in the area and are looking to network more. They also plan to get very involved in Arizona 4-H as Rachael feels it’s perfect for the kids to network. And although she misses her showers, she says she could never go back to city life.
“There is so much life on the ranch,” she said. “It’s so peaceful. I feel like we were made for this.”
For more information on the Southwest Black Ranchers and to follow their journey, visit their Facebook page as well as their Instagram account. You can also visit their GoFundMe page to see and contribute to progress on their fundraising goal.
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jeffrey C. Silvertooth, Associate Dean & Director, Extension & Economic Development, Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension, The University of Arizona.
The University of Arizona is an equal opportunity, affirmative action institution. The University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or genetic information in its programs and activities.
Emitido en promoción del trabajo de la Extensión Cooperativa, leyes del 8 de mayo y 30 de junio de 1914, en colaboración con el Departamento de Agricultura de los Estados Unidos, Jeffrey C. Silvertooth, Decano Asociado y Director, Extensión Cooperativa y Desarrollo Económico, División de Agricultura, Ciencias de la Vida, Veterinaria, y Extensión Cooperativa, Universidad de Arizona.
La Universidad de Arizona es una institución que promueve la igualdad de oportunidades y de género. La Universidad no discrimina en sus programas y actividades por razones de raza, color, religión, sexo, nacionalidad de origen, edad, discapacidad, condición de veterano, identidad de género, preferencia sexual, o información genética.