Good fences make good neighbors. Bad fences make bad neighbors. No fences makes war. After enduring months of cattle trespassing on our farm, I finally drew a line in the silty loam.
For years the Colorado River has doubled as a water source and natural fence for livestock. Then came the drought and LCRA no longer releasing water for rice farmers downstream. The fence, you could say, floated downstream, along with property values and a sense of clarity over who has rights to this diminishing resource.
The cattle started showing up three springs ago, seeking greener pastures on our side of the Colorado. Cattle crossings are so quintessential Old West you can almost hear Bonanza theme music in the background. The every day reality is less romantic: loud bellowing, angry bulls, bank erosion, and manure everywhere.
I have nothing against cows but they make lots of cow paddies, which is a problem if you’re a certified organic vegetable farmer. Saturday evening, as I was headed out from the barn, I was stepping all over them as I followed a fresh trail into our field of lush cover crop. You don’t get peas from cowpeas, but now I realized why it got it’s name. Feasting on my nitrogen fixers was a herd of 15 black Angus; they had all of Wilbarger Bend but they chose this two-acre patch where I had planned to start our next succession of vegetables.
Standing amid the herd was a prize bull so thick in the neck I suddenly appreciated another cow-inspired word — bulldozer. Head down, horns up, that dozer was suddenly cruising toward us. Our guard dog Bella ran first, right past me; I wasn’t far behind.
Bastrop livestock officer Melvin Tucker –Junior as they call him — knows just about every cattle owner in the county. His truck and horse trailer have been a regular presence at our farm; more often than not, the wayward cows disappear into the mesquite thicket by the time he unloads his horse and saddles up.
This cat-and-mouse game had gone on for months. We complain. A report is written. The cows retreat across the river at feeding time. As long as all are accounted for, the rancher is happy and has no incentive to end this free lunch program. Now that the freeloaders were in my possession, I finally had bargaining power.
The next morning a ranch foreman named Chad called. I told him I wanted to talk to the owner. And whomever he was, I wanted him to come out to my farm – see the mess he’d caused since his “fence” floated down the river.
There must be several hundred cattle ranchers in the county, but few have as much influence and deep roots here as Verlin Callahan. Verlin’s father was chairman of the county commission. Like his father, he is a director at a local bank. And then there is Callahan’s Feed Store, an Austin institution that supplies our farm.
Before Verlin and Junior showed up in a black and gold King Ranch pickup, I solicited advice from a Bastrop friend. Verlin’s a powerful man, she warned. Push him too far and he’ll squish you like a bug.
“I suggest you take the sympathetic approach,” she added.
For sympathy I needed to find common ground. Animals versus vegetables. Big versus small. Conservative versus liberal. Conventional versus organic. The only common ground I could find was Callahan’s General Store. I’d bought thousands of dollars of feed, seed, and supplies from them over the years, including those delicious cowpeas. Shouldn’t he give me a line of credit to compensate me for three years of having to chase his cows away.
Physically, Verlin is a not a big man, but he has a commanding presence, with steady blue eyes and a Colonel Sanders silver goatee. He explained that he’s leasing the 400 acres across the river and that the owner, a developer, doesn’t want to build a mile of fencing.
“The river’s always been my fence,” he said ruefully.
“Well the fence is gone and it’s not coming back” I said.
I explained that we were certified organic. We have rules to follow and one of them regulates raw manure. All those cow paddies were going mess up my field plan.
“I know. We’ve got a few others like you that come to our store.” He paused to wipe his forehead. “I garden, too.”
“This isn’t a garden,” I shot back. “This is my livelihood. And your cows have been devouring it.”
“Well, they’ve given you some good fertilizer,” he said, pointing to the paddies.
I could almost feel the pressure against my chest – that first push…I reminded myself I needed to tread carefully or my nose would soon be rubbing those patties.
“I don’t need fertilizer,” I countered. “Not here. Not now.”
“Well, tell me, what do you want me to do?” he said impatiently.
Now the push was starting to feel like a shove. I hadn’t yet considered the ways Verlin might squish me, so I bought some time.
”I’m too angry to discuss it rationally,” I said. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
In truth, the damages I sought were more psychological than economical. Green Gate Farms is a small odd duck in a big bovine pond. Being the first and only certified organic vegetable farm in the county didn’t impress him. And now my declaration of war had only underscored how outnumbered I was. As if to rub it in some more, Junior reminded me that the law was on Verlin’s side.
“You can’t hold his cattle,” he said, moving toward the gate. “And we need to get these cows out of here now before it gets too hot or they won’t cross the river.”
“And watch them come back tomorrow?” I said, refusing to move out of the way. “I don’t think so.”
“Won’t happen,” Verlin interjected. “I’m not renewing my lease. I’m moving my cows out of this bend tomorrow…once we get ‘em across the river.”
So there it was. The end of it. Anything more – compensation for cowpeas and lost time – wasn’t forthcoming. Soon the cattle and the cattlemen were gone and all was quiet again.
Or so I thought.