let ‘em fight over it when I’m gone.” That was my uncle
Steve’s estate planning. He and his two sisters had inherited a
twenty-four-thousand acre ranch in New Mexico, and he had run it for the
last thirty years, doubling the acreage in the 1950s.
The “Third Generation”
– the seven grandchildren of the founders of the ranch – all
of us middle-aged – didn’t really know each other very well
and had never talked about the future. One day in 1995, cousin Stevie
planted a seed: “I don’t want a piece of the ranch. What I
want is for it to keep on being a ranch, and I want to come out here.”
The others chimed in: “Me too!” By October 1996 the goal was
pretty well defined: to keep Trigg Ranch functioning as a cattle ranch
forever, and for all the heirs to have access.
It was Sally, a lawyer by training,
who knew what to do next. She began reading up on trusts, and searched
out specialists who had worked with ranches in the Southwest planning
for the future – who mostly told her that what we wanted to do couldn’t
be done. She persisted, and we all met in Dallas with one who challenged
us to think honestly about our goals and what we’d each be willing
to give up to achieve them. Although each of us was financially comfortable
for the present, there would be times, he warned, when some of us –
or a child, or grandchild – would need money, and income from the
ranch might pay for medical treatment or tide someone through a career
crisis. We said we were willing to put the whole ranch in trust, with
the understanding there would never be any income paid out to a family
member, and no individual would have the right to require the sale of
any ranch assets. We were sobered but our determination began to grow.
My mother Adaline was careful not
to say anything that would influence the Third Generation, except that
she guessed the Trust was a nice idea. Her sister Louise, alas, had Alzheimer’s
and could take no part in the discussion. And Steve, who had run the ranch
for years? What he thought was anybody’s guess.
Another unknown was the condition
of the ranch. We could see that the range had deteriorated somewhat over
the years, and mesquite and juniper have gotten a lot thicker. But the
Aberdeen Angus herd, little modified from the cattle our grandfather Steve
Trigg had trailed over from the XIT Ranch in Texas in 1917 – that
was the first herd of Angus in New Mexico – was highly regarded
by buyers and the calves and yearlings brought top dollar. In good years
the ranch made money, in bad years it lost money. But we didn’t
know how much; Steve could get pretty taciturn and the drawn-out “gaaaawwd-daaammn”
with which he endowed every sentence took up a lot of the conversation.
There was no debt; but could we count on the ranch to support itself over
the years? Fences always need work – but how much needed to be replaced?
Windmills, roads, corrals – what condition were they in? The two
main houses were pretty well run down, the little guest house was full
of termites, the big barn was filled with junk.
And how many cattle were there? Even
Steve didn’t know. Years earlier, the accountant in town had bugged
him until one day he appeared in her office, unrolled six feet of aerial
photo of the ranch, and said, “You count ‘em; they’re
all there” — along with the cottonwoods, junipers, and boulders.
As Steve had grown older, he seemed not to have the energy to round up
all the cattle every year; so especially in the rougher country and the
most remote pastures, the cattle grew wild and wily, eating the good grass
but hiding their calves.
So it was a gamble that the ranch
would be financially healthy.
Meanwhile, there were the costs of
talking to lawyers. Even with Sally donating her time, there were travel
expenses and steep hourly fees as she interviewed ranch specialists. Sally
talked Steve into agreeing that the ranch would contribute toward the
legal fees, but there was no way to know what we were getting ourselves
into and whether our hands would have to dig into our own pockets. We
decided, however, to move ahead carefully.
Sally recommended that we talk to Albuquerque estate and tax specialist
Kenneth Leach, who was enthusiastic about our vision and as we moved ahead
began calling us “The Magnificent Seven.” By the time we all
met with him, he and Sally had roughed out a structure: a “Trigg
Trust”, into which all of us would gift all our ownership interest.
The Trust would own all the shares of Trigg Cattle Company, and a Family
Limited Partnership; Trigg Cattle Company as General Partner would continue
to operate the cattle business. All profits would stay in the Trust and
will be used to benefit the ranch; no Trigg heir would have any right
to receive any income, except as an employee. The ranch could be sold
only if 85% of the heirs agreed. In return, every Trigg descendant, who
becomes a beneficiary of the Trust at birth, shares the right of access
to the ranch.
lifetime of the Trust was a problem. In most states a trust has a maximum
term of ninety-nine years. At that point the chances of creating another
trust with several hundred heirs gifting their interest into it would
be exactly nil. A few states, however, allow perpetual trusts. Sally recommended
South Dakota, and we pay a bank there a pretty stiff fee as “Independent
Trustee”; but we agree that “perpetual” – whatever
that may mean in this case – is worth it.
The Trust document was drawn up, but
not before we had renamed it for both our grandparents: “The Steve
and Bess Trigg Trust”. Originally, Steve’s father and siblings
had together bought a much larger ranch; ours was the portion Steve and
Bess had been able to hold onto as his siblings bitterly parted ways in
the 1920s. After Steve Sr. died from a fall in 1937, our grandmother Bess
Whittle Trigg ran the ranch with the help of 20-year-old Steve Jr. He
was her right hand through the years, and gradually took over as her powers
waned. Bess was almost ninety when she died in 1975, leaving her grandchildren
with treasured memories of times spent with her at the ranch.
The documents were ready for us to
sign in 2001. By that time, the Steve and Bess Trigg Trust had become
even more complex: in order to avoid death duties upon the passing of
each heir, which would quickly crush the ranch, a number of separate “Crummey
Trusts” had to be established to separate out each heir’s
ownership. Finally, however, we could begin gifting our ownership of land
and Trigg Cattle Company stock into the Trust, at a rate determined by
gift taxes. In addition to the seven cousins, there were spouses, children,
and grandchildren, for a total of twenty-one “beneficiaries”
of the Trust. If Sally hadn’t kept track of all the trusts and all
the gifting, with documents of acceptance for each to be signed by the
rest of us, the works would have been gummed up forever.
Steve cooperated with our creation
of the Trust and gifted his own ownership into it; at the time of his
death in 2002, that was complete, and his estate owed no “death
tax”. By November 4, 2004, all of us had given all our ownership
to the Trust.
During the years of getting the Trust
into operation, another thing of major importance had been happening.
It began in the summer of 1997, when after the deaths of Steve’s
two sisters, Adaline and Louise, we brought their ashes to the ranch to
scatter on Alamosa. For two centuries there has been a cross on the point
of Alamosa Butte overlooking the Creek Pasture and all the comings and
goings along the ranch road; the first cross was undoubtedly put there
by the Penitentes, and it has been repaired and the Ponderosa pine logs
replaced until the baling wire which holds the crossbar in place has grown
into a great glob. In 1975 the first ashes were scattered at the foot
of the cross, those of 11-year-old Trigg Decker who had died of leukemia.
Now there are more than twenty of the family whose ashes are there and
whose names we have carved into the sandstone; and an early-morning climb
up the rough 600-foot mesa through the caprock to the point has become
a special time.
When we brought Adaline’s and
Louise’s ashes home to the ranch that August of 1997, the seven
cousins and our spouses and children converged at “Nana’s”,
the old ranch house where we spent happy summer visits with our grandmother.
As we sat around the dining-room table – which Adaline and Louise
had painted a vivid turquoise, and Polly had added bright Mexican-style
flowers on the chairs and sideboards – something became very clear
to us: if we were going to come here to the ranch, we had to work on the
house! Steve had put new tin roofs on all the ranch buildings, but the
spring was barely running, the old trees were dying, the cesspool had
collapsed, and cattle were breaking down the stone garden walls. Inside,
the furnace had been kept going in the winter to keep the pipes from freezing,
and, amazingly, Nana’s geraniums and spider plants, which had been
watered faithfully for a quarter-century, were still alive. The bathrooms
in the other section of the house hadn’t fared so well; a pipe had
broken there and the flagstone patio was still torn up from stopping that
big leak. Great cracks and stains were in every room, the thick stone
walls having been built in 1924 without much of a foundation. Ground termites
had done significant damage at one time, and the floor under the grand
piano was pretty lacy.
So the next summer 25 or so of us
converged for a “Work Week”. The guys concentrated first on
shoring up the living room floor with welded steel beams across the basement.
Then we breathed easier – and very carefully moved the piano. Meanwhile,
others had begun scraping, repairing, reglazing, and painting the windows.
Stevie started rebuilding the kitchen door, Tom replaced ancient electrical
wiring in the basement, the children fetched and handed tools and helped
gather clippings pruned from overgrown shrubs. Steve ignored us, although
he agreed that the ranch would pay for most of the supplies. Sally had
bought resin chairs and long tables, and after the sun got low we moved
the work projects off and set the tables in the shady driveway, lingering
after supper to tell old stories and getting to know each other in new
ways. However, it was working together through the long hot days that
was the essential bonding.
In eight years of Work Weeks we’ve
achieved a lot. After the first year Steve dropped in often, seemed surprised
that we were sticking to it, and was pleased to see the wonderful old
house perking up. The spring and water storage and pipes, propane system,
gutters to prevent erosion around the house, roof and windows of the milk
house, a rickety porch, and more – but not yet all – of the
windows, screens, and doors have been rebuilt or replaced. A great visual
change took place when Mexican craftsmen replastered all the rooms and
relaid the flagstone porch and patio; Rick and Kristen and their daughters
added ceiling fans and refinished the floors; Sally with some help has
refurbished all the furnishings, and she with a couple of cowboys reworked
the bathrooms with great style. The great old cottonwood around which
the house was built finished dying, was cut down and replanted; the new
tree has almost tripled in size in three years. We cleaned out the old
bunkhouse and installed a new septic system this year; it’ll be
ready for the kids next summer. Complete renovation of the kitchen is
next on the list – maybe we’ll get a start on it in 2008!
It is interesting doing all this work
without a boss. At first we just plugged away at fixing the worst problems.
After a while, we realized that without a chain of command, we had to
find another way. The decision was this: whoever REALLY cares about a
project and is urgently working to get it done is in charge. Everyone
else is free to advise, criticize, draw diagrams, demonstrate a technique,
offer to get parts or to help, whatever – but the spearhead makes
the decisions. This has worked pretty well! Grumbling gets little sympathy.
Everyone feels quite free to give advice or to ask questions, however
sweetly; the total amount of experience and common sense is quite high;
the number of stupid mistakes and overlooked problems is surprisingly
low. And we take responsibility for ourselves; no one has been injured,
and there has been little call even for the box of Band-Aids.
The Big Shift
Meanwhile, nature has taken its course.
In May 2002 Steve had a major stroke, and died a month later at age 85.
On August 8th over two hundred people made the long trek from home –
Trigg Ranch isn’t close to anywhere – for a memorial under
the cottonwoods in the Creek Pasture. A procession led by Steve’s
beloved D6 Caterpillar carrying his ashes was followed by a bagpiper –
his only request – and then by granddaughter Hilary driving the
skid loader with Jack Daniels and ice in its bucket; there was a final
toast as three Cessnas (his two sons are pilots) took off to scatter Steve’s
ashes on Alamosa. Their “missing man” formation as they came
over the point of Alamosa made his absence all too vivid.
Suddenly the Third Generation was
in charge. We had held a Ranch Meeting the day before the funeral, and
carried out a plan we had discussed for several years: Steve’s daughter
Kristen was appointed Ranch Manager, with her husband Richard Holmes as
Assistant Manager. We announced this at the memorial, along with the existence
of the Trust: “Trigg Ranch is going to keep on being Trigg Ranch!”
Kristen had majored in Ranch Management
at Colorado State University, and she and Rick had worked as cowboys and
lived on the ranch since they were married, raising their two daughters
there. Steve taught Kristen and Rick nothing about the ranch affairs;
they learned only what they could see with their own eyes. They stepped
up to the responsibilities of their new roles eagerly, if with some uneasiness.
Of course the rest of the clan gives advice freely and endlessly.
Even before Steve’s death Kristen
had a plan for what she would do first: “get rid of the wild cattle!”
By September a number of cows and bulls had been gathered and shipped
to auction. It took a helicopter to gather the next batch. Over the next
year Kristen and the cowboys took great satisfaction in shipping off one
truckload after another; in all, over 800 head. Another plan was put quickly
into execution: all four Holmeses worked for weeks to clean out the barn
and workshop so that the truck hoist could be used, there was room to
move around, tools and parts could be found. Strangely, little things
kept disappearing; they were found months later in the nest of a packrat.
Gradually the picture began to come
clear: the ranch was free of debt, and there was a cash cushion which
grew as the wild cattle were sold. It was a time of drought, and the Holmeses
let the herd shrink as the calf crop was sold off. Fences were in bad
shape, and the windmills weren’t much better. Meanwhile, Kristen
and Rick were feeling their way into new roles, shifting from being on
the bottom rung to being boss, a position which is uncomfortable for sweet,
lovely Kristen. Much of the smooth transition has been due to the goodwill
of longtime cowboys Guero Moreno and his brother Abel.
We had become aware of a training
program for ranch managers developed by the Allan Savory Center for Holistic
Management, and of some remarkable improvement in range health and stocking
rates which had resulted when ranchers used Savory’s methods. The
year-long course combines five week-long “Intensives” alternating
with real life back at the ranch, considerable homework applying new methods,
and consultants readily available. We had decided that Kristen would attend,
and in fact it was on the morning Steve died that his children, leaving
the hospital, stopped at the Savory Center to sign her up; the tuition
was paid with a check from the new Family Limited Partnership. The Holmeses,
strongly supported by the clan, soon decided that it was well worth another
$10,000 fee for Rick to attend the whole course with Kristen.
The Holistic Management method lays
considerable emphasis on “rotational grazing” so that most
of the range is rested for most of the year; the cattle are gathered into
a large herd and moved frequently. These methods put considerable demands
on water systems and on fencing, often using electric fences which are
difficult to manage in our rough terrain; and they require changes in
handling cattle, continually putting cattle into unfamiliar territories
– in our case, after they have been in the same pasture for 75 years.
Heeding the warning of a consultant that many a wreck results from making
too many changes too quickly, Kristen and Rick have moved slowly, while
putting effort into building up the infrastructure which will support
the recommended methods. At the same time, they have been adopting systems
of financial planning, of making a detailed grazing plan which must constantly
be modified, and of monitoring the condition of the land. Workshops on
methods for retaining water on the land, preventing and repairing erosion,
“harvesting” water from ranch roads, and low-stress cattle
handling have evoked unbridled enthusiasm from various members of the
clan. Somehow, as much as we intend to help, these improvements usually
mean more things for Kristen and Rick to do.
Marketing the cattle is another area
of change. While brokers are still begging forfeeder and stocker calves,
for several years Kristen has been sending truckloads of cattle to auctions
and calves to feedlots. Increasingly she has been able to get detailed
data on carcasses after varied feeding programs, and it is evident that
the demand for a slightly larger carcass will have to be balanced with
the advantages of small-boned “Trigg” Angus in our rough country.
Meanwhile, we have become interested in Country Natural Beef, have sent
our first batch of cattle, are in the process of certification, and are
eager for the development of a “Southwest Production Module”
nearer than Oregon.
The Trigg Cattle Company Board Steps Up
After several years of the new regime,
we have realized several things. One, that the members of the clan have
an amazing range of expertise to offer, from carpentry to operation of
heavy equipment to sophisticated skills with electronics to financial
management, and the younger generation is bringing some superb education
and experience. Two, that it takes effort to get together, covering distances
and adjusting schedules. Three, that it takes effort for a bunch of introverts
to communicate, and we’re making an effort to use email, a newsletter,
and conference calls to make plans and decisions.
The fourth thing we’ve realized
is that we’ve moved a long way from Steve’s one-man management,
and that if we’re going to call on this growing clan to contribute
its varied skills, we need a structure to make it happen. So in the summer
of 2006 we spent several days of Work Week on strategic planning. A pair
of facilitators recommended by Robin spent two days at the ranch helping
us articulate our various hopes and dreams and the values that underlie
them. Then they pointed out that our structure – the managers, five
directors of Trigg Cattle Company, and three trustees – were addressing
only the ranch operations; nobody was in charge of the “family”
concerns of housing and how to keep it welcoming for those who want to
come and stay for a few days, entertaining friends or helping with ranch
work. The “access” which was one of the key goals was being
It didn’t take long for the
Trigg Cattle Company Board to respond by suggesting committees for
“operations” and “family”, and a financial committee
to plan for both. Already the voice of the “younger generation”
had been heard and the Board was increased by two seats which are earmarked
for them. When the Board reported at dinner that night, its recommendations
were eagerly accepted and there was high energy as the self-appointed
subcommittees immediately went to work.
Among the criteria adopted by the
Board was one that had already been adopted by family meetings: decisions
are made by consensus rather than majority vote. Discussions apart from
meetings are by email, and all emails are sent to everyone; no decisions
will be made until there has been “sufficient” discussion.
Of course it remains to be seen just how all that will work out! Certainly
there is a high level of participation, with some vigorous disagreement.
We’re aiming to give Kristen and Rick the kinds of support and encouragement
that will make their job more comfortable, and also to call into play
the varied and surprising skills of the clan.
Throughout the years since we first
began talking about the future of the ranch, we’ve pretty well kept
our eyes on the goals we first articulated: Trigg Ranch will keep on being
a ranch, the land will be cared for and its natural beauty protected,
and we and our grandchildren and their great-grandchildren will be able
to come and learn about our ranching heritage. Our “wholistic goal”,
which gets edited frequently, spells this out and will guide all our decisions,
which we are learning to test with the seven questions which are part
of the Savory method.
Our focus is on operating the ranch
profitably forever, and on the values which we intend to pass on to the
hundreds of heirs who will come after us: the values of cooperation and
patience; the importance of one’s word and one’s deeds; pride
in the accomplishment of a job well done; and the skills, knowledge, and
opportunity to work productively for the land and its people.
We intend to be – as Eric says
– the last family ranch left standing. But we hope we’ll
have lots of company through the years.
October 20, 2006
Linda M. Decker