Garber Agri-Business Inc.: The building of a legacy in the Bighorns
August 26, 2013
For more than 130 years, the Garber family has made their living in agriculture south of Big Horn, WY. Over time they have adapted, changed, diversified and always worked together to survive and thrive in the continuously changing world of ranching.
"My great-grandfather, J.O. Willits was running a very successful farming operation on the Mississippi River in Iowa, but because of Tuberculosis health concerns, his doctor advised him to move to a drier climate. In 1880 he traveled to the Denver, Colorado area looking for farm and ranch land. Upon his arrival there, he discovered that the best land was already settled. Another factor was that so many people had already gone to Colorado for the cure and dry air that he decided that wasn't a very healthy place to be.
"In the spring of 1881 he traveled to Cheyenne, bought a horse and outfit and came up through this country. J.O. had been told that if he traveled 300 miles north of the UP (Union Pacific) railroad and 150 miles south of the Yellowstone River to the east slope of the Bighorn Mountains he would find an area of clear water and good grass. These travels took him to the Yellowstone River and then back to the Big Horn area where he staked a claim. Then he went home to Iowa, got his family, and was back in the Big Horn area to have a cabin put up that fall before winter set in. Some of us have been here ever since," explained David Garber of how his family came to live under the shadow of Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains long ago.
Originally, David's great-grandfather capitalized on using the hundreds of free roaming horses in the area as a result of the Indians being moved onto the reservation and the U.S. cavalry being greatly reduced.
"He set up one corral in southern Montana, and another closer to home, and would trap those horses, then sort out the mares. He brought them home and bred the good ones to light draft horses, and turned out matched lighter draft teams for the trolley cars. That went on until someone invented an electric trolley car," explained David.
J.O. later set up a facility to buy local lambs and feed them out on hay and grain. When finished, the lambs would be trailed out to a railroad station and shipped to market.
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"At one point in time, some of those lambs went to the Great Lakes on the railroad, then were put aboard a ship and ended up in England, as live lambs. I don't know if a shark followed them across the ocean or what, but that's something for those days," commented David with a chuckle.
Starting in 1907 Great-Grandfather Willits built in the Bighorn Mountains an irrigation reservoir that bears his name and has been maintained and improved by generations of Garbers. In the 1950s David's father Victor and his uncle Orr built Cross Creek Reservoir to provide water for agriculture. In the 1970s, the Garber family doubled its capacity to 800 acre feet storage capacity. This reservoir provided the water for their feedlot operation and expanded hay production.
"My grandparent's generation stayed in the ranching industry, which my father and his brothers kept going. The business evolved into a partnership of my father and his brother Orr, and that partnership lasted until my uncle's death in the 1960s. Since that time we have been a closed family corporation consisting of my father, brothers Paul and Roy, and me," explained David of the progression of the ranch over time.
The family primarily ran sheep until 1972, when the ban of 10-80 and resulting changes in predator control combined with the increased difficulty in finding and keeping a reliable herder caused them to go strictly to cattle.
"We had to take a hard look around at that time. We knew we couldn't all stay in agriculture because we just didn't have the land base, or anything else. Within a few months, we had picked up one ranch that was a foreclosure, and another neighboring ranch that was run by an old bachelor. We reached an understanding with him that we would help him for as long as he wanted to ranch, with the stipulation that he would sell to us when he was finished. Those things gave us enough of a land base to stay mostly in agriculture at that time," explained David, adding that the family also changed their operation's name to Garber Agri-Business Incorporated in 1973.
Shortly thereafter, David's brother Paul chose to branch out and start an earth moving construction business on the side, following in his great-grandfather's footsteps of building and repairing irrigation systems and reservoirs.
"Then, when the housing boom hit in Sheridan County, we got into a lot of dirt moving related to that – basements and roads and that type of construction. Stream bed restoration work was also added. Over time, that part of our business has outgrown the ag part, and is very successful. But, we're still a cow-calf operation too," said David of how the operation has changed and diversified over time.
A 1,000 head backgrounding feedlot was also a part of the operation from 1973 until 2005 and was used primarily to develop heifer and bull calves for neighboring operations. When the price of fuel and corn made it uneconomical to continue, the Garber's reclaimed the land back into their hay base.
That hay base comes in handy during winter months, and provides a cash crop. David explained that he has always put up more hay than he needs, and kept enough to ensure the cows are well fed regardless of the weather.
"We're very blessed to have running water everywhere, in small streams. We don't own a windmill, and have to develop very few springs. We also have good grass in our location," he noted of the benefits of the operation's location.
But, along with the perks of ranching in a well-watered location come the challenges. Among the worst is the influx of the public on the Garber's summer mountain leases, which David said they will no longer be using.
"For three generation's we've put up with the Forest Service and the public and everything else. The part of the mountain we graze has gone through a major shift from ag use and timber harvest to recreation. In the summer of 2011, I would go up there and find dozens of four-wheelers happily roaming our permit and not one gate closed behind them. This was a daily occurrence and I finally got to the point where it was enough: the cows don't need the harassment or the dust and I don't need that kind of fun. We are walking away from the mountain permit and in the future plan to lease grass elsewhere, possibly closer to home." said David.
He added that adapting to the change is just another part of staying in the business, commenting that everyone is currently challenged with maintaining herd numbers, keeping their operations economically viable and being smart enough to control expenses and make it work.
In addition to their commitment to the operation, the Garber's have also maintained a tradition of community involvement, serving on numerous boards and in various elected and appointed positions.
"My father served in the Wyoming Legislator for several terms, was on the Sheridan College Board, and was appointed to serve on the Wyoming Employment Security Commission, which oversaw the guidelines for workman's compensation on the state level for many years.
"My older brother Paul, in conjunction with his construction work, served in various capacities in the Land Improvement Contractors Association, both at the state and national level. My younger brother Roy spent many years on the local school board and serves as a trustee of Whitney Benefits. I've been on the Wyoming Farm Bureau Board for many years, and was the last president of the Bighorn Forest Permittees Association prior to the Guardians of the Range group taking that responsibility over," explained David.
While each family member enjoys their individual pursuits and interests – David says he has always loved the livestock side of things and putting up hay on the ranch – the entire family has also always worked together to get the job done.
"One big positive for me is working with my family. My brothers and I all have very different personalities, but we've all worked well together and will continue to do so. From the beginning my family has always worked together, and been pretty progressive, which I believe are both keys to our survival," concluded David.
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