Working Ranch Cowboys Association: For the Greater Good
Working Ranch Cowboys Association is commonly perceived as a ranch rodeo association, and while that is partially true, the ranch rodeos are more of a vehicle for its larger goal: to support the cowboy community. In the two decades since WRCA was formed, it has donated more than $4.5 million to cowboy and ranching families across the nation through its crisis and scholarship funds.
Waddie Mitchell first pitched the idea in 1994 at Randy Whipple’s tourist ranch; he told Whipple that he believed there was a need for an organization to help working ranch cowboys. He thought Amarillo, Texas, was just the place to do it. Soon after, a group of about 20 men, including Whipple, Mitchell, Buster McLaury, Don Edwards, Red Steagall, Michael Martin Murphy, Duane McPherson and more, gathered at the AQHA Heritage Center to create what is now WRCA.
As the first fundraiser, artist Gary Morton offered the use of one of his paintings—which remains part of the WRCA logo today—for founding members to sell 200 prints.
“We got started with money to determine what we’re going to do to bring attention to the working cowboy and support him and his family in times of need,” Whipple said. “That was in April of 1995, and we had our first rodeo that November. We jumped on the bandwagon, and it’s really been a fun ride.”
The 24 ranch rodeos allow WRCA to showcase the cowboy way of living and working from arenas and fairgrounds across the nation, while also serving as fundraisers.
“To help people you have to have money. Early on, they asked, ‘what can we do to generate excitement?’ It’s not just a mission of giving money to support the cowboy, but we also want to help promote the ranching way of life and lifestyle of the cowboy,” said WRCA Association manager Leman Wall.
To compete in WRCA ranch rodeos, members must qualify. There are a few ways to do that, such as working for a ranch that has a minimum of 300 head of cows year-round or a minimum of 750 yearlings pastured for no less than six consecutive months.
“The thing people like about our events is they know they are seeing real cowboys that are showing them their trade,” Wall said. “The sport of ranch rodeo has gotten very popular; there are lots of places you can go enter up into a ranch rodeo and you don’t have to meet any requirements. Within WRCA, the difference is the competition. It’s made up of real ranchers, owners and employees. We are proud of the fact we have those requirements, but on the other hand, we don’t have to seem elitist, like people can’t be a part of this, because they’re a real big component.”
WRCA’s core events that must be included in every ranch rodeo are ranch bronc riding and wild cow milking, then producers may choose one from of the following: team doctoring or stray gathering; team penning or team sorting; and team branding, maverick branding, trailer loading, or horse catching.
While ranch rodeo participants must meet requirements, anyone may be a member of WRCA, and in joining, members’ fees and donations strengthen the crisis and scholarship funds and widen Working Ranch Cowboys Foundation’s reach. Several memberships start at $25, and several tiers are available.
Those requesting crisis assistance or scholarship funds need not be members, however they must be a full-time cowboy or day worker or an immediate family member of one. The association has helped families in many scenarios, including family members receiving cancer and other treatments, cowboys who have been injured on the job, and ranches consumed by fires.
“The grass is turning green and accidents are starting to happen,” said WRCA Foundation member Kaycee Hooper. “We’re not in hibernation at the end of championships until the first ranch rodeo.”
Crisis funds aren’t earmarked for medical bills or anything in particular; WRCA board members hope they are utilized however the family needs the funds most.
“We can’t pay those huge medical bills; we’re there for those day-to-day expenses,” Whipple said. “We want to help the family stay on the ranch, or help them stay in town with the cowboy. We want to make sure they can make their truck payments and keep groceries on the table. We don’t just give someone a check one day, then we’re gone; our goal is to get that cowboy back in the saddle. Whether he has a child who’s hurt, he’s injured in a horse wreck, or has a wife with cancer, we want to help them any way we can.”
While WRCA is based out of Amarillo, where the championship is hosted each fall, they know no geographical boundaries for providing financial aid, other than the United States of America.
“A lot of people don’t think there are ranches in Florida, but for some years, we had some really good sanctioned ranch rodeos in Florida,” Whipple said. “That’s kind of our outreach program so we know what’s going on in places. We’ve covered most of the states, if not all of them, helping people. As for the scholarship, we have helped kids all over the country; if you’re a ranch kid, we want to help you, no matter what you do for a degree.”
Scholarships are awarded annually in the spring; those who are eligible must be a working ranch cowboy or his immediate family member.
“Scholarships are awarded to graduating seniors from high schools or home school and individuals wanting to return to school, certificate programs, vocational programs, graduate school, ranch management programs, vet school, et cetera,” Wall said.
Last years, WRCA gave out 35 scholarships and in 2017, the association awarded $41,000 through the scholarship system.
The 23rd Annual World Championship Ranch Rodeo is scheduled for Nov. 8-11, 2018. The winning team from each of the 24 ranch rodeos throughout the spring, summer, and fall compete in the championship in four rodeo performances, two go-rounds per event. Approximately 36,000 people come through the trade show and attend the rodeo performances.
“It’s a very popular event with sell-out crowds Friday and Saturday. We showcase the ranch rodeo itself, but in addition there’s many other things people come to take part in, like the ranch horse show,” Wall said. “Outside of competition, we have one of the best vendor shows that exists anywhere in the country. Cowboy Trade and Trappings is the cream of the crop when it comes to cowboy craftsmen; the ranch expo and heritage trade show room boast 96,000 square feet of trade show space.”
Cowboy poets and musicians perform throughout the trade show, and WRCA also hosts a special needs ranch rodeo.
“We did that for the first time last year to showcase to the community ranching families and how giving they are to others,” Wall said. “It also helps kiddos just enjoy a little positive experience in their day.”
Cowboys and their families who come to compete in the ranch rodeo receive the height of Southern hospitality through the hospitality room, featuring four days of complementary lunch and dinner, beverages and unlimited amounts of WRCA’s own coffee Bison Union Ranch Hand Blend for contestants and their immediate families, sponsored primarily by Bud Light and others.
“We want to keep the costs down while we’re here, and we couldn’t do it without all those companies,” Wall said. “It would not happen without them.
“We have a hard time bragging on ourselves; we’re in a very precarious position. We understand the pride people have, and we try not to wave the big flag around,” Whipple said. “We’ve been really blessed that people see our mission; they jump in and help. We need to learn to be a bit more informative about what we do so people can help. A lot of people think we’re a rodeo association, and I think we have grown ranch rodeo, transformed it, improved it as a sport, but that’s not what were about. We just use ranch rodeo as a tool.”
Coffee: a cowboy staple, fundraiser
Coffee in a enamel pot brewed over a campfire at the end of a long day in the saddle is iconic cowboy imagery, so it was only natural for Working Ranch Cowboys Association to team up with Bison Union to create Ranch Hand Blend.
Bert Kuntz, with Bison Union Co., approached Kaycee Hooper, a WRCA Foundation Member, about contributing to WRCA’s mission.
“Bert came to the championship and was so impressed by the ranch families, how patriotic we are, and how we had a camaraderie. It’s a kind of connection you can’t explain, something that’s in your soul,” Hooper said.
Kuntz recommended using coffee as a means of fundraising, with $1 per bag sold being contributed to the Working Ranch Cowboys Foundation.
Hooper said that presenting to the board could have gone “a plethora of ways.” In the past, she has pitched fundraisers through saddles, trailers, and many other ranch-related items, but coffee was different.
“At the beginning, I thought, ‘How am I going to get the directors to take this leap forward.’ It was out of our wheelhouse, but it was new and fresh, plus, we drink a lot of coffee,” she said. “Burt told us, ‘We have three types of blends, pick from one of those.’”
She showed up at the meeting, complete with three tiny coffee pots with each of the blends, and to her great relief, one blend was accepted with open arms and exclamations that “this is better than Folgers!” All that remained was to name the coffee.
“Burt was so adamant and positive about this; he wanted to put our stamp on the coffee,” Hooper said. “We kicked around so many names that day. Just like anything in our lifestyle, we don’t want to go over the top and we wanted it to be authentic.”
Ranch Hand blend coffee, “Strong enough to float a horseshoe,” as the brand boasts—was created that day. It was released at WRCA’s 2017 World Championship Ranch Rodeo in unlimited amounts in the contestants’ hospitality room, and individual bags of ground beans were handed out at the contestants’ meeting.
“I think it was probably Friday or Saturday, he goes, ‘Holy crap! You guys drink a lot of coffee,’ and I said, ‘When it’s good, it’s good! The proof is in the pudding,’” Hooper said.
Bison Union is a veteran- and spouse-owned company out of Salt Lake City that offers apparel and goods for real working people. They teamed up with veteran-owned Black Rifle Coffee Company to create Ranch Hand Blend Coffee Company.
On its website, Bison Union lists that 1.5 percent of America’s population grows and raises food for the rest of America and 1.5 percent of the population serves in the United States military.
“We couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate everything great about America as combat veteran owned companies than team up with the Working Ranch Cowboys Association and Foundation and create the best blend of coffee roasted in America,” the website BisonUnion.com states.
“It’s a fine example of when someone understands what we do, they love what we do, and they truly jump in and want to help,” WRCA Founding Member Randy Whipple said. “The coffee deal with those guys is just phenomenal. They are giving money from each bag to our foundation. They are truly fine patrons and great people and understand what kind of impact they can have. Their involvement is growing every day, and we’re excited to have them as part of the Working Ranch Cowboy Association.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News