Some jobs in South Texas have not changed since the days of the Old West. At Palo Verde Cattle Company, just north of Beeville, cowboys still round up cattle the old-fashioned way, from the backs of their horses. But they don’t call it a round-up and they don’t call themselves cowboys. Tim Fitch, Managing Partner of Palo Verde Cattle Company, calls it a “cattle working” and the men who do the work are “hands” or “contract labor.” There are no pretensions here. Nothing in this business is romanticized.
Fitch has been working cattle for thirty years. After graduating from Texas A&M with a degree in
Range Science, he moved to the ranch country outside Beeville looking for job opportunities. He soon partnered with the esteemed Lucas family. The Lucas’ have owned thousands of acres of prime ranch land since the 1800s. Fitch and Rich- ard Lucas launched their ranching partnership in 1988.
They work the cattle, or round them up and bring them in, twice per year. The cattle are rotationally grazed out on lush pastures. There are 350 cows in this herd, most of them with calves running alongside. The herd must be brought from the distant pasture into pens to be vaccinated, weighed, weaned, and sorted, and then sent back out to pasture. Moving so many cows through this process is no easy feat. This is where the cowboys come in.
Cowboy is a loaded word in Texas, with connotations of myth and folklore. Most children growing up in Texas are influenced in some way by the ethos of the cowboy; embracing it, rejecting it, or vaguely acknowledging the cowboy as an archetype of manhood. On this ranch, “cowboy” is not concept; it is a job Tim Fitch has only one full-time employee, a serious and intense worker named Renny. Extra hands must be hired for the big job of a cattle working. For this job, Fitch has hired Jeremy Fortenberry and his ten-year old son, Cash, as well as David Guerra and his son, David Jr. These hands, real-life cowboys, don’t have a website, a Facebook page, or business cards. They advertise strictly through word of mouth. The best of them keep steady work and those who can’t tolerate the heat, the cold, the pain—those without a sheer love of the business—do not last.
The job of the hands is to push the cattle from the pasture to the corral, then through chutes to be sorted into smaller pens. One or two hands work from the ground, opening and closing gates, while several of the hands work from horseback cutting cows and calves from the herd to run them through the sorting pens. The cows do not always cooperate. They stomp and snort, run the wrong direction, cut back into the herd, or simply stand and bawl. The hands keep the cattle moving continually through the process. Calves need special coaxing to be separated from their moms, and this coaxing comes from horses deftly maneuvered to split them, or a hand on the ground who swings a gate at the right moment. The hands communicate through short commandsbarked over the lowing of the cattle.
These men, masters of their trade, who are cowboys by very definition, do not call themselves cowboys. They are proud but not pretentious; they are okay to be called “hands.” The term acknowledges the tough reality of the work, not the legends of old. “I guess you could call me a cowboy,” said Jeremy Fortenberry. “It’s a dying breed.”
Fortenberry works by contract for days or weeks at a time on ranches as small as 50 acres or bigger than 5,000 acres. The larger ranches provide cow camps that include a bunk house, food cooked on fires, and the rowdy and raucous atmosphere of men who work in the extremes of tedium and danger. “Some people take their wrenches to work,” said Fortenberry. “I take a horse to work.” Fortenberry brings his young son, Cash, to work with him. Cash goes to school, but every day he is not in the classroom, he is on the back of his horse, working cattle next to his dad. Cash, at ten years old, is already an experienced and talented hand. “Cash wants to grow up and do what his dad does, work cattle,” said Fortenberry. “But I want him to go to college and get a degree, and he can do this on weekends.” Fortenberry wants options for his son because he knows how dangerous the work can be.
“When you work with horses and cows, it’s not if you get hurt, it’s when,” he said. Fortenberry was once thrown from his horse while roping a cow. The cow ran and the horse followed for 75 yards, pulling Fortenberry at full gallop by his ankle caught in the stirrup. When he got his foot loose, Fortenberry stood up, bruised, bloodied, and covered in thorns, lucky to still be standing. He climbed back on his horse and finished the day. Fortenberry has never missed a day of work and has never gone home early.
When asking Fortenberry why he does this work, he responds without reluctance, “that’s easy: freedom.” Fortenberry is giving his son not only these unbelievable experiences on the back of a horse, but also an education in discipline, responsibility, and grit that he could learn nowhere else. He is teaching his son a love of freedom that will propel this business into the next generation.
MAKING A LIVING AS A COWBOY
Tim Fitch works full-time as Managing Partner of Palo Verde Cattle Company. The company leases 8,500 acres of prime grazing land from the Lucas family. “We couldn’t have done any of this without their continued support,” said Fitch of the Lucases. “They have been very good to us.” But Fitch acknowledged that it is difficult for anyone to make a living in agriculture. Most hands work side jobs bailing hay, running fences, operating heavy equipment, or any
work they can find between round-ups. Fitch works a side job as a pilot. He has towed advertising banners during Spring Break from South Padre Island up to Port Aransas, at Texas A&M football games, and various special events. These days, Fitch works as a private contractor inspecting pipelines with his plane, flying the pipeline network of South Texas looking for leaks and safety hazards. True cowboys seem to seek freedom where they can find it: on the land, on the back of a horse, or in the sky.
WHERE TO FIND GRASS-FED BEEF
Tim Fitch sells his Palo Verde Cattle Company grass-fed beef at farmer’s markets around the Coastal Bend. He takes extraordinary care to produce the highest quality grass-fed beef. His care extends from the breeding, where he sires with a champion Angus bull, through the butchering, where he dry ages his beef. His work yields steaks, roasts, and ground beef of an unbelievable tenderness and flavor. When asking Fitch what matters most to him, there was no hesitation: family. If you visit Fitch at one of the local farmers’ markets, you will usually see one or more of his daughters in the booth and his grandchildren running and playing at his feet. The Fitches, the Fortenberrys, the Guerras, the Lucases; ranching is a family business. The time-worn myths about cowboys are true–the tenacity, the toughness, the love of freedom. The legends are real and this is what they look like.