MODOC COUNTY, Calif. — This is a love letter to Modoc County and the ranchers who work the land. For those who have never visited the area, it's cattle country.
Follow Highway 299 to the northeastern most part of California and you'll find yourself west of the Nevada state line where grass rich farmland and lush mountains for grazing are everywhere.
Farmland covers far more ground than the black top on the roads and in the rural towns, but even inside the county’s small towns, raising cattle is a way of life.
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Every morning and once again in the evening, Buddy Thola walks his a 4-year-old Jersey Milking cow, Daphne, down Center Street in Cedarville.
“My little brother is on a feeding tube so we milk her and use the raw milk to feed him with,” said Thola.
At home, his adopted brother Ben is often waiting for him. Daphne’s pasture is only a few blocks from their mom’s backyard where all the milking takes place.
“He’s autistic and he can’t eat, so he has a feeding tube and my mom makes his formula every morning,” said Thola.
Ben can’t swallow food and regular baby formula made him sick as a baby, but after following a homoeopathic recipe, Ben’s mom, Corryn Hinze, found success with a homemade unpasteurized milk formula. Ben has survived on it for 13 years now.
“I’ve adopted five kids. He was a premature baby born at 24 weeks. I got him at nine months from the NICU. He was on oxygen and all kinds of meds. Within two years, I got him off all his meds and everything," said Corryn Hinze.
Cattle bring a quality of life keeping many in Modoc County from leaving. With their son Lane strapped in a car seat, fourth generation rancher Jon Arreche and sixth generation rancher Kelsey Arreche drive their pasture in the Surprise Valley looking for newborn calves.
“We try to catch them within an hour or two after they are born. It's easier to catch them and give them all their shots and everything,” said Jon Arreche.
There’s no modest way to grab an afterbirth-covered animal then castrate it in front of its nervous mother, but Kelsey and Jon make it look easy. After spotting a newborn steer, they pin it to the ground and medicate the calf in a matter of minutes. Once released it will join their herd of about 120 animals, which is a smaller ranch around here.
Rising fuel, fertilizer and feed prices have made it increasingly hard for smaller ranches around her to make a profit. Kelsey and Jon subsidize their ranch by selling and transporting hay across California. If they don’t get top dollar for each cow, the farm loans may not get paid.
“It’s a hard, hard way of life but it’s worth it,” said the Arreches.
Helping to get ranchers top dollar is auctioneer Jerry Kresge, who has a lot of respect for California farmers and ranchers.
“The people in agriculture are salt of the earth, honest, hardworking people,” said Kresge.
Kresge describes himself a local boy who gets around pretty good for being in his 60s. Droughts, recessions and even disease are just a few of the hardships he’s seen ranchers endure ever since he and his wife took over the Modoc Auction Yard in Alturas. In his mind, the government is a real thorn in ranchers' side.
“Government, Government, Government. Too much overreach. Too much overreach," he said.
Kresge will give you an earful on the government regulations if you ask him and so will just about anyone inside the Auction Café.
With the smell of fresh cooked beef sizzling on the grill, long-time cook Cheryl Nelson entices ranchers from the next-door auction theater to grab one of her famous burgers.
It's a place where cowboys and cowgirls bump into one another, talk about weather, and maybe gossip a bit. Town folk know Nelson as a city council member, but after spending decades behind the grill, Cheryl has earned a certain nickname from many of the customers she watched grow up.
“I don’t have anyone that calls me Cheryl. Everyone calls me grandma,” said Nelson.
Although you can find young folk working the cattle shoots in the auction yard, Kresge sees far too many youngsters leaving Modoc County for careers outside the cattle industry.
“Age is a huge issue in the cattle industry. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work,” said Kresge.
One woman who knows the meaning of a lot of work is Norma Hapgood. The 97-year-old woman is on her tractor feeding the red angus on her Lake City Ranch every day before the sun beams down on the Warner Mountains.
“I just love what I’m doing! It's probably the best life anyone could ever have,” said Hapgood. “My ancestors were the first settlers in the valley.”
Hapgood’s family has always been just a few miles from the ranch she and her late husband settled down on in the 1950s. Back then, they managed the herd on horseback and with a good pair of gloves.
When her husband passed, Hapgood’s daughter and son-in-law picked up the slack. Ranching became a family affair, and now Norma Hapgood’s grandson is working the land. She considers herself lucky.
Lucky for the land she’s on. Lucky her family is still working it, and lucky for all Modoc County has given her and her neighbors.
“You know when the sun comes up here and you look out it's just beautiful.”
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