From Farmer To Cattleman: It Started With The Calves
Panorama rancher Gilbert Hintz of Benchmark Farms and Benchmark Beef in Ephrata, WA says he was born with soil in his veins. When he graduated from high school, his father, also a farmer, took him to meet the local banker so he could begin his own small farm. He started with four acres of onions, but now, some 40 years later, Hintz and his wife Kirsten farm organic row crops including green peas, sweet and field corn, potatoes, and wheat on 5,000 irrigated acres. They also raise organic grass-fed beef on a ranch he bought from a neighbor three years ago.
An entrepreneur and risk-taker, Hintz still had to convince his wife that buying a ranch was a good idea. “I’ll never forget the day I came home and told my wife I was going to go take a stab at buying the ranch,” he says. “She was under about a foot of paperwork, doing organic certification for potatoes and corn and peas and dirt. She said, ‘I don’t need another project. I don’t need another project.’” A few days later, he invited her to drive through the ranch with him to see the new crop of baby calves. By nightfall, she was on board with the plan. “Oh man, those calves are so cute. She fell in love with the calves.”
Hintz knew nothing about raising livestock when he bought the ranch. “Three years ago, the most I knew about the cattle business was that my favorite color was red, so I wanted to buy red Angus,” he laughs. But he also thought the ranch and the farm would be a synergistic pairing. “The land needs cattle and the cattle need the land,” he says. He figured he could supplement the pasture grass with organic feed residue from the farm to save it from being disked under after every growing season and create a regenerative system to build soil carbon and increase the health of the irrigated and dry pastures, as well as his farm fields.
Besides building an additional business in cattle, Hintz saw buying the ranch as an opportunity to preserve open space. The ranch had been subdivided into 151 homesites by the previous owner, and in the Columbia River basin, the pressure on housing is growing as tech employees from Seattle, three hours away, abandon the city lifestyle for urban living and telecommuting. “People have to live somewhere,” he says, “but there’s plenty of rocky ground where they can build houses.” He adds that his 30-year-old son encouraged the purchase of the ranch to keep the land in pastures.
“The best open space defenders are our ranch community,” Hintz says. “Because if those ranchers keep dirt flowing in their veins instead of money, they will pass on that open space to the next generation. I’ve been offered crazy money. Everybody wants to buy a homesite from me. But you know what? It ain’t gonna happen.”
Hintz’s learning curve was steep in his first couple of years as a cattleman. “The first year I bought the ranch, I just answered the phone ‘hell’ because I couldn’t say hello, I was so exhausted.” He credits Wayne Langston and Jim Weseloh of Panorama with helping him learn the ropes and refine his approach to raising cattle. “I love Wayne and Jim. They’re really good guys, and you can’t find a better set of people to do business with,” he says. Since buying the ranch, he’s learned about building a management team in two diverse operations and appreciates the less regimented approach required by ranching over farming.
Early on in his farming career, Hintz developed a market-produce-deliver approach to production. In other words, “don’t produce, get it in the barn, and then figure out who wants to buy it.” That prevents him from having excess perishable food products that no one wants. He says that philosophy has carried over to the cattle production side, as well. He credits Panorama with being a good partner in that system.
Is Hintz happy he bought the ranch? “At the end of the day, I love the taste of my own steak,” he says. “We have no buyer’s remorse about the ranch.” In the end, he credits three things for his success: a good team of employees and managers, hard work, and the Lord’s blessing. “Without the Lord’s blessing, my best efforts are nothing. So yeah, we work hard, but we’re under that umbrella of blessing,” he says. “That’s another durable, long-term, competitive advantage.”