Justin Keegan pulled the pile of leather out of the bucket.
“I thought it was a saddle!” said the Julia Randall Elementary student of the pair of chaps.
Justin is from Julie Eckhardt’s fourth grade classroom.
Meanwhile, Margaret Armstrong discovered cats catch gophers and snakes on a ranch.
“I learned what cats are for,” she said, “I never knew what they were for.”
When rancher Lori Brown hears things like this, she knows her efforts are paying off. Every year she comes to Gila County elementary schools to talk about ranching and the agricultural business.
“Farmers and ranchers feed the world,” she said to explain why she makes the yearly effort.
“Every two out of eight students will go into the agriculture business, from Game and Fish to farming.”
She follows up the in-class lesson with an invitation to her H-4 Ranch in Tonto Basin for a hands-on experience.
At the ranch, Brown shows the students how they brand and tag the cattle, takes them on a carriage ride behind draft horses and feeds them a traditional deep pit barbecue.
During this classroom presentation, however, she focused on preparing the children for their visit to her ranch. Setting up a map of the ranch and pictures of the draft horses, pigs, cows and the branding at the head of the classroom, Brown gave the students a peek at what they would see when they came to her Tonto Basin ranch in April.
She also brought one of her ranch dogs, a French bulldog named Jewels, for the children to enjoy.
“She’s not a working dog, but she enjoys the attention,” said Brown. Jewels walked from child to child reveling in the attention as Brown spoke.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farming and ranching accounts for about a billion acres in the United States and last year generated $314 billion.
Arizona produces $9.2 billion from agriculture. While in Gila County, almost 40 percent of the land is used for agriculture, mostly cattle grazing.
The impacts of agriculture on the economic, health and well-being of the population spur Brown to put in the effort she does into education.
She and her family have worked in the Arizona ranching industry for more than 100 years.
“My family and I are fifth generation ranchers,” said Brown, “We’ve leased land since the 1800s.”
The H-4 ranch, where Brown and her husband live, got its allotment of ranch land from the Forest Service in 1970. Since that time, they have worked hard to keep the land viable, for if they fail, their cattle will have no pasture to graze. Abusing the land would destroy their business.
She explains to the students how her family works with the Forest Service to guarantee they don’t have more cattle than the land can support.
“I tell (the students) the amount of land we care for is equal to 12,000 football fields,” she said.
She explains why they brand and tag the cattle, showing the children the equipment used.
Brown’s presentation stimulates many questions. Throughout her talk, the children’s hands are constantly raised waiting to ask:
“Have you ever had one of your cows stolen?”
Brown explains how she and her family trust the neighbors to do the right thing and tell them if any of the Browns’ cattle have wandered into their pasture.
“How much do you feed the pigs?” asks another student.
Brown says the pigs graze and get table scraps.
“Do you wake up early?” asks another.
Brown said in the winter with the limited sunlight the ranchers don’t get up as early, but in the summer, they work from sun up to sun down.
“Do you ever get time off?” asks another.
“When I play with my horses, that is my playtime,” responds Brown.
“I have a very inquisitive class,” said Eckhardt of her students.
She said this was the second year Brown had presented to her class and the kids love the lesson. They especially enjoy going to the H-4 Ranch for the hands-on experience.
Brown talked for over an hour. At the end of her presentation, she had students pull farm equipment from buckets — including chaps, bridles and tags for the cattle.
As Brown packed up her pictures, farm equipment and dog, BJ Paulson said he’d discovered that behind the scenes on a ranch, it isn’t always about riding the range and feeding animals.
“I learned that it’s not easy to be on a ranch and there’s still paperwork!” he said.