Finding their home on the range

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
In one sense, Chuck and Lori McLinden were unlikely winners of the Kansas Star Young Family award given at the state convention of the Kansas Young Farmers and Young Farm Women Educational Association Jan. 29.

For one thing, they aren?t farmers, as they?re quick to tell you. The couple operate a ranching operation on the edge of the Flint Hills east of Marion.

Second, neither Chuck nor Lori would have imagined themselves in agribusiness during their high school days.

But both are in the business now in a big way. The couple is in the process of taking over a stocker cattle and quarter horse operation that spreads across 11,000 acres and includes some 3,500 head of cattle.

In a real sense, they are inheriting it from Chuck?s grandfather, Bud McLinden and his wife, Roseva.

?In reality, it?s still my grandad?s operation,? Chuck says. ?He?s still the boss and I work for him. But my main objective is to learn everything I possibly can about all aspects of the business, so I can take it over. That?s been my dream since I moved back out here.?

Chuck and Lori are the fifth generation of McLindens to ranch in the Flint Hills region since Chuck?s great-great-grandfather arrived from Ireland and settled near Cedar Point.

But the flow of life came within an eyelash of short-circuiting that tradition. Chuck?s dad burned out on ranching in his late 20s and became a police officer in Chase County for several years. In 1978, he moved his young family to Missouri to start a whole new life.

Chuck, now 35, found his niche in Missouri on the football field, and eventually went to college on a football scholarship with the intent of becoming an accountant.

?Numbers always came easy for me,? he said.

But Chuck left college after an injury ended his football career and found a job in the area. He enjoyed the work, but eventually realized he didn?t want to spend the rest of his life in the company.

?In the back of my mind, I started looking for something else to make my career,? he said.

He found it almost accidentally in the mid-1980s when he came back to Marion County to visit his grandparents for Easter. He spent three weeks at their ranch, and helped with the operation.

?I don?t know why, but something clicked in my head and I thought it?d be kind of fun to do this,? he said.

In spring 1987, Chuck began working for his grandfather. ?The more I stayed here, the more I fell in love with it. I didn?t want to leave.?

Eventually, he gathered the courage to talk to his grandfather about some long-range plans.

?I told him, ?You?re not going to live forever, someone is going to have to take this over. If you show me everything there is to know, I want to do it,?? Chuck recalled.

His grandfather, who was working cattle by age 7, grudgingly bought into the idea to pass on the enterprise. Chuck has been an attentive student of his grandfather ever since.

?If I can be half of what he was to hold it together, I?ll think I?ve done something,? Chuck said.

Meanwhile, Lori, who grew up as a city kid in Hillsboro, entered the picture in 1990 when a mutual friend introduced the couple to each other.

Ironically, only a few years earlier, Lori had broken up with her high school sweetheart because she thought he cared more for his cattle than he did for her. And she didn?t want to share his loyalties.

?But here, a couple of years later, look what I married into,? she said with a smile.

Chuck and Lori didn?t enter into their partnership flippantly.

Said Chuck: ?When we finally got serious and decided we might have a future together, I told her, ?We?re not going to rush into this. I want you to be around this for a couple of years so you know what goes on here before you commit yourself. Because if you can?t handle it, I want you to know it ahead of time. It?s not a 9-to-5 job.?

Not only did Lori decide she could handle the life, she participated in it fully?helping to move cattle, burn pastures and the myriad other tasks required. Only with the arrival of their two children, Lauren, now 4, and Jarret, 31/2 months, has she backed away somewhat from her outdoor duties.

?Until I had kids, I was out there all the time,? she said. ?That was kind of our clue that our relationship would work. They say if you can work together, that?s kind of a big thing.?

These days, Lori?s primary tasks are to take care of the billing and bookkeeping and provide meals and refreshments for the hired hands as needed. She still helps gather cattle by horseback, process new cattle and do daily chores.

Ranching has its own ?harvest season? of sorts. For the McLindens, it begins in March, when the cattle are shipped in from around the country and turned loose in their pastures. It peaks in August, when the herds are driven back in?almost exclusively on horseback?and then shipped to feedlots for fattening.

The process is complicated by the ?trade work? the McLindens exchange with four to five neighboring operations. Instead of arranging to ship just their own cattle, the McLindens have to coordinate a schedule that includes the other operations, too. And the pace can be downright frantic at times.

?There?s times when I feel like leaving for the month and moving in with my mother,? Lori joked.

This past June, Chuck and Lori moved onto their grandparents? place when Bud and Roseva decided to move into Marion. Bud, soon to be 85, still comes out regularly to participate in the operation.

For Chuck, the notion of finding his rightful place in the McLinden ranching tradition is almost overwhelming.

?It?s hard for me to put into words,? he said. ?The pride, I can?t even begin to explain. If you think about it, I?m the fifth generation to be in the agriculture business in central Kansas. There?s five generations that has accumulated maybe as much as 140 years in the same area.?

Will the tradition continue into the sixth generation? Lauren already insists on riding her own horse, and Jarret was a passenger in the cattle truck with his mother when he was only two weeks old.

?They can chose to do whatever they want,? Chuck said. But he knows the operation will change significantly in time, even as it has changed from his grandparents? peak until now.

?(Jarret) will be able to do it if he wants to, but by the time he gets to be 35, he will not be able to make a living on the same size operation that we have now without an additional source of income,? Chuck predicted. ?If the profit margins decrease as much as they have between my grandad?s day and what they are now, it will be hard for him to make a good living.?

Chuck himself has developed a fence-building business on the side, in large part to give him work in the off season, but also to supplement their income.

?What started out to be a one-winter necessity to get some new fence put in on one of our own pastures has turned to be an every-winter career,? he said. ?It?s to the point that I build anywhere from three to six miles of fence during the winter on a custom basis.?

Despite the tighter profit margins, the McLindens are optimistic about the future of their type of agribusiness.

?In our particular part of the country, there?s always going to be grass for cattle to feed on,? Chuck says.

?The cattle that come in here from other parts of the country are of the breeding that those calves won?t grow that big (to go directly to feedlots after weaning), and those calves will need a place to grow during the summer.

?I don?t foresee that ever changing completely,? he added. ?The part that concerns me, though, is that family operations like ours are going to become fewer and farther between.

?If we as a family unit were to fall on hard times and have to sell, there are companies in the cattle business that could buy us out with their petty cash. It?s the old rule that the big get bigger. I, personally, hate to see that, but I don?t know that I can do to stop it.?

In the meantime, the McLindens will continuing pursuing what has become their reality, and not just their dream.

?There is nothing else I would rather do than what I do,? Chuck said. ?I hate people telling me what to do, and being outdoors is a lot of it, too. I can?t imagine sitting in an office and wearing a suit every day.?

The McLindens were honored not only for the scope of their operation, but also for their leadership and community service.

Lori serves as the secretary/treasurer of the Cottonwood Valley Saddle Horse Association and treasurer of the local chapter of the Young Farm Women and also for the Kansas Young Farmers.

Chuck is vice president of the CVSHA, a board member for the Marion County Fair Association, and a voting delegate at the state level of Young Farmers.

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