Real-World Ranching
October 25th, 2016 by Jennifer Brown
Keith Schwennesen heads out to ride fences at Cold Creek Ranch in east-central Arizona, while his mother, Jean, prepares to do the same.

Keith Schwennesen heads out to ride fences at Cold Creek Ranch in east-central Arizona, while his mother, Jean, prepares to do the same.

Guests and interns from around the world sample life on a working ranch

Eric and Jean Schwennesen are the workforce behind Cold Creek Ranch, a 10,000-acre working cattle ranch in Arizona’s Mogollon Rim Country. Amidst the couple’s many chores and responsibilities, they welcome interns and visitors from around the world.

Since 1999, the Schwennesens have hosted more than 200 interns through Worldwide Opportunities of Organic Farms, or WWOOF. The program is described as “part of a worldwide effort to link visitors with organic farmers, promote an educational exchange and build a global community conscious of ecological farming practices.”

“WWOOFers are not guests,” Eric explains. “They are interns who volunteer their time to experience and learn from us. They generally become part of the farming/ranching family.”

The couple first got involved with WWOOF through a neighbor, who was hosting a German intern.

“She took our high-school-age son aside and explained the idea of interning, and he explained it to us,” Eric says. “We looked into it and immediately wished there had been something like that when we were in high school.”

The Schwennesens say the program is a great morale booster for people in American agriculture, who are used to thinking there is no ambition left in coming generations.

By design, the Schwennesens choose most of their interns from overseas.

“This is because they already prove their motivation by making the necessary plans, applications, travel arrangements, etc., before they even arrive,” Eric says. “With very few exceptions, the internships are uplifting, challenging and very rewarding for them and us. We continue to stay in touch with most of them.”

At the urging of many of their interns, the Schwennesens run a no-frills guest ranch October 1 through April 30 to give paying guests a chance to experience real—not contrived—ranching life.
“And they really do everything, from repairing corrals to busting brush,” Eric says.

From October through April, the Schwennesens try to get the heavy work done before the hot, dry spring and summer arrive.

“The activity tends to be variable, cattle-intensive, challenging and not as stressful for cattle or people in the cooler weather,” Eric says. “The hot months involve a lot less horse work and a lot more fence repairing and plumbing.”

There are a variety of daily tasks that guests may help with during their stay, including riding, feeding and shoeing horses; branding and moving cattle; roping; making jerky or prickly pear syrup; and Dutch oven cooking.

“We don’t coddle guests, but we don’t force them to do work they can’t handle, either,” Eric says. “We just explain when and why we do what we have to do. Very few guests have ever balked at anything. They come here for the experiences.”

Horse work is always popular among visitors—at least at first.

“This is very steep, rough country, and our horses are selected for smarts, not obedience,” Eric says. “We explain that the horses know more about the work and the country than we do, and that generally it is wise to let the horses show how/what to do. Most guests are astonished to find ‘beasts of burden’ that will debate all the finer points of crossing a wash in deep brush, rather than plunge blindly ahead.”

Along with visitors and interns come good stories. A favorite of the Schwennesens was the result of a simultaneous visit of a British couple and a Swiss woman.

“The Swiss woman was here to learn the ‘real’ cowgirl ways,” Eric says. “One evening, it developed that the British couple were police officers. They brought out their Interpol identification cards, whereupon the Swiss woman did the same.”

As it turned out, the Swiss woman was one of an elite police unit, and was both pro-gun and pro-shooting. The Brits had never handled a firearm in their careers.

“One challenge led to another,” Eric says. “The Brits finally conceded to at least try shooting a pistol with urging from our Swiss guest. She demonstrated her own skill with a strange firearm by hitting a metal target 10 times in a row at a full 100 yards—with a pistol. A much sobered and respectful audience learned she was one of Switzerland’s top competitive shooters. Our British guests were much impressed.”

At the heart of the Schwennesens’ ranch remains a year-round business that produces 100-percent natural, grass-fed beef. They would like others to realize ranching is an important phase of land management.

“Likely the water you drink started in ranching’s high country,” Eric says. “We are proud of the quality of the water, forage and meat that we produce. It would be nice if people in general took some time to understand and appreciate the work we do—our foreign WWOOFers sure seem to!”

The Schwennesens’ youngest son, Keith, and his wife, Chrissy, are in the process of taking over management of the ranch. Their oldest son, Paul, plays an active role speaking worldwide on the importance of an agrarian ethic, and managing the direct-marketing of the ranch’s beef.

Perhaps someday soon, Eric and Jean can put up their feet.
Or maybe not.

“Ranching is not something you take a break from,” Eric says. “On the other hand, it’s not that bad of a life anyway. You don’t need it.”