"Crossing the Generation Divide: the Trigg Experience"

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   “Gaaaawwd-daaaammn, let ‘em fight over it when I’m gone.” That was my uncle Steve’s estate planning. He and his two sisters had inherited a twenty-four-thousand acre ranch in New Mexico, and he had run it for the last thirty years, doubling the acreage in the 1950s. 
      The  “Third Generation” – the seven grandchildren of the founders of the ranch – all of us middle-aged – didn’t really know each other very well and had never talked about the future. One day in 1995, cousin Stevie planted a seed: “I don’t want a piece of the ranch. What I want is for it to keep on being a ranch, and I want to come out here.” The others chimed in: “Me too!” By October 1996 the goal was pretty well defined: to keep Trigg Ranch functioning as a cattle ranch forever, and for all the heirs to have access.  
      It was Sally, a lawyer by training, who knew what to do next. She began reading up on trusts, and searched out specialists who had worked with ranches in the Southwest planning for the future – who mostly told her that what we wanted to do couldn’t be done. She persisted, and we all met in Dallas with one who challenged us to think honestly about our goals and what we’d each be willing to give up to achieve them. Although each of us was financially comfortable for the present, there would be times, he warned, when some of us – or a child, or grandchild – would need money, and income from the ranch might pay for medical treatment or tide someone through a career crisis. We said we were willing to put the whole ranch in trust, with the understanding there would never be any income paid out to a family member, and no individual would have the right to require the sale of any ranch assets. We were sobered but our determination began to grow. 
      My mother Adaline was careful not to say anything that would influence the Third Generation, except that she guessed the Trust was a nice idea. Her sister Louise, alas, had Alzheimer’s and could take no part in the discussion. And Steve, who had run the ranch for years? What he thought was anybody’s guess. 
      Another unknown was the condition of the ranch. We could see that the range had deteriorated somewhat over the years, and mesquite and juniper have gotten a lot thicker. But the Aberdeen Angus herd, little modified from the cattle our grandfather Steve Trigg had trailed over from the XIT Ranch in Texas in 1917 – that was the first herd of Angus in New Mexico – was highly regarded by buyers and the calves and yearlings brought top dollar. In good years the ranch made money, in bad years it lost money. But we didn’t know how much; Steve could get pretty taciturn and the drawn-out “gaaaawwd-daaammn” with which he endowed every sentence took up a lot of the conversation. There was no debt; but could we count on the ranch to support itself over the years? Fences always need work – but how much needed to be replaced?  Windmills, roads, corrals – what condition were they in? The two main houses were pretty well run down, the little guest house was full of termites, the big barn was filled with junk.  
      And how many cattle were there? Even Steve didn’t know. Years earlier, the accountant in town had bugged him until one day he appeared in her office, unrolled six feet of aerial photo of the ranch, and said, “You count ‘em; they’re all there” — along with the cottonwoods, junipers, and boulders. As Steve had grown older, he seemed not to have the energy to round up all the cattle every year; so especially in the rougher country and the most remote pastures, the cattle grew wild and wily, eating the good grass but hiding their calves.  
      So it was a gamble that the ranch would be financially healthy. 
      Meanwhile, there were the costs of talking to lawyers. Even with Sally donating her time, there were travel expenses and steep hourly fees as she interviewed ranch specialists. Sally talked Steve into agreeing that the ranch would contribute toward the legal fees, but there was no way to know what we were getting ourselves into and whether our hands would have to dig into our own pockets. We decided, however, to move ahead carefully. 
            Soon Sally recommended that we talk to Albuquerque estate and tax specialist  Kenneth Leach, who was enthusiastic about our vision and as we moved ahead began calling us “The Magnificent Seven.” By the time we all met with him, he and Sally had roughed out a structure: a “Trigg Trust”, into which all of us would gift all our ownership interest. The Trust would own all the shares of Trigg Cattle Company, and a Family Limited Partnership; Trigg Cattle Company as General Partner would continue to operate the cattle business. All profits would stay in the Trust and will be used to benefit the ranch; no Trigg heir would have any right to receive any income, except as an employee. The ranch could be sold only if 85% of the heirs agreed. In return, every Trigg descendant, who becomes a beneficiary of the Trust at birth, shares the right of access to the ranch.  
            The lifetime of the Trust was a problem. In most states a trust has a maximum term of ninety-nine years. At that point the chances of creating another trust with several hundred heirs gifting their interest into it would be exactly nil. A few states, however, allow perpetual trusts. Sally recommended South Dakota, and we pay a bank there a pretty stiff fee as “Independent Trustee”; but we agree that “perpetual” – whatever that may mean in this case – is worth it.  
      The Trust document was drawn up, but not before we had renamed it for both our grandparents: “The Steve and Bess Trigg Trust”. Originally, Steve’s father and siblings had together bought a much larger ranch; ours was the portion Steve and Bess had been able to hold onto as his siblings bitterly parted ways in the 1920s. After Steve Sr. died from a fall in 1937, our grandmother Bess Whittle Trigg ran the ranch with the help of 20-year-old Steve Jr. He was her right hand through the years, and gradually took over as her powers waned. Bess was almost ninety when she died in 1975, leaving her grandchildren with treasured memories of times spent with her at the ranch. 
      The documents were ready for us to sign in 2001. By that time, the Steve and Bess Trigg Trust had become even more complex: in order to avoid death duties upon the passing of each heir, which would quickly crush the ranch, a number of separate “Crummey Trusts” had to be established to separate out each heir’s ownership. Finally, however, we could begin gifting our ownership of land and Trigg Cattle Company stock into the Trust, at a rate determined by gift taxes. In addition to the seven cousins, there were spouses, children, and grandchildren, for a total of twenty-one “beneficiaries” of the Trust. If Sally hadn’t kept track of all the trusts and all the gifting, with documents of acceptance for each to be signed by the rest of us, the works would have been gummed up forever. 
      Steve cooperated with our creation of the Trust and gifted his own ownership into it; at the time of his death in 2002, that was complete, and his estate owed no “death tax”. By November 4, 2004, all of us had given all our ownership to the Trust. 
 
Work Week 

      During the years of getting the Trust into operation, another thing of major importance had been happening. It began in the summer of 1997, when after the deaths of Steve’s two sisters, Adaline and Louise, we brought their ashes to the ranch to scatter on Alamosa. For two centuries there has been a cross on the point of Alamosa Butte overlooking the Creek Pasture and all the comings and goings along the ranch road; the first cross was undoubtedly put there by the Penitentes, and it has been repaired and the Ponderosa pine logs replaced until the baling wire which holds the crossbar in place has grown into a great glob. In 1975 the first ashes were scattered at the foot of the cross, those of 11-year-old Trigg Decker who had died of leukemia. Now there are more than twenty of the family whose ashes are there and whose names we have carved into the sandstone; and an early-morning climb up the rough 600-foot mesa through the caprock to the point has become a special time.  
      When we brought Adaline’s and Louise’s ashes home to the ranch that August of 1997, the seven cousins and our spouses and children converged at “Nana’s”, the old ranch house where we spent happy summer visits with our grandmother. As we sat around the dining-room table – which Adaline and Louise had painted a vivid turquoise, and Polly had added bright Mexican-style flowers on the chairs and sideboards – something became very clear to us: if we were going to come here to the ranch, we had to work on the house! Steve had put new tin roofs on all the ranch buildings, but the spring was barely running, the old trees were dying, the cesspool had collapsed, and cattle were breaking down the stone garden walls. Inside, the furnace had been kept going in the winter to keep the pipes from freezing, and, amazingly, Nana’s geraniums and spider plants, which had been watered faithfully for a quarter-century, were still alive. The bathrooms in the other section of the house hadn’t fared so well; a pipe had broken there and the flagstone patio was still torn up from stopping that big leak. Great cracks and stains were in every room, the thick stone walls having been built in 1924 without much of a foundation. Ground termites had done significant damage at one time, and the floor under the grand piano was pretty lacy.  
      So the next summer 25 or so of us converged for a “Work Week”. The guys concentrated first on shoring up the living room floor with welded steel beams across the basement. Then we breathed easier – and very carefully moved the piano. Meanwhile, others had begun scraping, repairing, reglazing, and painting the windows. Stevie started rebuilding the kitchen door, Tom replaced ancient electrical wiring in the basement, the children fetched and handed tools and helped gather clippings pruned from overgrown shrubs. Steve ignored us, although he agreed that the ranch would pay for most of the supplies. Sally had bought resin chairs and long tables, and after the sun got low we moved the work projects off and set the tables in the shady driveway, lingering after supper to tell old stories and getting to know each other in new ways. However, it was working together through the long hot days that was the essential bonding. 
      In eight years of Work Weeks we’ve achieved a lot. After the first year Steve dropped in often, seemed surprised that we were sticking to it, and was pleased to see the wonderful old house perking up. The spring and water storage and pipes, propane system, gutters to prevent erosion around the house, roof and windows of the milk house, a rickety porch, and more – but not yet all – of the windows, screens, and doors have been rebuilt or replaced. A great visual change took place when Mexican craftsmen replastered all the rooms and relaid the flagstone porch and patio; Rick and Kristen and their daughters added ceiling fans and refinished the floors; Sally with some help has refurbished all the furnishings, and she with a couple of cowboys reworked the bathrooms with great style. The great old cottonwood around which the house was built finished dying, was cut down and replanted; the new tree has almost tripled in size in three years. We cleaned out the old bunkhouse and installed a new septic system this year; it’ll be ready for the kids next summer. Complete renovation of the kitchen is next on the list – maybe we’ll get a start on it in 2008!  
      It is interesting doing all this work without a boss. At first we just plugged away at fixing the worst problems. After a while, we realized that without a chain of command, we had to find another way. The decision was this: whoever REALLY cares about a project and is urgently working to get it done is in charge. Everyone else is free to advise, criticize, draw diagrams, demonstrate a technique, offer to get parts or to help, whatever – but the spearhead makes the decisions. This has worked pretty well! Grumbling gets little sympathy. Everyone feels quite free to give advice or to ask questions, however sweetly; the total amount of experience and common sense is quite high; the number of stupid mistakes and overlooked problems is surprisingly low. And we take responsibility for ourselves; no one has been injured, and there has been little call even for the box of Band-Aids. 
 
The Big Shift  
      Meanwhile, nature has taken its course. In May 2002 Steve had a major stroke, and died a month later at age 85. On August 8th over two hundred people made the long trek from home – Trigg Ranch isn’t close to anywhere – for a memorial under the cottonwoods in the Creek Pasture. A procession led by Steve’s beloved D6 Caterpillar carrying his ashes was followed by a bagpiper – his only request – and then by granddaughter Hilary driving the skid loader with Jack Daniels and ice in its bucket; there was a final toast as three Cessnas (his two sons are pilots) took off to scatter Steve’s ashes on Alamosa. Their “missing man” formation as they came over the point of Alamosa made his absence all too vivid.  
      Suddenly the Third Generation was in charge. We had held a Ranch Meeting the day before the funeral, and carried out a plan we had discussed for several years: Steve’s daughter Kristen was appointed Ranch Manager, with her husband Richard Holmes as Assistant Manager. We announced this at the memorial, along with the existence of the Trust: “Trigg Ranch is going to keep on being Trigg Ranch!”  
      Kristen had majored in Ranch Management at Colorado State University, and she and Rick had worked as cowboys and lived on the ranch since they were married, raising their two daughters there. Steve taught Kristen and Rick nothing about the ranch affairs; they learned only what they could see with their own eyes. They stepped up to the responsibilities of their new roles eagerly, if with some uneasiness. Of course the rest of the clan gives advice freely and endlessly. 
      Even before Steve’s death Kristen had a plan for what she would do first: “get rid of the wild cattle!” By September a number of cows and bulls had been gathered and shipped to auction. It took a helicopter to gather the next batch. Over the next year Kristen and the cowboys took great satisfaction in shipping off one truckload after another; in all, over 800 head. Another plan was put quickly into execution: all four Holmeses worked for weeks to clean out the barn and workshop so that the truck hoist could be used, there was room to move around, tools and parts could be found. Strangely, little things kept disappearing; they were found months later in the nest of a packrat.  
      Gradually the picture began to come clear: the ranch was free of debt, and there was a cash cushion which grew as the wild cattle were sold. It was a time of drought, and the Holmeses let the herd shrink as the calf crop was sold off. Fences were in bad shape, and the windmills weren’t much better. Meanwhile, Kristen and Rick were feeling their way into new roles, shifting from being on the bottom rung to being boss, a position which is uncomfortable for sweet, lovely Kristen. Much of the smooth transition has been due to the goodwill of longtime cowboys Guero Moreno and his brother Abel.  
      We had become aware of a training program for ranch managers developed by the Allan Savory Center for Holistic Management, and of some remarkable improvement in range health and stocking rates which had resulted when ranchers used Savory’s methods. The year-long course combines five week-long “Intensives” alternating with real life back at the ranch, considerable homework applying new methods, and consultants readily available. We had decided that Kristen would attend, and in fact it was on the morning Steve died that his children, leaving the hospital, stopped at the Savory Center to sign her up; the tuition was paid with a check from the new Family Limited Partnership. The Holmeses, strongly supported by the clan, soon decided that it was well worth another $10,000 fee for Rick to attend the whole course with Kristen.  
      The Holistic Management method lays considerable emphasis on “rotational grazing” so that most of the range is rested for most of the year; the cattle are gathered into a large herd and moved frequently. These methods put considerable demands on water systems and on fencing, often using electric fences which are difficult to manage in our rough terrain; and they require changes in handling cattle, continually putting cattle into unfamiliar territories – in our case, after they have been in the same pasture for 75 years. Heeding the warning of a consultant that many a wreck results from making too many changes too quickly, Kristen and Rick have moved slowly, while putting effort into building up the infrastructure which will support the recommended methods. At the same time, they have been adopting systems of financial planning, of making a detailed grazing plan which must constantly be modified, and of monitoring the condition of the land. Workshops on methods for retaining water on the land, preventing and repairing erosion, “harvesting” water from ranch roads, and low-stress cattle handling have evoked unbridled enthusiasm from various members of the clan. Somehow, as much as we intend to help, these improvements usually mean more things for Kristen and Rick to do. 
      Marketing the cattle is another area of change. While brokers are still begging forfeeder and stocker calves, for several years Kristen has been sending truckloads of cattle to auctions and calves to feedlots. Increasingly she has been able to get detailed data on carcasses after varied feeding programs, and it is evident that the demand for a slightly larger carcass will have to be balanced with the advantages of small-boned “Trigg” Angus in our rough country. Meanwhile, we have become interested in Country Natural Beef, have sent our first batch of cattle, are in the process of certification, and are eager for the development of a “Southwest Production Module” nearer than Oregon.  
 
The Trigg Cattle Company Board Steps Up 
      After several years of the new regime, we have realized several things. One, that the members of the clan have an amazing range of expertise to offer, from carpentry to operation of heavy equipment to sophisticated skills with electronics to financial management, and the younger generation is bringing some superb education and experience. Two, that it takes effort to get together, covering distances and adjusting schedules. Three, that it takes effort for a bunch of introverts to communicate, and we’re making an effort to use email, a newsletter, and conference calls to make plans and decisions. 
      The fourth thing we’ve realized is that we’ve moved a long way from Steve’s one-man management, and that if we’re going to call on this growing clan to contribute its varied skills, we need a structure to make it happen. So in the summer of 2006 we spent several days of Work Week on strategic planning. A pair of facilitators recommended by Robin spent two days at the ranch helping us articulate our various hopes and dreams and the values that underlie them. Then they pointed out that our structure – the managers, five directors of Trigg Cattle Company, and three trustees – were addressing only the ranch operations; nobody was in charge of the “family” concerns of housing and how to keep it welcoming for those who want to come and stay for a few days, entertaining friends or helping with ranch work. The “access” which was one of the key goals was being overlooked.  
      It didn’t take long for the Trigg Cattle Company Board to respond by suggesting  committees for “operations” and “family”, and a financial committee to plan for both. Already the voice of the “younger generation” had been heard and the Board was increased by two seats which are earmarked for them. When the Board reported at dinner that night, its recommendations were eagerly accepted and there was high energy as the self-appointed subcommittees immediately went to work.  
      Among the criteria adopted by the Board was one that had already been adopted by family meetings: decisions are made by consensus rather than majority vote. Discussions apart from meetings are by email, and all emails are sent to everyone; no decisions will be made until there has been “sufficient” discussion.  Of course it remains to be seen just how all that will work out! Certainly there is a high level of participation, with some vigorous disagreement. We’re aiming to give Kristen and Rick the kinds of support and encouragement that will make their job more comfortable, and also to call into play the varied and surprising skills of the clan. 
      Throughout the years since we first began talking about the future of the ranch, we’ve pretty well kept our eyes on the goals we first articulated: Trigg Ranch will keep on being a ranch, the land will be cared for and its natural beauty protected, and we and our grandchildren and their great-grandchildren will be able to come and learn about our ranching heritage. Our “wholistic goal”, which gets edited frequently, spells this out and will guide all our decisions, which we are learning to test with the seven questions which are part of the Savory method.  
      Our focus is on operating the ranch profitably forever, and on the values which we intend to pass on to the hundreds of heirs who will come after us: the values of cooperation and patience; the importance of one’s word and one’s deeds; pride in the accomplishment of a job well done; and the skills, knowledge, and opportunity to work productively for the land and its people.  
      We intend to be – as Eric says – the last family ranch left standing.  But we hope we’ll have lots of company through the years. 
 
 
October 20, 2006
Linda M. Decker

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