Man turns to nature to save ranch (Video)
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Leaves crunched beneath his boots while birds sang in the rustling canopy of trees overhead. Joe Keefe froze, eyes half closed, listening. He heard water gurgling in the San Antonio River and birds singing in the rustling canopy overhead, but the sounds of man dropped away.
"That's the thing about here," he said. "It's peaceful."
Keefe is hoping others will see the beauty of his family's ranch. After facing the devastation and financial hardships of the economic downturn, and the drought, Keefe is looking for a new source of revenue for the land and he may have found the answer in nature tourism.
This place, 800 acres of ranchland nestled along the San Antonio River just outside of Victoria, has been in Keefe's family for generations.
The Fagan Ranch was a bigger place once, but pieces of land were sold off over the years until now only this tract, the first piece of land J.N. Fagan bought, remains in family hands, running cattle on the place as they've done for generations.
Now, Keefe is looking to the future, in the hope that nature tourism will help his family keep the land in the coming years.
It all started with the drought in 2009. Winter faded into spring, but Keefe noticed that the land stayed brown and dry. As the drought dragged on, the family realized that they would have to sell off some of their herd because they couldn't afford to feed them. Cattle had sustained them and kept the family on the land, but Keefe realized ranching wasn't enough anymore. He needed to find new ways to make the ranch pay for itself.
"I had to figure out something to do, and I wanted something that wouldn't impact the land," he said.
He turned the problem over in his mind. Keefe is a neat, compact man with a salt- and-pepper mustache and blue eyes that have a sun- bleached quality from years of working outdoors.
Growing up as an Army brat, he and his family moved across the country and around the globe. Visiting the ranch on vacations, he fell in love with the place, with the life of farmers and ranchers.
After graduating high school, he knew what he wanted to do and he signed on as a ranch hand within a year. Over time, he became a ranch foreman, and when his mother inherited the family place, he was around to lend a hand as she worked to learn the ranching business.
"To be in agriculture at all, I think you have to be an eternal optimist," he said.
You have to believe that the rain will come tomorrow and that things will look better in the morning, he said. It's not a life for everyone.
"You don't do it if you don't love it," Keefe said. "In a way, it's almost like a curse. You get a place you've grown up on, and it's just really important to you, and you want others to see that. And nowadays that's hard. We live so fast today."
Looking for another source of income from the ranch, he thought about the place. With the San Antonio River looping through, wildlife have thrived here. Deer lope through the park while humming birds, wood ducks, hawks, buzzards, owls, scissor-tailed flycatchers and eagles frequent the area. Raccoons, wild turkeys, hogs, possums and mountain lions have been seen moving beneath the foliage of elms, pecans and other native Texas trees.
Thinking of the natural beauty of the place, Keefe wondered if that might be the answer. Maybe people would come here to see the things and get a taste of the life he grew up loving.
Keefe talked to Miles Phillips, the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension nature tourism specialist, asking for advice.
Phillips has been working with landowners across Texas helping them find ways to use nature tourism to get another source of income for their land.
"There's a lot of challenges to running a traditional ranching outfit, especially on top of the drought," Phillips said. "As landowners, it costs them to own the land, and if they're going to keep it, they're going to have to make money - this is one way to do it."
Phillips has been helping ranchers and farmers figure out what their land has to offer, what kind of investment they're willing to make and what the potential for revenue is. Landowners need to have a business plan, to budget and do research, he said.
"There's a lot more people every year that want those kinds of outdoor experiences, and those with land provide those rural experiences that are increasing in value," he said.
If they can find a model that fits their needs and the amount of time and money they are willing to put into it, there's a ready market of people looking for the chance to have the kind of outdoor experiences that Keefe and other landowners grew up with, he said.
"Location makes the difference," Phillips said. "It's very hard to sell mediocre outdoors experiences. You want quality."
After talking with Phillips, Keefe decided to build a small park, JNF Campground and RV Park.
He and his mother invested about $100,000 to install 10 mobile home stations on a little corner of the property. The grounds were just completed and when campers pull up the red gravel drive, they'll find a quiet space lined where Keefe left all of the trees standing that he could. The park offers nature trails and the chance to see native wildlife.
"I wanted something that would disturb the land as little as possible," Keefe said.
He isn't expecting a quick return on their investment. For Keefe, the park is a way to let people enjoy the beauty of his land while establishing a small source of revenue that may help his children and grandchildren pay the taxes allowing them to keep the land for the coming generations.
"It's a future investment," Keefe said. "It's not so much getting your money now as getting something for the future."