To qualify for the agricultural preserve, a rancher or group of neighboring ranchers has to have at least 600 contiguous acres. The contracts are for ten years. If you sell in that time, you pay a penalty. "If you've legitimately got it in mind to be ranching," Cauzza says, "then the contract is all right."
And Cauzza does have it in mind to keep ranching. "We make enough to make a living, and it's something that we like," he says. "If you've got the life you like, and if you can make yourself a little living..." he shrugs, as if to say, "What else do you need?"
Ramona rancher Mary Turner is a different kind of rancher. She leases plots of land within a ten-mile radius around the town of Ramona to hold her herd of around 60 cows. "I always joke that I get the smaller pieces that nobody else wants," she says. "I've got mine scattered around ten different places, and it keeps me busy. One parcel that I have is right behind Stater's grocery store where that pond is. A guy bought it for development. He's going to put homes on it, but he says it's going to take a while. In the meantime, he wants to keep the cattle there to keep the fire hazard down. I've got a couple of pieces that the owners let me use to keep it clean. But most of them I have to pay for."
How much she pays, Turner explains, "depends. Some places go by the year; some places go by the head per month. If it's per-head per-month, it's usually about $12. Sometimes you can get it for $10. But otherwise, some pieces they do by the year."
Turner, who raises a French breed of cattle called limousin, relies on feed that is trucked in from the Imperial Valley. Prices are up. "It was pretty good for a few years there," she says. "This year, it's getting scarce, and the price is really going up. We usually get our hay in August or September because that's when it's the lowest. Now it's really going up because of several factors. They shut the water off up in the Northwest for the sucker fish. Now those people are coming down to the Imperial Valley to buy their hay, and that's running the price up. Another reason I've been told is that in Idaho they usually raise a lot of hay. But this year it was more profitable for the farmers to sell the electricity than to use it to irrigate for hay. So they sold their electricity, and now they're short of hay up there. And, I understand there's a brand-new packing house being built in Brawley. Someone was telling me they were going to be slaughtering 1200 head a day, but this morning I heard it could be up to 2000 a day. So now they're really rejuvenating the feed lots around El Centro, and they're buying up all the hay. So the competition for the hay has gotten really heavy."
She buys her hay through a "hay broker" who is "trying to find me some alfalfa for $123 per ton, which is still pretty low. But he says there isn't going to be any around at that price for long. Last year I was getting it for $105 or $110."
Grain costs even more. "As much as I feed," Turner says, "I couldn't afford to buy it in a bag at a feed store. So I get it in a bulk truck. The places that deliver five-ton minimums usually charge upwards of $200 a ton. Dairies and your bigger cattle ranches that feed a lot could probably get a lot better prices, because they can get more at a time delivered."
Asked if she makes a living out of her ranching, Turner laughs out loud. "No, no. My husband has a job down the hill. You can't make any money at it, really. I do it because I like it. You'd better like it, or forget it."