Photo by Robert Burroughs
“See that skinny cow there? There’s something wrong with her — probably ate some nails or wire or something."
Dawn: clouds press down low over the Campo Valley, and rain seems imminent. In one corner of Jim Kemp’s cattle pens, five cowboys and one cattle broker are already hard at work, trying to get 240 head weighed and ready for shipment to the feedlot. From all sides comes the lowing and bellowing of cattle; pointing their noses toward the sunless sky, they offer up mournful, hornlike cries. The cattle seem spooked, as if they sense that something’s up. The cowboys are trying to herd a few of them at a time down a corridor between two fences and onto a large weighing platform.
Jim Kemp is the largest cattle rancher in San Diego County,
Photo by Robert Burroughs
One cowboy on horseback circles again and again in the narrow corridor, turning back reluctant animals, forcing them on. Another stands near the gate to the weighing platform, swinging it open when a few steers or heifers approach it and banging it shut when they pass through. Suddenly three or four animals panic and rush the gate operator. “Watch out!” someone cries, but the man yanks open the gate, fends off the cattle with it, and slams it behind them as they clatter onto the weighing platform. Then he turns — Jim Kemp is a tall man with steely hair and a full, friendly face — shakes his head, and gets ready for the next group. He is wearing a gray cowboy hat, a light blue shirt, a blue down vest, and jeans. There are spurs on his cowboy boots.
In 1872 the “no-fence law” dealt another blow to Southern California’s cattle industry.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
In a small corrugated metal shed nearby, the broker, Dick Smith, is weighing the cattle. The big built-in scale uses sliding weights, like a scale in a doctor’s office, but it has a capacity of several thousand pounds at a time. Smith is a handsome, middle-aged man with tinted glasses and a tan jacket. His jeans, cowboy hat, and boots are inevitable. Using a pad and pen on a makeshift table, he notes the weight of each load and the number of cattle in it. Then he yells, “Okay!,” and the cattle are let off the platform through another gate on the far side. The cowboy manning this gate is younger than the others; he has a straw cowboy hat and a drooping mustache. As one group of cattle runs off the platform and into a nearby corral. Smith calls Jo him, “¿Catorce?” (“Fourteen?”), and the cowboy with the drooping mustache nods, “Catorce.” His name is Augustin and he grew up handling cattle on his parents’ ranch in northern Baja California.
“They’re all city people moving up to Campo now,” he complains. “Hippies and kooks and dopers."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
A few minutes later Kemp tells two of his men to ride down to the far side of the pens to round up the last of the cattle to be shipped. For the others a short interlude from work follows, and Dick Smith comes out of the weighing shed and leans against the fence to banter good-naturedly with Kemp. They exchange a few comments about Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Brown that I can’t quite hear, and then Kemp jerks his thumb in the air with a big smile and says, “Tellin’ him to take a hike was the smartest thing she ever did!” Both men laugh.
Soon the conversation turns to the cattle in the pens, and Kemp asks earnestly, “What did your buyer say about them?”
Some of Kemp's cattle. As we leave the meadow in Jacumba, Kemp tells me that as a rancher he probably won’t be affected much by boxed beef.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“Oh, he liked them fine, but he didn’t say much,” Smith replies evenly.
“Well, I’m gonna lose money on ’em anyway.” Kemp laughs a short, humorless laugh.
“I tell ya’ what, it was a good deal for him,” agrees Smith, walking back into the shed. The last of the cattle have been brought up and work resumes. “Hey hey hey hey hey,” cries a cowboy in the pens, herding a black heifer toward the weighing platform gate. Wide-eyed with fear, the animal charges the gate and rams it hard, then backs away without apparent injury. Soon the heifer is on the platform with others.
The morning wears on. A light rain begins to fall. Spurs jangling, Augustin walks past me and says with a grin, “You a leetle cold?” My smile is warm even though I am not. The work continues: herding, counting, weighing, counting again. Nearly 200 cattle now stand in the corral beyond the weighing platform. Still bellowing, they turn their shit-stained haunches to the slanting rain, and wait. In a few minutes two big livestock trucks will arrive, their drivers young and tousle-haired, and Kemp and his cowboys will herd the cattle up a narrow wooden chute for loading. The animals will hesitate in the chute until they are jabbed in the flanks with bright orange battery-powered cattle prods, and then they will bellow and scramble madly into the bellies of the trucks. Soon the trucks will be rolling down the highway toward feedlots in the Imperial Valley, carrying 103,000 pounds of live beef. The cattle may be fattened on the feedlots for as long as three months before being sent to the slaughterhouse, but within a day or two a check for about $75,000 will show up in Kemp’s mail. His job ends when the trucks are loaded, and the $75,000 will be payment to him in full for 240 steers, heifers, and cows, most of them less than a year old.
Jim Kemp is the largest cattle rancher in San Diego County, but the few thousand animals he keeps in the East County are only a whisper of the huge herds that were raised in Southern California a hundred and fifty years ago. In fact, when Kemp’s family first acquired ranch land here in the 1870s, Southern California was still known as the state’s “cow counties.” Today taxes, environmental laws, and the rising cost of nearly everything have made cattle raising more difficult and less profitable than it was a few years ago. The biggest threat to cattle ranching locally, however, is the county’s ever-increasing population. What suitable grazing land there is left is rapidly being covered by roads, condominiums, and housing tracts. As long as people eat beef, cattle surely will be raised and slaughtered and sold by the neat, plastic-wrapped cut. But in San Diego County there are fewer and fewer cattle ranchers almost every year. Kemp and I got to talking about it one day and I told him it seemed like just a matter of time before his ranch disappears with the rest. “It probably is,” he replied after a pause. “It probably is.”
When Kemp’s grandfather on his mother’s side, William Chilwell, arrived in San Diego in the late 1870s, the cattle business in Southern California was already heading into a long decline. Cattle had been introduced to the region during the Mission era, but it was after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1823 that cattle ranching began in earnest. Under the policy adopted by the Mexican government, enormous land grants could be had if the applicant was a Mexican citizen, would promise to build a house on his new property, and would raise cattle. So liberal was this policy and so vast and untouched the land that most of the grants were accurate only to the nearest hundred acres; nearly all included the words mas o menos (“more or less”) in the written deed.
Although many of the large ranchos were broken up when California became a territory of the United States in 1848, it was the simultaneous Gold Rush in the north that brought on the golden age of cattle ranching in Southern California. The six counties in the southern part of the state became known as the “cow counties,” and thousands of head were herded north to Stockton, Sacramento, and San Francisco each year. From Alaska to Peru, cowhides became known as “California bank notes.” Deceptively dry looking (it was thought), the coastal valleys and hills in fact grew, in the words of one early booster, “the sweetest and best support for cattle and sheep in the world.”
The cattle market collapsed when the gold in the north gave out, and the great drought of the early 1860s subsequently proved that, however sweet the local grasses were, their dry appearance was no deception. From January, 1862 until May, 1864 virtually no rain fell at all. A reporter for the Los Angeles News wrote in 1863: “The cattle of Los Angeles are dying so fast in so many places for want of food . . . [that] thousands of carcasses strew the plains in all directions, and the sight is harrowing to the extreme.”
In 1872 the “no-fence law” dealt another blow to Southern California’s cattle industry. The law required cattlemen to prevent their animals from wandering free over other private property, and with new settlers hemming them in from all sides, many of the wealthy ranchers who had survived the great drought soon went broke with the effort, or simply gave up. It was this situation that William Chilwell found when he moved to San Diego in the late 1870s. Having sold his small estate in England, he was looking for land on which to resume his occupation as a cattle and sheep rancher. Twenty years earlier the cattle market in California had been booming, he reasoned; he would dig wells and build fences and wait for it to boom again.
Chilwell married a local mine-operator’s widow and soon had three children: Louisa, Nell, and Archie. For his ranch he bought most of present-day Jacumba and parts of the Campo Valley, but later traded the Jacumba property for more land near Campo and in the Laguna Mountains. Chilwell’s plan was to assemble large, contiguous tracts to reduce conflicts with neighbors, and he was fairly successful in doing it. Eventually he acquired about 2600 acres in and around the Laguna Meadow, some 2000 acres in the Campo Valley, and several thousand more scattered elsewhere around eastern San Diego County.
In 1899 Chilwell’s horse stumbled and fell on him while he was working near the Laguna Meadow. The weight of the animal broke his neck and although he died, his cattle ranch in the mountains went right on living. His wife remarried and the business flourished under the direction of her new husband and later her son, Archie Chilwell.
In 1916 Nell Chilwell married Trevor Kemp, the son of an English soldier. Soon after the marriage Trevor Kemp left to fight in France during World War I, but when he returned he and his wife lived in San Diego, in a house on Cleveland Avenue in North Park. Their two sons Ron and Jim were born in 1923 and 1930, respectively. Trevor Kemp worked as a surveyor for the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad for many years, but in 1936, with jobs scarce and the Depression at its height, he moved his family to Campo to help his ailing brother-in-law in the cattle business. Two years later Archie Chilwell died and management of the cattle ranch in the mountains passed into the hands of Trevor Kemp.
Trevor Kemp and his oldest son Ron worked the ranch somewhat successfully for nearly thirty years, selling off a little property here and there when things got tight, sometimes leasing back that land or adjacent tracts so they could continue to run cattle on it. By the time Jim Kemp had returned from fighting in the Korean War, graduated from San Diego State College, and joined his brother as a partner on the ranch in 1954, the family’s land holdings had been whittled down to about 5000 acres. “My dad never really retired; he just got old,” Jim Kemp told me not long ago, and gradually elder brother Ron assumed management of the family business. (Today the dominant brand on the Kemp’s cattle is SK, the S standing for Sandy, Ron’s nickname.) But in 1967 Ron Kemp’s wife, only forty-four years old, died suddenly of a heart attack. “It kinda knocked the hell out of him,” recalls Jim Kemp, “and he wanted to get away.” That same year Ron Kemp sold his house in Campo and moved up to the Owens Valley in northern California, where he now runs a separate cattle ranch. Although technically still partners with his brother, Jim Kemp has managed the East County cattle business ever since. Five years ago he had a house built on land his family has owned for more than one hundred years, on a gentle slope overlooking the wide, fertile Campo Valley. The house has four bedrooms and a nearby corral for horses; a few orphaned calves have the run of the back yard. “It’s not so much a business as a lifestyle,” Kemp says with his big, friendly grin.
As the livestock trucks pull away Kemp instructs his four hired hands in what to do next. It is a few days after Thanksgiving and although he usually ships most of his cattle in the fall, this year he is a full month behind schedule. The market has been slow, and in addition, a late-season heat wave made it inadvisable to ship the animals down to the Imperial Valley feedlots, delaying him further. Now it is almost December and there are cattle to be rounded up in Pine Valley, cattle to be brought down from the Laguna Mountains before the first snow, cattle to be tended in Jacumba and in the Campo Valley. In a few weeks he will be able to relax for the winter, with only a few corrals and fences to repair, but for now there is much work to be done and little time to do it.
The rain has stopped temporarily but the sky over the pens on Lake Morena Drive is still a ragged, dismal gray. In a few moments the four cowboys, duly instructed, ride off on horseback while Kemp, Dick Smith, and I drive over to the Oak Shores Malt Shop and Grocery in Morena Village for a hurried brunch of coffee, eggs, and hash browns. Smith talks about the current problems of government, the cattle business, and society in general (to most ranchers, a traditionally and conservatively minded group, they’re all pretty much related), but Kemp’s answers are short and distracted. It is nearly noon and he seems anxious to get back to work.
A few minutes later Kemp and I are sitting in the cab of his white 1980 Ford pickup, driving east on Interstate 8 toward Pine Valley. Kemp runs cattle on a total of about 50,000 acres, from Japatul Road and the Laguna Mountains in the west to McCain Valley and Jacumba in the east. Nearly all the land is leased, much of it from the Cleveland National Forest, whose experts dictate to Kemp how many cattle he can keep on the land, and where. (Inheritance and property taxes have claimed a large share of the Kemp family’s estate over the years, and now the only property they own is in the Campo Valley.) This morning Kemp has horses to feed at the Laguna Meadow; they were left there a few days ago when he and his men were in the area rounding up cattle. Along the way there are fences to be checked, cows to be looked after. It is a typical day for Kemp, who rises at five every morning and is out working until sundown.
He grew up in Campo, where he graduated from Mountain Empire High School. When he was a boy there were always chores to do around the house: milking cows, collecting eggs, or what Kemp refers to as “cowboyin’” — branding, herding, and shipping cattle. Sometimes when the work was over, his father would take him duck hunting. “He was educated in England,” Kemp remembers of his father. “He always read a lot and spoke very properly — you know, used good grammar. And he taught me the value of education, too. There was never any question that I was gonna go to college. And the value of work. I know a lot of people out here, their kids just want to get away, go into something else, but I always enjoyed ranching.” His father is still alive, Kemp adds; eighty-nine years old, he lives by himself in a house just down the road from his son in the Campo Valley. “He’s pretty independent,” laughs Kemp. “Still reads a lot, but like most ranchers, he’s very opinionated.”
At Pine Valley Kemp turns off the highway, and after driving west on Old Highway 80 for a few miles, he takes a blacktop road that leads up through the Cleveland National Forest toward the Laguna Meadow. We cross a stream and the blacktop gives way to graded dirt. Soon we come upon cattle grazing near the road under a stand of oaks — Kemp’s cattle. “See that skinny cow there?’’ he asks, pointing to a thin, gray cow that eyes us steadily as she chews. “There’s something wrong with her — probably ate some nails or wire or something. When that happens, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do.”
Kemp’s cattle are mostly a mixture of Brahman, Hereford, Angus, and Texas Longhorn. The hybrids survive better in the heat of the feedlots in Imperial Valley, so he crossbreeds them on purpose. “Jim knows how to use the range in San Diego County as good as anyone,” says Herb Weisheit, the University of California’s local farm advisor for livestock. “He understands it — what the feed’s like, what cattle will do best — and there’s a lot of variation in that. He's had the business through bad times and good, and he’s had the patience to see it through.”
In the fall Kemp and his cowboys head out into the brush on horseback, looking for the young steers, heifers, and calves to be sold. Often the animals are herded into temporary pens, and from there are carried a few at a time in a bobtail truck to Kemp’s permanent pens on Lake Morena Drive. But from some of his leased grazing land Kemp and his men can drive the cattle all the way to the permanent pens on horseback. (To a cowboy, the verb “to drive” has nothing to do with vehicles, and everything to do with herding cattle.) It sounds like a throwback to a different era, but Kemp insists the work has changed. “The old-time guys were tougher — they had to be,” he tells me. “Those old guys had to camp out half the time. And they didn’t have any trucks; they drove cattle everywhere. It was a way of life. They didn’t know anything different.
“But a cowboy today has to be more than just a cowboy. He has to be a mechanic, a welder, an electrician, and maybe a few other things. There’s not a ready supply of cowboys like that, not around here, anyway. It’s hard work; you almost have to grow up with it.
“I used to have an old Indian named Domingo who worked for me for years, and he was a good cowboy. He finally quit and went back to live on the Campo Indian Reservation. A couple of months ago he came by with his son and wanted to know if I could give the kid a job. Well, I gave him a job and he hung around for about two weeks and then took off. I haven’t seen him since. Kids these days just don’t want to work.”
As Kemp says this we are creeping along in his truck at about five miles an hour. The graded dirt road has become a narrow, rutted road, a road that barely deserves the appellation, a road that, if I were to compile a list of the worst roads I have ever been on, would currently rank in the top three. On the passenger side — my side — the hillside drops away with alarming swiftness, but today fog is drifting in over the area, mercifully obscuring the depths. Kemp’s truck bounces and pitches as we go, startling a large Cooper’s hawk that flaps away silently into the mist. Not without a certain sense of self-interest, I maneuver the conversation to the subject of vehicle repair bills, tires, brakes. Kemp says he used to buy steel radials but wore them out so quickly on roads like this one that he now opts “for the cheapest retreads I can find.” Bounce, pitch. The front ends of his trucks are chronically out of alignment, he adds, and the trucks themselves don’t last long, either. One three-year-old model parked at his ranch house already has 120,000 miles on it.
Kemp spends a lot of his time punishing trucks in meadows and on unpaved roads, and like other ranchers, he has been hit hard by rising fuel and vehicle costs. The price of feed has risen sharply, too — leases for grazing rights vary, but the forest service charges $2.54 per head per month, and hay, $90 a ton two years ago, is up to $130 a ton. His other major expenses are insurance, taxes, and interest rates. Like most ranchers and farmers, Kemp depends heavily on bank loans to keep his business running, and when interest rates on those loans hover near twenty percent, as they have recently, it costs him. His property taxes, which he says were once $50,000 a year, have been lowered substantially by Proposition 13, but they are still to be reckoned with. About the insurance, Kemp shrugs. “It’s a high-accident business,’’ he says. “Half of the work is on horseback, and you can fall or get thrown off. Or when you’ve got 9000 pounds of cattle on the other side of a gate, they can hit it and knock you over. You can get kicked, too — people don ’t realize how quick these animals are sometimes. It pays to be agile.” Kemp admits he has broken a few bones falling or being thrown from his horse but adds with a smile, ‘‘That’s nothin’, really. I’ll tell you one thing, though, the ground’s a lot harder than it was twenty years ago.”
I have been glancing at the leather-cased rifle on the seat next to me for some time now and finally I ask Kemp about it. It’s for dogs, he explains. Out here in the back country, people’s dogs get out and sometimes run in packs, and they can attack and kill a newborn calf. It’s legal for Kemp to shoot them if they are on his property or on property he has leased for grazing. ‘‘You don’t like to shoot a dog,” he says, “so we won’t if we recognize it or know who it belongs to. But sometimes you have to. Once they kill a calf they’ll keep on doing it again and again.”
At last the dirt road smooths, then becomes blacktop again. Soon we are on the Sunrise Highway heading south toward the Laguna Meadow, and Kemp slows as we near a metal gate on one side of the road. He stops in front of it, gets out, opens the gate, gets back into his truck, drives through, gets out again, closes the gate, and gets back into his truck. It is a ritual he performs many times a day; all of the land he grazes cattle on is surrounded by fence, and the entrances and exits must be kept closed scrupulously. We drive a few hundred yards down a dirt road and come to a halt in front of an aging wooden corral. The rain begins again; water drips from the huge pines around us and patters down softly on the cab of the truck. Kemp jumps out — he is still wearing his gray cowboy hat and down vest — and walks across the corral to where the horses are waiting. Rain and fog drift across the meadow behind him, partially obscuring an old stone chimney that is the last remnant of the house William Chilwell built here in the years before the Twentieth Century began.
Kemp still uses this corral and a small cottage nearby, but the meadow itself now belongs to the forest service. That agency obtained it a few years ago in one of the longest and most widely publicized environmental disputes ever fought in San Diego County, and when he talks about it, Kemp still sounds bitter. In the early 1970s his property and inheritance taxes suddenly got so steep that he found he would have to sell part of the family’s ranch to help pay them. The parcel he picked to sell was 1575 acres in and around the Laguna Meadow, a sort of “island” of private property within the Cleveland National Forest. The forest service had wanted the land for years but when Kemp contacted them, they couldn’t seem to come up with the funds to buy it, so he began to solicit other offers. One came from Landtec, a Palo Alto corporation that proposed to build some 3000 “condominium campsites” for trailers in the meadow, along with manmade lakes, tennis courts, a recreation center, and an accompanying road system. In 1972 Kemp agreed to sell the land to Landtec. The county planning commission approved the preliminary plan for the project, and from there it went to the county board of supervisors for consideration. “That’s when the bubble burst,” Kemp remembers.
Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the Mountain Defense League, and Citizen’s Coordinate for Century III had gotten wind of the project, and opposed it vehemently. “We just didn’t feel it was the proper land use,” said Byron Lindsley, director of the Mountain Defense League, recently. “It’s the last real Alpine meadow in Southern California. It’s absolutely unique — like something you’d find in the Rocky Mountains, but right here close to San Diego.” The arguments dragged through hearings off and on for nineteen months, until finally, in November of 1973, the board of supervisors agreed to buy the property on the condition that it would be resold to the forest service within five years. The Kemps were paid $1.75 million, and the forest service actually purchased the last of the meadow property from the county in July, 1977. Kemp now leases the meadow for grazing the same way he leases other tracts from the forest service.
“Not hardly,” Kemp replied when I asked him if he was satisfied with the sale of the land to the county. He claimed he would have made half a million dollars more selling it to Landtec, and went on to say, “What they [the county] were saying was that we couldn’t sell our land the way we wanted to. We were going to sue them over that, and our attorney thought we could have won, too. But hell, we’d probably still be in court. As it was, after all the delay and the lawyer’s fees, there wasn’t much left anyway.”
The sale of the Laguna Meadow is just one of the issues over which Kemp has clashed with environmentalists, and he regards such groups collectively with little affection. He can no longer burn the range when he wants to, a process that increases cattle forage the following season, because of laws limiting air pollution. He can’t use hormone supplements such as DES to make his cattle put on weight faster, because the environmentalists claim they remain in the meat and cause cancer when consumed by humans. Worst of all, the environmentalists are trying to get millions of acres nationwide designated as wilderness, which in Kemp’s eyes is tantamount to throwing it away: no one will be able to use it except for a few hikers. It’s partly policies like these, he complains, that are ruining the cattle business and contributing to the high cost of beef. “The thing is, they limit productivity,” he says, shaking his head. “A lot of these environmentalists are just kooks. They’re more concerned about turtles and wild horses than they are about producing wealth for this country. This is what bothers me.”
While Kemp and the environmentalists will probably never see eye to eye on most issues, their views have recently come somewhat closer togther regarding the urbanization of the country Sierra Club spokesman Steve Buckley said a few weeks ago that his organization recognizes the need to protect agricultural land near urban areas, and has lobbied for tax shelters for such property. Most environmentalists also agree that cattle grazing is an appropriate land use, even, in some cases, in wilderness areas. “The key is in not having too many hooves on the turf,” said Byron Lindsley. “You have to take the long view. There will be no productivity if the integrity of the environment isn’t protected.’’
As for a landowner selling his property however he wants to, Lindsley commented, “I’m very disturbed about that concept. What it often comes down to is profits versus social needs being met. With the Kemps it’s very different, because unlike a lot of developers and real estate agents we’ve dealt with, the Kemps have been out there for a long time, being custodians of the land. And they have no record of being anything but good custodians. I don’t want to reject the concept of private property, but I would say that sometimes community sensitivity is a bigger part of the equation.”
Kemp, when I asked him if he had anything in common with the environmentalists who want to prevent the county from becoming wall-to-wall housing tracts, just shook his head. “I don’t like to see this country cut to pieces, but on the other hand, we’ve got to retain private property rights,” he insisted. “I think if you pay taxes on your land for forty or fifty years, you ought to be able to sell it the way you see fit.”
After feeding his horses at the Laguna Meadow, Kemp returns on the Sunrise Highway to Pine Valley, where he wants to check reports that some of his cattle have escaped and are grazing near the town. We come upon a group of five or six, chewing the brush on a hillside above Old Highway 80, looking contented and peaceful. Somewhere a fence is down; vandals, probably. “Not much you can do without horses,” Kemp remarks, and we drive on to Interstate 8 and head east. The rain continues as we pass Campo, Live Oak Springs, and the McCain Valley, but in Jacumba it is surprisingly dry and clear. Kemp leases grazing rights in Jacumba from a man who owns a couple of hundred acres near the freeway, and as we turn onto the dirt road that leads to the property Kemp tells me it is part of the same land his grandfather bought when he first moved into the mountains last century. “There were no fences out here then,” he adds. There is no bitterness or irony in his voice; it is a simple statement of fact.
We pull up in front of the inevitable gate and Kemp gets out of his truck to perform the ritual of opening and closing it. As he does, it occurs to me that his belief in the sovereign rights of the property owner is probably reinforced daily by his interactions with fences and gates. He constantly sees the benefits of these boundaries — not just on his own property, but on others’ as well — and also the damage done to them by vandals, hunters, and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts. It must bring home to him the basic dignity of the fence, the outrageousness of the damage when it occurs, and the sense of land as he thinks it ought to be — a sort of castle to keep out the world.
The dirt road leads across a meadow and Kemp follows it through a group of cattle who eye us warily. Suddenly he stops near a watering trough, gets out, and throws a couple of “protein blocks” from the back of his pickup onto the ground. The blocks — fortified with minerals and salt — will help sustain the cattle through the winter. Then Kemp gets back in and we set off across the meadow itself, bumping along slowly over the long, yellow grass. The grass looks so dry it might be dead, but Kemp points to the cattle, healthy and fat, and explains that the loose volcanic soil here produces feed that is as rich with nutrients as it is sparse.
The heavy rains of the last few years have produced abundant feed all over the county, according to Kemp. Before that, there were more than two decades of abnormally dry winters. “Fifty-one was wet, ’58, and '61," he remembers. The rest of the years the rainfall was often below half of the normal twenty inches. “Seemed like that east wind used to blow all winter in those dry years. I remember once I counted thirty-six straight days of high wind. It really curtailed the number of ranchers around here — you just couldn't run very many cattle.”
Just as the dry period seemed to be ending, a new drought in the mid-Seventies struck, hitting California cattlemen particularly hard. Prices were already low due to an oversupply of beef, and as the dry years continued and the number of cattle declined, inflation, the Arab oil embargo, and a number of other factors sent the ranchers’ expenses rocketing upward. The resulting price of beef in supermarkets was so high that the public simply stopped eating it so much.
The cattle industry still hasn’t fully recovered from this squeeze, but there are some people, including cattle broker Dick Smith, who feel the worst is over. “I think next year things will start to recover,” Smith told me a few days after I had talked to Kemp. “The retail price of beef will be slightly higher than it is now, but the price of just about everything else is goin’ up much faster, so the business should be on more solid ground. Ranchers in general are not losin’ a lot of money, even now. But ranchers in California, by and large, are sure not doin ’ that good. It’s hard to say if a guy like Kemp is losin’ money — his labor expenses aren’t all that great — but he could be because the taxes on his land are so damn high.”
Smith also said that leaner beef is being produced now, another factor that could help the cattle market. Leaner beef, a response to health concerns about fat and cholesterol, means that cattle will spend a shorter time on the feedlot, and could thus signal a basic change in the cattle business. But the business is being transformed in other ways, too. Huge slaughterhouses in the Midwest are revolutionizing the packing process with what is called “boxed beef.” In these behemoth operations, people line up, assembly-line-style, as cattle carcasses move down a conveyor belt, each person removing particular cuts in a way exactly opposite to the method by which automobiles are assembled in Detroit. The frozen, vacuum-packed product is boxed and shipped everywhere, and it is creating strong competition for many local packers, who usually sell by the carcass. The assembly-line approach lowers the cost of labor associated with packing the beef, although the resulting savings is often offset by shipping cost. But vacuum-packed boxed beef has a longer “shelf life” than fresh beef, and it gives retail meat buyers the flexibility to buy more of a particular kind of cut if it is selling well in their area. As we leave the meadow in Jacumba, Kemp tells me that as a rancher he probably won’t be affected much by boxed beef, but in the future cattle could leave his ranch by train rather than truck, bound for Kansas City instead of the Imperial Valley.
Kemp turns his truck onto Highway 94 and we drive back toward his cattle pens on Lake Morena Drive. The afternoon is waning and suddenly the rain begins again, beating against the windshield with more force than it has all day. “I wish it’d hold off for a week or two; I’ve got some things to do,” Kemp sighs. A moment later he adds, “Well, it’s only money!” and laughs a short, cheerless laugh.
As we wind along Highway 94, I ask him about his children. Kemp has three daughters and a son, and he says Campo has been a good place to raise them. Or at least it once was. “They’re all city people moving up here now,” he complains. “Hippies and kooks and dopers. My own kids, they can see that stuff, they’re exposed to it at school, but they don’t want to get involved with it. I’ve taught them the same principles my father taught me: honesty, morals, manners, consideration for others. . .” He hesitates for a moment, thinking. “I read a quote somewhere that we have 10,000 laws now to interpret the Ten Commandments,” he says finally. “I always thought they covered it pretty well.”
I ask him if he wants his children to go into ranching, and he replies, “I imagine the boy will, if people haven’t run us out of here by then. [Kemp’s son Jimmy, his youngest child, is twelve years old. ] But if this growth continues in Southern California, the smart thing to do will be to sell and buy another ranch somewhere else. It’s what everyone else has done — either that or they just quit.” He pauses, exasperated. “Probably you’ll just get so many people around you, so many problems, you just couldn’t do business any more. It’s a shame. People don’t realize this is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. But most of it’s gone for good now. Hell, it’s all paved over.”
We have reached Lake Morena Drive and soon Kemp pulls into his pens and parks near the place where his cattle were shipped earlier in the day. He lights a cigarette and looks out across the pens, which are empty except for a few cattle. Rain drums on the roof of the truck. Kemp says he hopes the Reagan administration can get the economy turned around and maybe eliminate some of these environmental laws that, as he sees it, have brought ranchers nothing but grief. “Twenty years of foolishness,” he says. “It’s time we were goin’ the other way now — get back to good sense and hard work.”
He draws from his cigarette and glances out the window. The cattle are silent, but a few are moving restlessly around the pens in the darkening evening air. “The only thing is, people think different now,” Kemp says. “Some people think I’m crazy, I guess. Times have changed.”
A few moments later we shake hands and say good-bye. I get out of Kemp’s truck and walk to my own, which is parked nearby, and Kemp gets out to finish his day’s work. As I drive away I can see him walking swiftly across the cattle pens, still wearing his cowboy hat, his hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans and his shoulders hunched against the rain.