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Idaho rancher, 85, calls farming a 'nostalgic' pursuit

Idaho rancher, 85, calls farming a 'nostalgic' pursuit
In an undated photo Tom Geary, 85, stands on property he owns near Albion, Idaho, where he raises 140 beef cattle. Geary says life on the ranch is a nostalgic lifestyle that he pursued starting at a young age. (AP Photo/Times-News, Andrew Weeks)
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ALBION, Idaho (AP) — Growing up in a small town in northern Utah, Tom Geary always knew he was made to be a farmer.

As he grew older, all of his friends became farmers, which influenced him even more.

"I thought it would be a pretty good thing to do," he said. And so in the small town of Smithfield, Utah, where the largest dairy farm was a 24-cow operation, he took steps to make his career happen.

Geary worked as a butcher on a dairy. Starting in the early 1950s when he and his new bride moved to southern Idaho, he became a potato and sugar beet farmer and later a cattle rancher. At 85, he still manages about 140 head of beef cattle on 640 acres — enough to keep him busy every day.

It's a nostalgic lifestyle he's never regretted, even with its share of growing challenges.

"I'm really into agriculture," he said from his home. "I think if I didn't have something to do, something to watch over, I'd go crazy. Some days I might question my judgment, but the exercise I get from fixing fences, filling water troughs and the like is good for me."

Still, there are times when he needs an extra pair of hands on the ranch that sits in the shade of Pomerelle Mountain. That's when he calls on family or a willing neighbor.

Geary has four sons and two daughters. Their own families like to visit the ranch whenever they can — which for some, like 53-year-old son Rick Geary of St. Anthony, isn't as often as they'd like. He owns a veterinary practice, which brings an added bonus when he does visit the ranch.

"It's always nice to work the ranch," Rick Geary said. "Cows need to be checked and vaccinated and branded. ... Sometimes I go to the ranch by myself if there's just work to be done, otherwise I bring my family."

The ranch is the family gathering spot for celebrations. Last weekend, the family gathered to celebrate Tom Geary's 85th birthday.

Another son, Jed Geary of Burley, said his family likes to visit Grandpa's ranch several times a week. Besides getting together to ride four-wheelers and otherwise recreate on the property, there's always some kind of work that needs to be done — mending fences, spraying for weeds, castrating bulls. The ranch has been a good thing for the whole family, he said, because it teaches the younger generation the importance of work and helping out.

"It's dad's operation," he said, "but we're all somewhat involved."

"Times are different, aren't they?" Tom Geary asked as he talked about the ag industry and his personal life. He answered his own question: "Yes, they sure have changed."

The most dramatic change for him occurred in March 2007 when his wife, Connie, passed away.

"I never expected that to happen," he said, a little teary-eyed. "I'm older than she was. I didn't think she'd leave me here alone like this."

Geary's home still is decorated with the dolls his wife collected over the years and the sitting parlor is pretty much as she left it.

But there are other changes that he points to over his more than eight decades, some personal, some industry-related — like the increasing cost of hay.

He remembers when he could buy hay for $60-$70 a ton. Now he pays around $200 per ton. There are also increased mortgage, interest and equipment costs.When you're a small cattle rancher, he said, you're not bringing in a lot of money. At 140 head, he's considered a small operation.

Geary sells his cattle at auction in Burley every fall, once in a while taking one for himself for hamburger and steak.

Jed and Rick both said they'd like to one day own their father's property, but don't know that they'd continue the cattle operation — at least not grow it. There are just not enough cattle on the ranch to turn a good profit these days, Rick said. They'd have to become a big operation — 500 cattle or more — and that's something neither of them said they have plans to do.

There's another challenge, Rick said. His dad lucked out years ago when he purchased the property in the early 1970s. These days it'd be tough to get that much land.

Before purchasing the property, the Gearys developed land in the Pella area southwest of Burley, which they used to grow beans, potatoes, sugar beets and other commodities.

On a recent Thursday, Tom Geary went to his garage, donned overalls and boots, and then walked several yards to the new metal barn he had built on his property.

"You can ride mine," he said, as he started a Honda ATV. "Seems like we all use four-wheelers more than we do horses, these days. ... Let's go find some cattle."

Geary uses the four-wheelers every day to check his property and livestock.

He led the way, stopping now and then to open gates, across pastureland and on the hillsides to show where his cattle graze. A few calves walked or chewed cud with their mothers, staring at the two machines and their drivers as we rolled along the farm-green landscape. The mountain was still capped with snow.

He stopped and pointed out the boundaries of his property. There was more to his goal of becoming a rancher than earning a livelihood, he said: It's been a nostalgic lifestyle, one that in his early days he knew from friends and family that he wanted, and that he achieved.

Now, he's the one supporting the next generation of workers. As a butcher while still in high school, he said, he was paid 20 cents an hour. When teenagers recently came knocking on his door, they asked for $10 an hour.

"I gave it to them," he said with a laugh. "They helped mend some fences."

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Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press

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