I’ve known Nancy Ranney of the 18,000-acre Ranney Ranch near Corona, New Mexico for over 10 years and followed the work she has been doing on the Ranney Ranch for even longer. The Ranney Ranch sits at 6,200 feet in the rugged mesa and canyon country of the Gallo Canyon and was home to ancestral Pueblo people in the 11th-14th centuries, later dryland farmers in the late 1800s and sheep ranchers in the mid-1900s before transitioning to cattle ranches. As Nancy worked with her long-time ranch manager, Melvin Johnson, and consultant and HMI Certified Educator, Kirk Gadzia, she saw her family ranch increase in land health and productivity, even in drought years.
The last couple of years as I’ve talked to Nancy she was focused on how to transition the ranch. She spent time exploring all the options she could think of to make sure the land she and her family had worked so hard to improve would be protected as a working ranch. Those efforts included a conservation easement and finding the right buyer.
Nancy has spent the last 18 years focused on improving the ranch that her father, George Ranney, first purchased in 1968. When Nancy took over management in 2002 after her father’s death, she and longtime manager, Melvin Johnson, shifted management strategy, combining 18 herds into one and developing a holistic grazing plan with Kirk. The ranch now boasts over 50 species of native grasses as a result of that grazing planning and implementation.
Nancy also worked to develop a grassfed beef operation and in 2017, the ranch was selected to be the New Mexico pilot ranch for the Audubon Conservation Ranching Program. Audubon ornithologists documented healthy populations of Montezuma and scaled quail (indicators of well-managed rangeland); numerous species of bats and other wildlife have been identified, and more recently, numbers of elk have been seen on the ranch. She also worked with scientists to test carbon sequestration and improved water infiltration on ranch soils (per acre gains of .3 to .5 tonnes C/acre per year have translated into larger total quantities of accrued and salable carbon than from many other areas of the USA).
“There were three real highlights of the ranching experience for me,” says Nancy. “The first was the joy of watching the land recover. We saw remarkable changes in the first three years: from five warm season native species to 30 native species (including cool season grasses like Western wheatgrass and vine mesquite) and right away we were seeing the economic benefits, reduced costs of running the herd and increased income from healthier animals and a new income stream. I also had the pleasure of working with wonderful people including Melvin, who had started under my father in 1984. I’ve learned so much from him, from my neighboring ranchers, and all the people I’ve come to know through Quivira, HMI, SWGLA (Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance), our NRCS programs and Partners for Fish and Wildlife. And, it’s been an inspiration working with young people. It was a blessing to be part of the Quivira NAP (New Agrarian Program); we hosted three apprentices through NAP, all wonderful young people.”
Nancy and her siblings had visited their parents at the ranch since 1968. In 2002, Nancy stepped up to take over direct management with support from the other family members. “The question then was could we afford to keep this operation going,” says Nancy. “I was excited about the opportunity as I was the most on the ground of my siblings and I have a background in land use planning. I had enough scientific training to be confident about the possibility of range regeneration under new management techniques. My father had been a traditional rancher and running a ranch was all new to me, but happily, Melvin was willing to stay on and guide me. I was really working to bring down our costs and make it viable for the family which was a struggle. Along about 2007, we had the prospect of wind energy emerge as a source of income which was exciting both for the family and the community.”
Preparing for the most recent transfer was more difficult. Land values from when George Ranney had purchased the ranch in the ‘60s were now 12-15 times greater. The next generation did not have someone ready to take the management reins or who could afford the transfer value of the ranch. So Nancy had to look further afield and consider alternate financing options. She talked to a number of young people with the idea of having them come together to purchase the ranch, possibly with Nancy and her husband, David Levi, owning part of the ranch and allowing the rest of the family to cash out on a partial sale. She also looked at other investor possibilities including real estate investment trusts like Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT and some newer holding companies but nothing panned out.
“Initially my goal was to find a buyer who would carry on our management practices and was committed to the health of the land and had interest and understanding of the work we had already done,” says Nancy. “As with many ranches there was a large family involved. I was grateful that my family gave me an opportunity to look for the buyer before we listed it, that gave me some breathing room. The primary challenge was how remarkably the value of these ranches has increased. It makes it prohibitive for people from ranching backgrounds, particularly young people, to buy ranches.
“So I reached out to rancher friends, HMI, the Quivira Coalition, Audubon, and the Savory Institute—anyone who might have ideas and connections. As I was beginning, our family decided to put a conservation easement on the ranch of almost 10,000 acres. We had considered this earlier but had also been interested in wind development. In early 2020, it became clear that our area was not going to be developed for wind. At that point we moved ahead with a conservation easement with the New Mexico Land Conservancy and I let interested buyers know this. It was dicey to get the easement on so quickly, but we did it. It is better to do this well in advance of a sale. We were fortunate that both interested buyers at the time were enthusiastic about the conservation easement. I think it was very unusual.”
One of the potential buyers that Nancy spent time getting to know were Heriberto and Jaime Ramos from Houston and Midland Texas. The Ramos had hunted at Ranney Ranch for a number of years, were committed to wildlife conservation, and had a family background in ranching. They were interested in the conservation practices Nancy and Melvin had been using and understood the role of livestock to keep the land healthy. They were excited about being on the land and managing it well.
“We didn’t list the ranch so I did much of the work that a realtor does,” says Nancy. “It took several months, working with the county and our lawyers, Modrall Sperling in Albuquerque. There was an immense amount of material to go through, water and mineral rights, road easements, historic agreements with neighbors, State Land leases, previous purchase agreements. Eventually I found two very viable buyers.”
The Ramos emerged as the clear front runners for Nancy given their background and history with the ranch. In addition to the sales agreement, Nancy decided that it would make a good transition for the ranch if she were to provide the buyer with three years of grazing management planning with Kirk Gadzia.
During this process, Nancy worked with her two brothers who are general partners with her. There are 12 limited partners –three spouses and nine offspring—who don’t have decision-making power but who do provide input. All of the family has been interested in the ranch beyond its monetary value, and several have helped with aspects of the ranch management including marketing grassfed beef and keeping the books.
“It helped that my brothers (George and Ed) and I had such a healthy working relationship,” says Nancy. “We had developed it in our years of running the ranch together. Almost every Monday morning we had been on the phone together for our “ranch call”, this clearly contributed to the successful outcome for our family. Also, in the spring of 2019 when George, Ed and I decided to move ahead with the sale of the ranch, I was given a very clear mandate to take up to a year to find a buyer who fit my parameters of continuing our management approach.
“I am grateful I had almost 20 years to run the ranch,” says Nancy. “Kirk was encouraging and gave me a framework to work with. Our family had many value-based conversations on key issues like whether or not to lease to wind development and when and how to sell the land and when to pursue the conservation easement. Over time that understanding of the ranch and what it meant to all of us gelled. I’m amazed at how well we got through it, you hear so many stories of families coming apart. I feel that I had the opportunity to explore other avenues and I learned a lot about different approaches to buying land and how people want to be shareholders in new types of operations.
“I was also in touch early with our neighbors to let them know what we were doing. As soon as I knew who the buyers were, I sent a letter introducing them to our neighbors in the Gallo Canyon.
“In retrospect, it was significant that throughout the sale process, I was in close touch with the Ramos, regular email and phone conversation and even hosting a couple of family visits to the ranch. This became an opportunity to share our experience and values and to offer them ideas for management and names and emails of people they might contact. We are still in close touch, they send photos of their families at the ranch and I can tell that they are thrilled to be there. They are already hunting and riding, they are leasing to Melvin and his son, Marcus Johnson, and have bought some animals for their own.
“I marvel that it worked out so well for all of us, as there were a lot of moving parts. In the end, I believe it was a common vision of work on the land that carried us through.”
A Holistic Approach to Farm/Ranch Transfer Planning E-Manual
Farm and ranch transfers can be particularly challenging with the intertwining of people’s homes, childhoods, career development, business opportunities, and personal and business assets. With the increasing loss of agricultural lands to development pressure, the need to keep working lands working is greater than ever. Providing opportunities for the next generation of farmers and ranchers through successful farm/ranch transfers will help support your family and your local community while leaving a lasting legacy for years to come. 93-pages