Kimball, Neb. rancher shares his endless fascination at the lush diversity of the shortgrass ecosystem.
By: Steve Frederick, Scottsbluff Star-Herald
Although Shaun Evertson was born on the Great Plains hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, he began his career in the Navy. As a search-and-rescue paramedic, he served for 14 years in some dangerous international operations.
"I spent a lot of time on aircraft carriers traveling around the world and having fun," he told the Scottsbluff Star-Herald.
At 33, it was time to come home to Nebraska. He attended Chadron State College, studying history and biology and taking a few journalism classes. Instead of becoming a teacher, he returned to the EJE Ranch, where his father, Mick, a longtime agricultural agent, had already begun the process of transforming the former wheat farm into a cattle operation.
The ranch is named for the family patriarch, Evert J. Evertson, who came from Iowa with his brothers at the turn of the 20th century to become Kimball County pioneers in the farming, ranching and oil industries. Evert purchased the beginnings of the ranch from Emile Forsling, who came out on a train himself at age 14 to prove up his parents' homestead claim, later becoming a county sheriff and liquor enforcer during the Prohibition era.
Evert raised a big family in a one-room house built from stacked stones collected from the farm fields. Over the decades, his descendants added parcels to the original home place.
"I happened to luck into having really smart ancestors who were good businessmen and farmers and ranchers," Evertson said.
Today, the ranch includes 1,700 acres. Its amenities include three windmills, two other water wells and two oil wells, including the first in the region. Oil royalties still help pay the property taxes, he said.
"It's not Jed Clampett money," he said with a laugh. "But it's not something you turn your nose up at."
The ranch raises 100 beef cows that nurture the same number of calves, plus five herd bulls that wander the pastures regally, taking care of their only job.
In addition to ranching, Evertson worked for a time at the local Western Nebraska Observer newspaper and still writes a crop report and column for the Business Farmer. Now 55, he stays active in local community development groups.
But his passion is the shortgrass prairie.
While Mick and Shaun's mother, Peggy, still live on the ranch, he lives in town, where he has access to high-speed Internet to sustain his website and blog, http://prairieadventure.blogspot.com/. The blog, Naval Air Cowman, abounds with photography and ruminations on prairie living and the ranch's abundant wildlife. His PrairieAdventure Tours offers tours of the ranch, with a wagon-load of education and local lore dished out along the way. A visit to the ranch might include wildflower identification, bird watching or stargazing, depending on the time of year.
"It's a little grandiose to call it an operation," he said. "I show off the cattle and the shortgrass prairie system, the climate and how people make a living out here."
He'll tell you that there's a lot more than grass on the prairie, a point he once made with a visiting Americorps team.
"One of my tricks is to get them to lie down and take a close look at a single square foot and count everything they see there," he said. "At that scale, a whole different world opens up. I couldn't get them to leave."
He surveys the ranch annually and has counted at least 70 different grasses and forbs (non-grass forage). Its inventory of wildlife includes deer, antelope, coyotes, foxes, grouse, pheasants, rabbits, burrowing owls, snakes, lizards and turtles. He credits the abundance in part to the family's decision to switch from farming to ranching, returning the plowed ground to a more natural state.
"It's remarkably healthy and diverse now," he said. "The place never made money as a farm. It always made a little money as a cattle operation. ... It's been fascinating to have been around long enough to watch it revert."
Another factor in the ranch's success is the durability of the prairie, which has withstood eons of drought and deluge and the trample of a billion bison hooves since the end of the last Ice Age.
"If you could take away the roads and the fences and the wells and you could compare it with a picture from 13,000 years ago, you probably wouldn't notice much difference at all," he said. "It's a very thin skin of topsoil that this ecosystem is anchored in — though it's not as fragile as I once thought it was."
While the soil isn't well suited for repeated cropping, the ranch and its flora and fauna thrive on the sunshine and soil that's the source of all abundance on the prairie, he said.
"We just take what nature gives us," he said. "We're grass farmers, and cattle are our harvesters."