Leadership Spearfish down on the ranch

Alex Portal
Black Hills Pioneer

SPEARFISH, S.D. — As part of their nine-month course, the Leadership Spearfish class of 2020 recently spent some time visiting the ranch of Eric and Michelle Jennings to gain a first-hand knowledge about the cattle industry in the Black Hills.

“I think it’s really important that people get in touch with agriculture and know a little bit about where their food comes from,” said Eric Jennings, who is also the president of the South Dakota Cattleman’s Association.

Jennings welcomes the Leadership Spearfish class to his ranch every year as a way of helping to educate the community on the operations of running a cattle ranch in the Black Hills.

“I think a lot of these guys probably have never been around agriculture, so we’ll talk about the different aspects of beef cattle operations (and) some of the things that are specific to this area,” he said. “I approach this from the standpoint of, ‘if you’re driving down the road looking out into somebody’s pasture wondering what’s going on there,’ (this helps) explain what’s going on.”

Jennings educated the group on some of the history of agriculture in Spearfish, and the important role it played in relation to the mining history of the area.

“This whole valley, really the entire town of Spearfish was settled because of the irrigation,” he said. “They were putting in fruit orchards … it was just there to feed that miners in Lead.”

Aaron Thompson, another local rancher and president of the Spearfish Livestock association was also there, to discuss the importance of public land use, and grazing rights within the Black Hills National Forest, not just for ranchers who are limited by the availability of private land, but also for the environment.

“If you’re going to gain a protein source, if you’re going to raise a food product off that ground, the only way you can do it is through grazing,” Thompson said. “That grassland ecosystem evolved with grazing. The bison was a large ruminant that grazed unrestricted on the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years.”

The leadership group was toured around Jennings ranch, got to meet some of his cattle, and learned a few trick of the trade. As a special hands-on experience, Jennings invited Dane Kissack and Hunter Reamue, two professional tie-down ropers, to teach the group some roping skills and share a little bit about how many of the sports seen in rodeos evolved from ranch handling practices.

“It’s not something that I necessarily do on the ranch everyday, roping calves like they do, but it’s certainly part of our culture and it’s a sport that grew out of a necessity of what we do on the ranch,” Jennings said.

“Rather than try to get a sick calf all the way back to the headquarters and make him more sick and risk his life, you had to figure out how to doctor him way out in the middle of nowhere. So that’s where these events come from,” Kissack added.

For more information about the Leadership Spearfish program, visit www.spearfishchamber.org/leadership-spearfish.