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Research ranch: Old Freeman place is an outdoor classroom for SWT students

San antonio Express News (07/16/2002)

By Rudy Arispe

San Marcos — J.P. Bach is manhandling his company car - a beat-up, four-door, one-ton Chevy truck up the rocky road. A rugged, 37-year-old rancher, he’s as excited as a little boy discovering nature for the first time.

“See that,” he says, pointing to a group of mesquite trees. “Mesquite is a dead giveaway for deep soil.”

Suddenly, two yellow butterflies whisk by, chasing each other up and down. “Sulfurs fly in erratic paths to avoid being eaten by birds,” Bach explains. Finally, the truck comes to a stop next to an enormous sheep pen, where the hungry herd, including newborns, comes running to the fence.

Bach and his wife, Mikka, whom he met at Texas A&M University, get out. The cowboy turns on a faucet that supplies the sheep drinking tank. He grabs the hose, lets the water run a few seconds and takes a sip.“Sweet,” Bach says. “It’s straight from the aquifer.”

Thirst isn’t the reason Bach stopped here, though. There’s something he wants his visitor to see. So the three of us carefully climb the steel ladder welded to a 16-foot water tower. Once on top, Mikka decides the tower’s not-too-wide circumference is a perfect place to sprawl and rest.

The scene laid out before us is a magnificent bird’s-eye view of 4,200 acres of Texas Hill Country known as the Freeman Ranch, or “the other place that Joe and Harry built.” As ranch manager, Bach is king of this domain, which is owned by nearby Southwest Texas State University.

In 1941, Joe and Harry Freeman of San Antonio purchased the first parcel of land here. When he was in his 90s, Harry bequeathed his land to the university for educational purposes. After his death in 1984, SWT took over operation of the ranch.

Today, in addition to the normal activities found at a working ranch, it is an outdoor learning experience of ranch life, witness the wonders of wildlife or simply enjoy a picnic. Last year, about 3,500 people visit the ranch. Bach hopes many more will come this year. “You can’t just drive up to any ranch,” the New Mexico native says. “But here you can see what Hill Country life is about.”

As Mother Nature and her creatures quietly go about their business, research - to the tune of thousands of dollars - is conducted her, including soil topography and vegetation studies; watershed, brush control and climatologic studies; and efficiency of meat-goat production. Professors and students also document the mammals, amphibians and reptiles that call the ranch home.

“The ranch is a perfect laboratory for undergraduate students who need to apply practical knowledge and theories to the land and environment, whether it’s biology, geography or agriculture,” says Jamie Chahin, SWT dean of applied arts.

Greg Pollard, an agriculture professor at SWT, recently completed research on improving efficiency of meat goat production. “Where this research has relevance for Texas is in improving meat-goat yields to meet consumer demand,” he says. “And to begin to establish some feed guidelines for Boer goats raised fro commercial slaughter. Nearly half of meat goats in the U.S. are found in Texas, and since removal of the wool and mohair incentive, the population of goats raised for meat has exploded and appears to be doubling every two to four years.”

In another study, Paul Barnes, an SWT biology professor, and his students documented how juniper plants - commonly called cedar - invade and affect grass.“Once junipers take over an area,” he says, “grass and wild flowers die out. Eventually, the grassland part is diminished in quality and quantity. It affects the grass (and) that affects the cattle. (Junipers) monopolize the habitat.”

Ranch residents

The Freeman Ranch is also nesting ground and home to a variety of birds and butterflies uncommon to the region. For example, the golden-cheeked warbler, which migrates from Central America, must have old-growth cedar to nest.“They strip cedar bark to build their nests,” Bach says. “But as cities expand, there will be less and less old-growth cedar.”

The pine-vine swallowtail and two-tailed tiger swallowtail butterflies are more likely to be found in Arizona or California, but are seen in the area. Even more uncommon is the melanistic form of white-tailed deer.“Nationwide, they are very uncommon,” Bach says. “Probably one out of a half a million is black. Here, one out of every 200 to 300 is black.” Other ranch residents include gray foxes, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, ringtails, skunks, bats and rodents.

Sources of income

Because the ranch operates on an annual budget of just over $100,000, the university relies on outside sources for financial support. On occasion, Bach trades in his boots and hat for a Brooks Brothers suit to attend meetings at the capital and lobby the Texas Legislature.

“I also write grants to find money to keep the ranch going and to fund new programs,” says Bach, who holds a master’s degree in resource economics and a Ph.D. in range-land ecology and management from A&M.

Deer and turkey hunters who pay to use the land are an additional $35,000 to $45,000 source of annual revenue. Bach quickly points out that all hunters must agree to one condition.

“We don’t allow hunters to hunt within 200 to 3000 yards of water tanks because it’s not fair to the animals. We want them to know its safe when they come get water.”

Even livestock is used as a commercial enterprise to provide income, which involves a cow-calf cattle operation of 143 mature crossbred cows and 24 replacement heifers.

Ranch hands

Being ranch manager does seem to have its perks. Bach need never worry about rush-hour traffic. He doesn’t have to drive at all. Instead, he jokes, “I can throw a rock to work.” It’s true, since he and Mikka live on the property in a house that once was home of the late Fernando Trinidad and his family. Trinidad was a manger for 34 years. (See the accompanying story.) Two of the three ranch hands all of whom are SWT students, also live on the property. The other Javier Aguirre, a 1992 Jay High School graduate, keeps an apartment in town. Helping out with the chores is his work/study program.

“I didn’t just want to sit in an office,” says Aguirre, a junior criminal - justice major. “I was nervous at first, because I had never done anything like this before. And I didn’t want to wear a (cowboy) hat.”

Things have changed for the city boy.“I like what I do,” Aguirre says, looking quite comfortable in jeans, boots and a black Stetson. “I’m outside and learning new skills, like welding and running the equipment.” (He’s even driven a mule team, Bach reveals.) Meanwhile, if Bach had his way, 50,000 people would visit every year.“I see this as a family-oriented ranch,” he says. “It’s amazing to see people’s eyes when they come and discover what’s out here. If we don’t celebrate and show off the Hill Country, we’re going to lose it. We have to teach people how wonderful this place is as a resource.”

Friends of the Freeman

In fact, Bach already has some creative ideas up his sleeve. Already in development is a butterfly boot camp that would be offered on weekends during summer.“We’d re-awaken the butterfly lover in everyone,” he says, “and teach them how to identify” the different butterflies.

A second idea is to place Web cams next to deer feeders so that school children all over the world could tune in and watch deer feed live. It’s just one of many possible projects Bach conjures up as a way to show off the ranch. “We even have deer blinds so that people can come take pictures of the animals,” he adds.

Bach is excited about an association that just received its 301 (c) non-profit status, named Friends of the Freeman. “It will involve people who care about the Freeman Ranch and want to become members. Some may want to help get the word out about the ranch. Or others may want to help by donating their services to build fences,” Bach says.

Each year, scores of elementary students use the ranch, as do Boy Scouts, the Texas Parks and Wildlife department, bike clubs, bird-watching classes, Army ROTC units and children with terminal illnesses. A nature trail developed by the student chapter of the wildlife Society is open year round to observe flora and fauna. Lists of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are also available.

Bach adds that the main ranch house - the former Freeman living quarters - can be rented for wedding receptions, business meetings or special events.Meanwhile, back at...

By now, the serenity and silence atop the water tower is broken by the sound of cries below. The little lambs are hungry. The chore is left to Bach. But before descending, the ranchman takes a final look at the scenery and sums up his connection to the land just so.

“To me,” he says. “This is a big cathedral where I take my place and do my part while I’m here. I take care of 10,000 animals. Nature is an infinite learning ground where all may graze.”