A youngTexas rancher is using his role in a Hollywood-produced film to tell his story and educate consumers about their food choices.
Imagine this. You’re pulling into your driveway after a long day’s work. Your cell phone rings and it’s a number from someplace you don’t frequent. You answer out of curiosity. The voice on the other end says his name is James. He says he’s a movie producer from Hollywood and he wants you to be a part of a documentary he’s doing about farming and ranching from the perspective of young men and women in the industry.
Enter Brad Bellah of Throckmorton, Texas. He’s a 27-year old earning his living in the cattle industry to provide for his wife and nine-month old twins. And he made his big-screen debut earlier in May.
While the phone call described above really happened for Bellah, it’s the experiences he had growing up on a multi-generational ranch and his personal decision to return home after college to follow in the footsteps of his family members that made that fateful phone call possible in the first place.
Bellah is the sixth generation to live and work on his family’s ranch, the R.A. Brown Ranch. The ranch started in the 1890’s when his great great great great grandfather, R.H. Brown, bought land in Throckmorton County and then in the early 1900s brought the first Hereford cattle to the county. Over the past century, the ranch has grown into a well-respected operation with Angus, Red Angus, SimAngus, Simmental and Hotlander cattle, and Quarter Horse broodmares on approximately 40,000 acres in Texas and Colorado.
After graduating from Texas Tech University with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications, Bellah weighed his career options, which included trading in his spurs for a suit and tie, and heading to Washington, D.C., as well as job offers in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and the Lubbock areas. In the end, he decided it was time to head home.
“As millennials, we were all expecting awesome jobs and top salaries, but when we graduated in 2009, that wasn’t the case,” he says. “At the same time I was looking at my options, my dad was in a spot where he needed help. So I made the decision to start out there for a year and see how things went. Here I am five years later and I don’t see myself doing anything else.”
On a daily basis, Bellah is responsible for looking after a stocker operation as well as a conventional commercial Angus cow-calf herd, a purebred Angus cow-calf herd, and an All-Natural Angus cow-calf herd for his parents, Jody and Betsy Bellah.
While he admits he is fortunate to be able to break into the industry by working on family’s ranch, he faces the same challenges other young producers face, starting with the high price of land. He says buying land today would be next to impossible for him, but leasing has been an option to start his own herd. But it too has its challenges. He says with their proximity to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex leasing isn’t always an affordable option when competing with hunters willing to pay multiple times the amount a rancher could for leased land. He also says while the current high prices in the cattle market today are a good thing for the industry, they present a challenge to producers looking to buy cattle to start or expand a herd.
“I’m holding onto the cows I’ve got ,and I’m trying to decide if I’m going to hold on to any heifers or if I’m going to sell them and increase my bottom line with stockers this summer and hold off until the cow market levels off a bit to increase my herd,” he says.
The challenges don’t stop when his own operation starts. For Bellah and his family, taking time to plan for the future is a top priority. His grandparents, who he says are still in great health and capable of doing many of the tasks involved with running the ranch, began working more than 20 years ago to ensure the land would be passed on to their children as easily as possible. His parents have already begun putting plans in place to ensure a smooth transition to the next generation.
While estate planning is not an easy subject to talk about and can cause problems within families, Bellah says his remains as close as ever.
“Going in, everyone had the mindset that they were getting more than they deserved to begin with. It’s not rightfully my moms, and it won’t eventually rightfully be mine,” he says. “It was my great great grandparent’s before and we have to be thankful for what they did, what the generations before us did and be thankful there is something left for us.”
Admitting he’s “spread pretty thin” already, and after consulting with reluctant parents and a pregnant wife, Bellah ultimately decided to take the Hollywood producer up on his offer. He will be one of six young producers from farms of all shapes and sizes to be featured in James Mull’s upcoming documentary, Farmland.
“They don’t have anything to hide,” he says of his parents. “They are just private, humble people. But I encouraged them and said if we don’t tell our story someone else will and we aren’t going to be able to pick and choose what they say.”
That’s part of his role in the film, telling his and his family’s story, but he said his biggest hopes are that it sparks a conversation between consumers and producers, and that it shows consumers that they have choices.
“Consumers know what they want and they are telling us,” he says. “My family runs an All-Natural herd because there is a demand and a premium. While we have to do things a little differently than we do with some of our other cowherds, it’s still a cowherd. It’s very normal. The beef industry needs to listen to the consumer, and step up to the plate to produce what they want. But at the same time, we need to let consumers know that everything we produce is safe and is produced with them in mind.”
Once the camera stops rolling, the lights are turned off and life returns to “normal” for Bellah in Throckmorton, he says his work isn’t done.
“I’ve got friends and relatives – second cousins whose grandmother grew up on the ranch I grew up on – who know nothing about the beef industry. I need to do a better job of educating them. It’s everyone I come in contact with really.”
Maybe it was the multi-generational, large-scale ranch that attracted Mull to Bellah. Maybe it was the fact that his family is venturing into new marketing strategies with its All-Natural herd. After talking with Bellah, though, it would be hard for anyone not to be intrigued by the honest and humble way he tells his story and talks about his future. For him, success in his lifetime does not involve walking down the red carpet to receive an award, it goes back to the ranch and his family.
“I hope to not only maintain but also build upon everything that my parents, grandparents and generations before them were able to leave to me,” he says. “I hope that my kids will be able to do what they want – whether it’s in agriculture or not. I hope they will be able to live their lives doing exactly what they want while still having an appreciation and understanding of agriculture and what it takes to grow and produce food. I hope to spoil grandkids just like my parents are spoiling my kids.”
For more information about the Farmland film, visit www.farmlandfilm.com. The film was made possible with the support of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. For more information about USFRA’s role in the film and about other USFRA initiatives, visit www.fooddialogues.com.