in Wyoming, the resilience of the last farmers

He arranged to meet us at the barrier. Somewhere on a dirt road, heading north, away from civilization. In this state of Wyoming, nicknamed “the Great Void”, in reference to its 581,000 inhabitants spread over a territory as large as half of France. We expect to see a cowboy arrive, western-style, with sun-wrinkled skin and half-closed eyes, marked by the often brutal, relentless and lonely life of the Great Plains. Kem Nicolaysen, 45, wearing a cap screwed over his head, jeans and boots, takes us on a tour of his ranch aboard his Ford Ranger pickup, a Winchester handy, in the back seat of the vehicle.

“My heart is here”, lets go when he arrives in front of the deserted house, built by his parents by the creek, in the valley of a wooded valley. Her father, Jon, retired, now lives in Casper, a half-hour drive away. A lover of his country and passionate about history, Kem Nicolaysen took charge of the Cole Creek Sheep Company in 2008 after a master’s degree in literature, two years in Seattle (Washington) and four years in Phoenix (Arizona).

United States: in Wyoming, the resilience of the last farmers

“Livestock is the most sustainable activity for this type of soil”, he said, pointing to the vast expanses of low grass. The sky is almost infinite. The landscape is otherworldly, a mix of barren desolation, desert, sand and mugwort. Cliffs, hills, canyons. Dry, sage-covered, windswept meadows. Deer on the loose. Irregular pink granite hills that outcrop above the flat sediment.

Transhumance on more than 38,000 hectares

The creator practices transhumance in a territory of more than 38,000 hectares, including approximately 24,000 hectares of private land in full ownership, 1,600 hectares of private leased land, not counting long-term leases on 8,000 hectares of federal land and 4,000 hectares of the state of Wyoming land. An immensity to keep a herd of 800 Black Angus and 800 Merino de Rambouillet, with five workers and an accountant.

In the middle of this silver steppe, 30 oil wells operated by Southwestern Production Corp (Colorado) and 66 wind turbines installed since 2009 on the heights of Campbell Hill by Duke Energy (North Carolina). Sales of cattle and hay represent 70% of turnover.

The farm receives no revenue from oil production, only surface damage to roads, pipelines, power lines and wells. “Uncontrolled oil and gas extraction can destroy a ranch” alert Kem Nicolaysen. “It all depends on the relationship you have with the oil company. It’s different for a wind farm. We can more easily negotiate the location of the turbines, the land lease and the fee.”

Four generations since the 1880s

Four generations succeeded each other on the ranch. In the 1880s, Peter C. Nicolaysen, the great-grandfather, who came from Denmark, landed in Casper, where he drove a saloon along the railroad line built by Chicago & North Western (C&WN). After his marriage in 1891 to Clementina Sarah Evans, the daughter of an immigrant from Wales, he took over a lumber company, bought land and started herding sheep.

United States: in Wyoming, the resilience of the last farmers

A good manager, the youngest son Gerald stabilizes the family business. And for forty years, Jon, Kem’s father, has been expanding, diversifying the operation, working with oil companies and bringing the installation of wind turbines in 2009. “Since I came back, says the farmer, I developed better agricultural practices, improved the quality of cattle, sheep and wool. Livestock farming benefits the soil, air quality and the environment. We must manage all these challenges at the same time responsibly. »

The right to vote for women from 1869

Conservative Wyoming likes to call itself “the cowboy state,” though progressives and tourist brochures prefer to extol the moniker “the state of equality.” The state was the first to grant women the right to vote in 1869, fifty years before all American women. For very pragmatic reasons: it was necessary to attract more settlers to the lands taken from the Amerindian tribes. In fact, Wyoming is one of the states with the lowest percentage of women in regional parliament and agriculture contributes just 2% of its income, far behind the fossil fuel industry, which finances 65% of public spending.

From 2000 to 2020, Wyoming’s total resident population increased by 17%. Most population growth is taking place around cities, and urban sprawl puts family farms at risk. ” Those who aren’t big enough and don’t have oil or wind turbines on their land are struggling to survive. Land is being bought by big companies and wealthy investors says Tom Rea, journalist and co-founder of the Wyoming State Historical Society. “In the northwest of the state, the Jackson Hole region, not far from Yellowstone National Park, especially attracts ‘billionaire cowboys.’ »

The Ten Principles of “Cowboy Ethics”

The cowboy myth, individualist like the first pioneers, follower of a solitary and nomadic way of life, close to virgin nature, has survived, but the reference persists in the face of the onslaught of modernity. In 2010, the Cheyenne Legislature enshrined the Ten Principles of “Cowboy Ethics” in state law. The code urges residents and lawmakers to “Live each day with courage, finish what you started, be tough but fair and keep your promises”.

United States: in Wyoming, the resilience of the last farmers

“In Wyoming, “neighbor” is a verb, observes Rod Miller, columnist for Cowboy State Diary. A sense of civility and courtesy are part of the traditions. If someone approaches your table to greet you, you get up to shake his hand. You don’t wear a hat if you’re dining with a lady. You remove it by oath of allegiance to the flag. You say the graces before the meal. »

Earth Guardians

Today’s ranchers see themselves as guardians of the land, concerned with preserving the balance of a fragile ecosystem. The management of water and pastures, the maintenance of fences, innovations such as solar water pumps, are part of the daily work, beneficial for livestock, as well as for the protection of fauna and flora. “Independence and solidarity with the community, these fundamental values ​​of the cowboy are very real”, insists Kem Nicolaysen. “To me, that means the freedom to do things on your own, take care of your employees, stay connected to this place and preserve a way of life for future generations. »

In Casper, a town founded by pioneers along the railroad, the Nicolaysens remain engaged in community life. The art museum, founded in 1967, bears his name. Kem, his wife Shelly and their three children, ages 11, 9 and 7, live on the ranch. Jon, 76, doesn’t go there often anymore, but he will always be able to tell you where the cows take shelter to give birth and where the prairie dogs dig their burrows. Peter, 50, a lawyer, son and older brother of Kem, entered politics as the Republican candidate to govern the county. The family has adapted through cycles of growth and fall, true to this spirit of the West where autonomy is cultivated as a virtue.


Pro-Trump voters

Once inhabited by Native American groups, the Territory of Wyoming, created in 1868, became the 44th state of the United States in 1890.

Population. 578,803 inhabitants (2.24 inhabitants/km2 in 2010), including 83.3% white, 10.6% Hispanic, 2.8% Amerindian and 1.2% black.

Area. 251,500 km2, of which 48% is owned by the federal government and 5.6% is owned by the state of Wyoming.

Economy. The three main sectors are, in terms of income, the mining industry (oil and gas, coal, natron, uranium), tourism and agriculture and, in terms of employment, mining, real estate and manufacturing. Unemployment rate: 3.6%.

Policy. The governor of the state is Republican Mark Gordon. In the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump won 69.94% of the vote, against 26.55% for Joe Biden.


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