Preserving the Cowboy Way of Life

Maycee Michaels grew up raising a wide array of animals on her family’s ranch in Wilcox, Arizona, and recognizes the severity of what climate change can do to ranchers and people living in rural areas of the American west.

Statewide water cutoffs have made access to secure water sources significantly more uncertain, in addition to significantly raising prices of irrigation and feed. For those outside of Active Management Areas, or geographic zones that must adhere to groundwater conservation laws, this uncertainty can be even more daunting. 

“It just makes me pray and hope that we get a lot of rain every summer, and as much as possible,” she said. 

Despite struggles that are more likely to affect these communities, Michaels, 19, finds herself on a path she thinks will take her to hope and a sustainable future, not only for her generation, but the next. 

She’s been awarded a 2022 scholarship by the Los Charros Foundation and is emblematic of its mission to teach students the cowboy way of life.  

Los Charros Foundation is an Arizona-based philanthropic organization committed to keeping the West alive by supporting and educating rural youth. The foundation was created in 2015 by Los Charros del Desierto, a group of people from all different backgrounds in Tucson who since 1956 have ridden horseback once a year in the fall across the Southwest. Los Charros Foundation has 18 board members who are passionate about, and experienced in, the cowboy world.

Arizona has spent over two decades in and out of a drought, and more rural families are cracking under the pressure. There has been more than a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in average heat over the last century, initiating quicker evaporation time and threatening diversity in native plant species. In some cases, it also requires these rural communities to use more water than can be sustained, forcing wells to either be dug deeper or abandoned after they’ve been depleted.

“We needed to do something for these kids out here,” said Steve Turcotte, president of Los Charros. The foundation serves underrepresented or impoverished youth from Cochise, Santa Cruz, South Pima and East Pinal counties.

Since 2015, Los Charros has awarded over 100 youth with scholarships totaling more than $500,000. In the last year alone, it funded $153,000 in scholarships to get recipients through a two- or four-year degree in either a university, trade school or community college. This year, there were over 60 applicants, many of whom will be the first members of their families to attend post-secondary school. 

“It’s taught me so many different things that a lot of people need in life,” Michaels said. “Like being a leader and managing my time and just being responsible.”

Michaels said the scholarship gave her the financial leverage she needed to pursue her dreams—an education in what she is passionate about, ranching and rodeo. She plans to graduate with a degree in animal science, and competes on the Cochise Community College rodeo team. 

A view of the Dragoon Mountains from founding member of the Los Charros Foundation’s Dwight Babcock’s Three Sisters Land and Cattle ranch on May 16, 2023, in Cochise County, Arizona. Photo by Emma Peterson for Inside Climate News

The program’s first recipient graduated at the University of Arizona last year, and five more are graduating this spring, with degrees in veterinary technology and nursing, as well as trades, including welding and farrier sciences. 

“We don’t care if what they want to do is in ag or not,” Turcotte said, “We’re creating citizens, and that’s the bottom line.”

People living in rural Arizona are 5 percent less likely to complete high school than those living in urban areas, and over 20 percent live in poverty, according to data from the Economic Research Service for Arizona. Los Charros does not discriminate based on the grades students receive in high school. If accepted into the program, scholarship recipients are given up to two semesters to display their commitment. 

“We feel that rural youth should have the same opportunities as others,” said Dean Fish, who works on the foundation’s annual fundraising event and is also on the scholarship committee. 

To help scholarship recipients earn money and gain an appreciation for raising and caring for animals, the foundation has created a business to help prepare them for life after graduation.

“We will buy chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs, lambs, etc. and deliver that animal to their house, set up a pen, and deliver feed every week to them,” Turcotte said. “Then they take them to the fair and we buy the animal back. They get the money, and we donate the meat.”

Many of the students have never experienced the responsibilities that come with caring for the land and livestock. But this youth business has been one of the foundation’s most successful initiatives, Turcotte said. 

With students who have a background or particular interest in farming and ranching, Los Charros is also heavily involved in the support of 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) programs, with students showing their animals at the Pima County Fair in Tucson, and others. 

The foundation encourages students to build identities as conservationists and environmentalists because their livelihood depends on keeping the balance of their land’s ecosystem. Having the kids leave with a work ethic and an appreciation for the environment, said Richard Bratt, one of the founding members and past president, is considered the root of success. 

“To me, the values are hard work, maintaining the land and having the freedom to be out in wide open spaces and pursue your own dreams,” said Bratt. 

Several of the foundation founders have opened up their own ranches to the public to teach respect for the environment through climate smart farming practices like land mitigation and reducing water use. Bratt said the foundation wants students to appreciate how much work it takes to get crops from farm to fork. 

“The biggest thing we want them to know is that there’s a cheerleader for them,” Fish said. “That Los Charros is a foundation that not only says we believe in their future, but we’re going to put money behind it.”

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