Baxter Black started out as a large animal veterinarian, but for the last three decades he’s made a living as a cowboy poet and rural philosopher. When asked if he worries that his cowboy audience is disappearing, he laughed.
“As long as there are cows, there will be cowboys,” he said. “You just can’t see them from the highway.”
Creating a media empire
Black and his wife, Cindy Lou, along with a handful of workers, run his media “empire” from home in Benson, Arizona. His two-and-a-half-minute videos appear regularly on RFD TV, including on the U.S. Farm Report. A crew tapes the shows in front of the Black family’s rustic adobe home and tack room. He records his weekly radio programs—also two-and-a-half minutes—in a home studio.
Black recently shared his thoughts on how rural life is changing. He believes the single biggest change to come along in the last several years was RFD TV. “It’s one of the most influential ways to reach rural Americans,” he said. “It cuts a big swath, and it’s changed my life.” RFD TV continues to create a larger market for Black’s columns, broadcasts, books and appearances.
The content for the TV and radio shows comes from the weekly column that he’s written for 32 years now. On the Edge of Common Sense appears in 130 newspapers—mostly in rural areas. “You can read the column in—you guessed it—two-and-a-half minutes,” Black deadpanned.
Black’s best columns end up in his books. According to an introductory page in his most recent hardcover, Lessons from a Desperado Poet, he’s written 22 books—many filled with his cowboy poetry. How many books has he sold altogether? “Altogether too many,” he assesses wryly. He’s sold close to a million products, from CDs and DVDs to a Black jackknife.
The New York Times once called Black “America’s most successful living poet.” He makes a good share of his living from speaking to agricultural groups across the country about 80 days a year. If you attend gatherings of cattlemen, ag bankers or corn growers, you’ve probably seen him at least once. While his appearances include poetry, he also delivers gut-busting prose versions of cowboy stories and stand-up-comedian schticks that bring happy tears to your eyes.
When asked how many people he’s reached with his brand of cowboy humor, he says demurely, “I’m just thankful they show up.”
In another observation on the media, Black pointed out that big city newspapers aren’t doing so well, but weeklies that provide more local news are going strong. “It’s hard for my son’s picture to get into the big city daily,” Black said. “But he can make the local weekly paper if he wins an award or a scholarship.” Black added that trade publications that cater to special target audiences, like Today’s Farmer, are also doing well.
Catering to farm audiences
Black’s presentations focus on rural lifestyle, customized for each audience. In Missouri and surrounding states, for example, he caters to the many small farmers—many of whom background a few calves.
“A lot of Missouri farmers buy calves when they’re just off their mama, at about 400 pounds,” Black said. “Missouri has so much grass. It gives the calves a chance to get any sickness out of them before they hit the feedlot at about 700 pounds.”
Black’s big mustache bristles when he recounts how some consumers look askance at mainstream farm and ranch methods. “Raising livestock isn’t always pretty,” he said. “Consumers don’t want to know all the things we have to do. My poetry’s full of things like snot and manure.”
This leads to the topic of animal rights activists. “They talk about factory farms,” he said. “I’d like to ask them, did you drive a factory car to work today or did you build your car yourself? Did you visit the healthcare factory today, or does your doctor still come to your home? They think modern agriculture is evil because we raise livestock and crops efficiently.”
Mainstream producers might chuckle at Black’s views on organic food. “To me, organic means an animal was never treated for worms and probably has a liver abscess. It’ll take twice as long to feed him up to market weight.” Noting that organic costs more than conventionally grown food, he adds, “The world would starve to death if we all had to eat organic. That’s like saying we should all drive a Lexus.” Still, he pointed out, there is a place for organic farming.
Americans spend less than ten percent of their annual incomes on food, Black said—less than that spent by people in most other parts of the world. “Agriculture’s greatest asset is, people like to eat,” he said. “I’m thankful for the guys who produce food.”
He believes small, part-time farmers make the best ambassadors for agriculture. “Even if they’ve got just two cows, they’ve got some inkling of what it takes to raise 200.”
Differentiating farmers and ranchers
Back home in Arizona, Black uses his ranch horses to work cattle on a friend’s spread. After chasing cows through cactus and thorny brush, “I come home looking like I’ve been in a swordfight!”
He doesn’t consider himself a rancher, saying, “I’ve got more of a cowboy mentality.” He started his career as a vet working for wages on an Idaho operation with 300 horses, 20,000 cows and 20,000 sheep. His time there inspired his latest book, Lessons from a Desperado Poet.
He doesn’t worry about the rural lifestyle disappearing. “The cattle business is better than it’s ever been financially,” he said. “If you were hit by the drought last year, you were out of luck, but that’s localized. Eventually, it always rains.”
Farmers differ from ranchers in several ways, he observed. “Ranchers use horses and ropes to catch cows. They’re part of the ranching toolbox.” On the other hand, “A farmer would use a rope to tie down bales or to pull a tractor, but never to catch a cow. Farmers will work with snowmobiles, with four-wheelers, with ice skates—anything but a horse!”
He admires the growing influence of women on agriculture. “About 80 percent of the vets graduating today are women,” he says. “They’re perfectly willing to do chores like Grandma did in the old days.” Black’s hard-working Grandma hailed from Sedalia, Mo.
Black calls the connection between a woman, a horse and a child “the magic triangle.” “There’s a great deal of trust between a woman and a horse,” he says. “When she puts a kid on a horse, the next thing you know, the kid trusts the horse, too.” Men, on the other hand, tend to ride because they rope cows. “For men, it’s the end result that’s important,” he says.
On a more serious note, Black notices another thing that’s changed in agriculture—producers are vastly more informed. “Farming requires an awful lot of management skills these days,” he says. “Things are more technical. If you’ve got a $200,000 tractor, you want to make sure the guy who’s driving it knows what he’s doing. It’s not a game for kids!”