There may be life off the ranch, but any Fremont County farmer or rancher will tell you – The #aglife is “the good life!” #Aglife is a County 10 series, brought to you by Wyoming Community Bank, that pulls the curtain back on farm and ranch life in Fremont County.
She never knew life away from the family farm, and he dreamed of owning his own farm after growing up in town, but working for local farmers near Lexington, Nebraska. Mark and Becky Bappe now share the same dream on their farm off 8-Mile Road west of Riverton.
Becky grew up on the same farm, owned by her parents Walter and Winifred Schmuck. She graduated from Wind River High School in 1975 and headed off to Northwest Community College in Powell for an intensive 24-month program to become a medical technician. She retired just two years ago after working in Riverton for 38 years in the hospital lab.
Mark is originally from Lexington, where he excelled in football and wrestling. He went on to the University of Nebraska, Omaha, where he played football and wrestled for the Division II Mavericks.
The couple met at an adult bible study class at the Methodist Church in 1986 and were married in 1987. They have two children, Bethany, and Luke.
Mark graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering and went to work for the New Holland Corporation in Lexington as an engineer.
“The early 80s were a tough time for agriculture,” Mark said. “I was laid off. If I couldn’t be there, I wanted to go to the mountains and took a job in Riverton at Eaton Printer Products.”
The couple worked just a few hundred yards apart, but it took a bible class to bring them together.
Eaton was home to Mark for 17 years and changed ownership a few times.
“Axiom sold it, they made products all over the place. They sent me to California for a summer, and offered me a job out there,” Mark said. “But I didn’t want to leave the farm.”
He changed careers, working at the Riverton Hospital in a materials and management position before becoming director of operations.
In 2007-08, when Bethany was a senior, he worked at Wind River for a year.
“I want to keep going as long as I’m going,” Mark said.
Keeping going has not been a problem for Mark and Becky, though the unstable world of agriculture has presented challenges. Friends and neighbors lending a hand is a hallmark of ag life in Fremont County and with the arrival of COVID that became even more apparent.
The couple owns 184 acres, with 114 irrigated. They raise alfalfa and grass hay, and raise sheep, milk four cows and have llamas and a few dairy steers, along with a pair of collie dogs.
“During COVID we had trouble selling our lambs,” Becky said. “Marvin Schmidt found a way to sell them for us in South Dakota.”
Their son Luke, recently competed in the Special Olympics World Games in Germany, taking third in the 200-meter dash, and the day before the couple flew to Berlin they received notice to bring in their wool.
“They called for our wool. We were leaving the next day,” Mark said. “Marvin took it for us to Belle Fourche.”
The neighbors helping each other extends to Gage Bartlett, a 22-year-old farmer who shares a fence line with the couple. Gage is originally from Encampment, but he operates a cattle feeding operation for his mom and dad’s ranch on 8-Mile Road.
“Gage put up the hay for us last year, and we worked on shares,” Mark said.
Bartlett had just cut several dozen acres on Wednesday last week after they waited out an incredibly wet June for a little dry spell to put up hay.
“We put up about 90 acres of alfalfa and grass,” Mark said.
The creativity and ingenuity of Becky’s father Walter is still evident on the farm he established.
“My dad planted Garrison Foxtail about 20 years ago,” Becky said.
Garrison Foxtail is a grass that thrives in wet, alkaline soil, drains the excess water, and gradually spreads.
“Garrison is great feed,” Mark said. “I learned a lot of lessons from Walter. I wish he was still here to answer some more.”
Mark and Becky started with just 18 acres but eventually purchased their present farm from her parents.
For those familiar with the Fremont County Fair, Mark Bappe is nearly always the hay champion.
“We started when we had just 18 acres and entered the contest just to get a free analysis of our hay,” Mark said.
“If we won the county and then the state fair we’d take it to the World Hay Exposition in Wisconsin,” Becky said.
In 2020 a sample of the Bappe hay won the 4H World Title.
For a while they sold certified hay to dude ranches near Jackson Hole but changes in ownership and late or non-existent payments ended that.
“Now we select who we sell to,” Mark said.
While alfalfa and grass take up most of the property, the couple uses that feed to raise Columbia sheep.
“We lamb 50 ewes and hold back 10 replacements,” Mark said.
“We have 70 lambs right now,” Becky said. “One year we lambed 150.”
They began the sheep operation in 1987, a year after they were married.
When asked why they chose agriculture Becky was quick to answer, “We like the lifestyle.”
Part of the ag life is also family.
“Bethany took a job in Sheridan after she earned a GIS (Geographical Information Systems) degree from Rocky Mountain College,” Mark said, “Her husband came from a small town near Cambridge, Idaho. He ended up purchasing a welding shop his grandfather built. Before they made this move we wanted to let them know they can come home.”
Luke lives in a home near the main residence but the idea of having both kids near home is appealing.
“We heard later that they were interested in coming back home, that gives us the motivation to keep going,” Becky said.
The days in the sun irrigating, working livestock, and harvesting are all aspects of ag life in Fremont County that many cherish.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” Mark said.
About 10 years ago they began building a new home. This one was constructed of concrete-filled foam blocks with interior maple floors, maple cabinets, and a ceiling lined with tongue and groove aspen. They finished the home seven years ago and moved in.
A couple working off the farm and trying to make a go of it in hay and sheep has many challenges, but that busy lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to taking any time off once retirement hits.
In Becky’s case, she waited for retirement to pursue cheesemaking.
“I always had an interest,” Becky said. “I’ve been tinkering with it for a while, it is very time-consuming.
Mark had another take on it, “It’s the lab tech in her, she is very meticulous.”
“We use whole milk. I spent about two years learning to make artisan cheese,” Becky said. “I do yogurt, butter, Kefir, and cheese.”
The milk for cheese comes from four Jersey cross cows, and she makes Swiss, cheddar, Colby, and Muenster among other types.
She does the prep work in their spacious kitchen, then takes the molded cheese to a large “dorm style” refrigerator set to 55 degrees in a spare room in Luke’s house.
The hay operation is in a state of transition. After years of cutting and putting up small bales, Mark is considering big bales. They’re easier to feed, easier to transport, and easier to stack.
Becky isn’t so sure about big bales since she is very careful in how she feeds her sheep and milk cows. Choosing first cutting, second cutting, or even third cutting hay while considering the ratio of grass to alfalfa and the carefully controlled amount of forage each animal receives is a concern. You can monitor all those factors more easily with small bales than with forking off big sections of 3×3 or 3×4 big bales.
The cooperation between Gage Bartlett and Mark is growing each year.
“I told Gage, I’ve only got 30 years before I retire from farming, now it’s 28,” the 67-year-old said.
The couple faces decisions in the next few years that advancing age places on all farmers and ranchers. How long to remain in the business, how much to take on, and when to cut back, are all concerns shared by everyone who chose the wonderful life that agriculture can offer in Fremont County.
“It’s a gradual thing,” Becky said. “Gage is happy to take on any extra work that Mark sends him.”
Mark is a bit more pragmatic, wondering about taking hay production in a new direction after he has good, reliable equipment in place.
“I have to make a decision if we’re moving to big bales, or staying with small bales,” Mark said.
Whatever he chooses will be the right choice for a couple who met one Sunday morning 37 years ago with similar dreams.
The wife who never strayed far from the family farm and the husband who dreamed of a life with cows, hay, equipment, and sheep under the blue skies and bright sunshine of rural Fremont County are content with their lot. They’ve made choices, made friends, and worked extremely hard to create a life that is the envy of many trapped in the city.
But there is always work waiting on the family farm.