Past the gleam of Dallas, beyond a cowboy church and a store promising both tacos and tattoos, you’ll find a massive, wildly impressive ranch supplying McDonald’s, Chipotle, and countless other restaurants around the world. Nestled in a sleepy corner of Blooming Grove, Texas (Pop.: 800, give or take), the husband-wife duo of Gary and Sue Price have been managing 77 Ranch for nearly a half-century.
“This is our life,” Gary says, beaming from ear to ear. He wears a cowboy hat and exudes a disarming, gentlemanly warmth akin to a hero of a John Ford flick. “It’s hard work, but we love it.”
The property’s beginning is a classic American success story. After selling a horse, the Prices had enough money to make a down payment on some land next to a friend. From there, the ranch continuously grew in size and technique, becoming a model for ethical, eco-friendly beef production. Typically, Gary keeps around 200 or so cattle on the property, all of them well-fed, all of them pampered.
“The last thing we want to do is put them in a position where they’re under any kind of stress or they’re not as healthy as possible.” Later, in a moment of pure reverie, he adds, “The cow is such an amazing source of protein that, if we didn’t have the cow, we’d be trying to invent her.”
Perhaps most impressively, Gary is doing all this work on 2,500 acres of Texas’ Blackland Prairie, the most endangered large ecosystem in North America. The prairie’s dark soil has historically been used for crop production, and because of that, 99% of its unique habitat is now lost to the wind. But not at 77 Ranch. By raising cattle on the land, Gary has restored the soil that was previously destroyed from generations of over-use.
Through decades of tireless work — including years of accumulated knowledge on everything from grass, soil, the weather and cows — Gary and Sue have built a stunning, sustainable ranch, which uses cattle to naturally fortify the soil, cycling nutrients and protecting the ecosystem.
“Every year, people are becoming more interested in where their food is coming from,” Gary says. “I’m interested in that, too. I want people to get the protein they need and feel good about — both ethically and, of course, from a taste perspective.”
77 Ranch is one of roughly 727,000 beef farms and ranches scattered across the United States. More than 20% of those ranches are in Texas, and despite the state’s storied history of ranching, Gary knows there are plenty of misconceptions about the work he and his wife are doing. But he believes wholeheartedly in the work he does and the positive impact he can make on the environment. By increasing the ecosystem services provided by his ranch, his goal is to enhance conservation efforts and preserve the increasingly threatened Blackland prairie. In turn, he provides a place where cows can graze and eat grass that then becomes valuable nutrients and proteins for human consumption. That’s a process called upcycling, and it’s just one of the many things you’ll learn about when you visit the Prices on their ranch. In true Texas fashion, they’re very open to these visits.
“Someone just moved in across the way,” Sue says. “We’re going to invite him over to the ranch and let him see how we do things.”
When I make the trek to 77 Ranch, Gary greets me with a wide smile, a firm handshake, and friendly lessons about cattle and the land they graze. Talking to him is similar to talking to a chummy college professor who insists you drop the “Dr.” label. He’ll regale you with more stories and knowledge than you know what to do with, and his voice will brim with passion the whole time.
On this particular day, he is worried about rain. It’s been an abnormally dry year, he explains, and, of course, he’s always keeping an eye on his water supply. Lately, it’s been running low. Thankfully, the soil is still holding plenty of moisture — a point he illustrates by inviting me to dig my hand into the Blackland Prairie’s soft earth and feel how cool it is.
At this point, Gary and Sue are driving me around a section of 77 Ranch to explain upcycling and rotational grazing, for which he has an exceptionally keen eye. Rotational grazing is a game of strategy: You fence off which spaces the cows can graze, thus allowing soil in the other areas to rest before rotating cattle back to that land. This has significant environmental impacts, too: Rotational grazing protects the long-term health of the grass and soil while keeping carbon in the ground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
While on the tour, Gary mixes this knowledge with ample anecdotes about the ranch. He explains how he’s preserved the natural ecosystem of his land so perfectly that it’s a stop for the monarch butterflies on their way to Mexico. After a few minutes of riding in his rover throughout the ranch (pro tip for those who get motion sickness: Don’t ride in the rover) Gary stops the vehicle so he can talk a little more about his home’s grass and the cows that eat it. He appears a little worried about the lack of rain; the entire tour takes place under a canopy of gray clouds that tease us without ever releasing a drop. Nevertheless, Gary continues sharing his knowledge.
“The average cattle can feed about 350 people, and I want to know that each of those meals went well,” he says. “That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I believe in transparency. We’re tuned into every level of the beef chain, and if we have a problem with a meal at a hotel in Europe, I want to hear about it.”
Has that ever happened?, I ask.
“No, he says.
We’re about to pack it in and head back to the bunkhouse where the tour began when we notice a couple sprinkles hitting the grass at our feet. Soon, the droplets start falling on our heads, too.
“Oh, would you look at that?” he says. “It’s starting to rain.” Then, he smiles.