The man that is Busby “Buzz” Owens is what you think of when you think of the classic Texas cattle rancher.
Sadly, the image we automatically conjure up has almost become a thing of the past. Today, the person who owns land and cattle in Texas has to be part cowboy, part businessman and certainly, part gutsy venture capitalist.
Owens is all that and more.
He’s a serious man. It’s obvious after meeting him that he rarely smiles and it safe to assume, he never laughs either. He is angry, too–that’s obvious. Nature and the economy haven’t been good to Owens and his ranching interests. His land has been in his family for four generations and he fears that, he’ll be forced to sell it. He’s got one son in Dallas with whom he wants to leave his land. Owens is doing everything he can in order to make that a reality, but it hasn’t been easy.
Physically, Owens is what we Texans call “a tall drink of water”–standing well over six feet in height. He’s thin, as is his gray hair. His skin is weathered by time. It’s as tanned and leathery as the saddle he has mounted on his trusty steed, Boniface.
This is how I first meet Buzz Owens: he’s wearing his Stetson; his well-worn Tony Llama boots and he is on his horse.
It is textbook Texana at it’s best.
He tips his hat, slowly dismounts and asks me if I want to tour his property.
I accept his offer.
To fully survey his two thousand acre ranch in South Texas (I should mention here that Owens’ acreage is actually considered rather small by Texas standards) it requires a two ton pick up, a jeep and of course, Boniface.
On the day I was there to interview him about the state of ranching in Texas, we traveled the land in his truck. It’s late August in South Texas. It is very hot and outside it feels as though the Earth is angry. These are the days when living conditions in this part of the world are beyond inhospitable.
They can be lethal.
We traverse the rugged terrain in air conditioned comfort as Buzz regales me with tales about ranching back in the day. In the late seventies when times were good, he even used a small helicopter to help round up his herd which at the time, exceeded 300-head.
He spoke to me of the transient nature of ranching in the new millennium. I watched as the 71-year-old spoke…his eyes wincing to emphasize certain points. There seemed to be an unintentional wistfulness to his voice. It told more about him then he probably wanted to reveal.
I knew immediately that over the years, change had been plentiful and apparently, painful for this old sodbuster.
In this part of the world, drought has always been a problem.
As a result, there were fantastic land prices that came and went; there were great cattle prices that came and went.
And that meant occasions of prosperity also came and went.
Oil had been discovered in the land surrounding around Owens, but over the years, several exploration teams had tried surveying and even drilling on his, but it never yielded a drop of oil. But land and cattle prices were always good as long as oil prices were solid.
But when the oil glut hit “the patch”, he suffered. He was forced to sell off more than a thousand acres of land in parcels and most of his cattle.
He now owns 11 cows, two bulls and a lot of land that isn’t being properly tended.
The bad times also cost him two marriages.
I could feel the blistering heat pour in as Owens rolled down the window of his truck to spit. “They was women only out for my money. When it left, so did they. Hell, I’m glad they’re gone”.
We rode for a while, not saying a word. The silence punctuated his sentence.
The drive was bumpy and when the front tires of the truck went over a rocky patch, I used that as an opportunity to ask Owens about illegal immigration and it’s effect on his ability to hire and keep ranch hands.
Like most Texas ranchers, the vaqueros he had hired over the years had all been from Mexico. They were here illegally, but Buzz says there were no better horsemen or cattle punchers on the planet. Over the years, as the economy forced him to sell off his land and cattle, he could no longer afford to pay them even the meager wages he had been paying them.
“I know I was breakin’ the law and such” says Owens. “But damned if it wasn’t a system that worked. And it did for years. Everybody did it. Besides, them guys needed to work and I needed them to work my land. Having them to help made all the difference. Now, I can’t get nobody to help..not for them kind of wages. Sometimes college boys from Laredo will work for me, but that’s only during the summer”.
Now Owns says, it’s a chore to keep illegals off his land. It’s proximity to the Texas/Mexico border—only 16 miles at the closest point—means that trespassing is constant. Owens resents it.
“It wasn’t like this before. They’re pests now, that’s what they are. They don’t wanna work for nothing, especially on the ranches. They used to, but things have changed. Now, they want to find work in the city, but they gotta travel across my land to get to San Antonio and points north. They steal and take and take and don’t care thing one about it. Again, I wanna stress–it wasn’t like that before”.
He winces again and slightly purses his lips before speaking again.
“They come walking through my land and I find old campfires and in drought conditions that’s so dangerous. I speak Spanish–you have to in these parts– and I’m constantly telling them to get off my land and calling the law on ’em but they out number the lawmen and those they do catch, they send back. But they’re back over here in few weeks”.
Owens’ land is dotted with man-made stock tanks. These are (for lack of a better word) ponds on his property used for the sole purpose of watering his livestock. They’re murky and stagnant and often used as places for the animals to stand in to cool off under the hot South Texas sun.
We approach one that’s near a clump of Mesquite trees.
As we drive up over a natural embankment and stop, we can see several men bending over the water. They’re obviously Mexican nationals–you can tell by their skin tone, the way they’re dressed and the fact that they’re on Owens’ land. They’re dipping their hands in the tank, filling them with water then drinking.
They don’t seem to be phased by the presence of the truck.
An angry Owens throws it in park and says, “Good Lord! There’s a few of ’em now!”
He opens the door, stands up halfway out of the truck and starts shouting. I open the passenger side window to listen. I speak Spanish.
In his excitement, Owens forgets and starts yelling in English, “Hey, don’t drink that water!!! It’s contaminated with cow manure and urine. Wild animals and livestock drink from that. It’ll make you sick. It could even kill you. Stop!!”
One of the men stops drinking…he looks up, his chin dripping with the squalid water, and he replies. “Soy Mexicano. No hablo Ingles y no quiero habla Ingles. No necessito hablar Ingles.
TRANSLATION: “I am a Mexican. I don’t speak English and I don’t want to speak English. I don’t have to speak English.”
Owens stood motionless; his withered left hand still gripping the top of the steering wheel for balance. I could see his knuckles whiten as he tightened his grip. I don’t know the man that Busby Owens is, but the bitter rancher I’ve come to know in the past hour, seemed to be getting angrier by the second.
Especially when the man shouted this back to him.
“Acabo de venir aquí ilegalmente de México. Estoy de aquí trabajar, mandar la espalda de dinero a mi familia en México. Yo me aprovecharé de asistencia médica libre, no paga los impuestos y tiene a muchos niños sin pagar un centavo y ellos serán en su mayor parte hijos que estarán con sus hijas. Al infierno con usted y con sus leyes estúpidas!”
TRANSLATION: “I just came here illegally from Mexico. I’m here to work, send the money back to my family in Mexico. I’ll take advantage of free health care, pay no taxes and have many children without paying a cent and they’ll be mostly sons who’ll be with your daughters. To hell with you and your stupid laws”.
Owens is silent for a minute. Then he shouts back, “Utilice ambos manos! Usted conseguira mas para beber en la manera!!
TRANSLATION: “Use both hands! You’ll get more to drink that way!”
Busby “Buzz” Owens gets back in the truck and for the first time that day—probably for the first time in a long time—he cracks a smile and laughs.