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A Discouraging Word : Cowboys Told They’ll Have to Leave Their Home on the Range

Times Staff Writer

Cowboy Gary Robyn was tending his horse, talking in an easy, slow style about how his future became muddled this week with the Irvine Co. announcement that it will soon end its cattle-raising operation.

“It looks bad, real bad for me to get another job cowboying,” he said as he walked the horse back to the stable. “But you never know . . . someone may quit or retire . . . or die . . . “

He looked up at the whining jets from the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station that steadily pass over the company-provided ranch house he’ll soon have to leave and muttered, “Never did like them.”

Faced with the imminent loss of his job, Robyn has discovered there’s not much call for cowboys these days in Orange County, or, for that matter, even in the cold country of the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming.

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“I’ve been calling all over California, Nevada and New Mexico and there are a lot of cowboys out of work there, too,” said Robyn, who has spent the past nine years riding the range and watching over the cattle for the Irvine Co.

This week, the company announced it would sell off its 3,000 head, abandon the marginally profitable beef-raising operation by July 1 and put Robyn and two other cowboys out of work.

Robyn said his job riding the 38,000 rugged acres that make up the Irvine Co.'s cattle-grazing land will end July 31 “and after that I’m not sure what will happen. I’m gonna keep trying to find a cowboy job. It’s the only thing I know.”

Although he is confident “things will turn around in a year or two,” Robyn doesn’t dismiss the fact that he may have to find something different, at least for a while, to support himself.

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“When things get tough you have to do things you may not want to do,” he said from the ranch house he rents from the Irvine Co. “What bothers me is I don’t own anything and I’m gonna try like hell not to spend what savings I have for survival. I’m 42 and years go by pretty fast.”

Today, the harsh facts facing cowboys is that families are buying and eating less meat, which forces cutbacks on ranches, contends Leo Johnson, assistant manager of the California Cattlemen’s Assn. in Sacramento.

“The story of cowboys losing their jobs seems to be the story throughout the state,” he said in a telephone interview. “Economics in the cattle business is very poor and many ranchers are doing the work themselves instead of hiring cowboys. And it’s not only in this state but wherever they raise cattle.”

Willard Porter, director of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, said that while cowboys will always be needed, modernization is taking away a lot of the work.

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“Most all the work that was done on horseback is now being done in cars, trucks, Jeeps and helicopters,” Porter said. “There’s lots of cowboys out of work because the cattle business is in terrible shape, just like the computer industry.”

The end of Irvine’s cattle business struck cowboy Leroy Homan the hardest. “Tell you what,” he said, “it’s a helluva shock. Now I have mixed feeling about being a cowboy. I’m 49, so I have to look for a job to fit my age.”

‘Find a Job Within a Week’

But Stephen Beverlin, 28, the youngest of the three men working the Irvine ranch, feels confident he’ll find a cowboy job even if it means moving to cold country.

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“I don’t mind the cold, and I break colts, so it’s a little easier to find work,” he said. “I can find a job within a week if I wanted to bad enough.”

Robyn said that, while it lasted, working as a cowboy in an urban setting for an extended period of time had its advantages, such as the weather and good working conditions. But now, that proves to be a disadvantage. “This isn’t really cow country, and I don’t have close cowboy friends to spread the word that I need a job,” Robyn said. “I have to face the facts that I can’t depend on others to do it.”

Beside that, he added, “This is the first time in 20 years I’ve had to look for work and I don’t even know how to find one (a job) or fill out a job application.”

Nearby Rancho Mission Viejo, where 5,000 head of cattle graze on 40,000 acres, has five working cowboys but, according to Gilbert Aguirre, senior vice president, “They have been here for years and we don’t need any more.

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‘Kind of Touch and Go’

“It’s kind of touch and go when all you know is cowboying,” he added. “There’s not many jobs for guys who ride horses. Most broken-down cowboys end up in the construction business because they’re not afraid of work.”

The Irvine Co., according to Fred Keller, vice president of agriculture, “will do our best, but we can’t guarantee that we can find him a job. Gary’s a good cowboy and will certainly get a good recommendation from us.”

Keller added, “It’s unfortunate for him and the others, but cowboys are sort of drifters by nature. There are ranches in Nevada and the foothills of California where there might be some work. We’re making phone calls to see what we can find.”

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Unlike cowpokes who drifted West for jobs and the warmer climate, Culver City-born Robyn was a Johnny-come-lately cowboy who decided at age 25 he wanted to spend his life on the range. The move was a turnaround from the gardening business he started after graduating from Reseda High School in the San Fernando Valley. He also once held a job in an aircraft factory.

To achieve his dream, Robyn hired on as a ranch hand in Oregon before landing the cowboy job at the Irvine spread.

“It’s (Irvine) been a good company and they haven’t hurt me in any way,” he said. “They paid me good, gave me good benefits and gave (rented) me a place to live. I thought they would phase the operation out, but they just cut it right off.”

Looking for inspiration, Robyn said, “My boss (Robert Elder) always said every time he changed jobs as a cowboy it was for the better. I’ve gotta believe in that.”

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