On a starry summer night in the year 1871, in a covered wagon somewhere on the plains near Alder, Montana, a little girl was born. One day, she would decide to visit her sister in the small town of Bellevue, Idaho—taking a train that wound through the wild Indian territory of the Snake River Plains. Her name was Martha Montana Spray.
Sometime during the dusty 1880s, in Lisbon, Ohio, there was a young man gazing westward with a curiosity that eventually made him hop in a stagecoach and hobble toward the red sunset. He found work transporting train passengers from a small town in central Idaho, named after the Shoshone Indians, across the hot plains and into the snow-capped valleys of the north. His name was George William Sherbine.
One day, George picked up a very fine-looking young woman in Shoshone, fresh off the train from Montana. Her name was Martha and she needed a ride into Bellevue because she was going to visit her sister.
George and Martha married on May 15, 1892, and bought a small piece of land near Stanton Crossing—some of the first homesteaders to settle in the Wood River Valley—where, five generations later, their great- great-grandchildren still live.
Today, things on the Sherbine farm (which moved near Baseline Road in the 1930s) are a little different than they were 100 years ago. With 15 machines, eight four-wheelers, six housing units, a combined 1,200 acres (plus 2,500 rented), 500 cattle and 14 employees, it is barely recognizable from the original dusty farmhouse staked out by George.
William Thomas Sherbine (better known as Rocky) now manages the ranch with his father, William Lumiere, where they grow hay and barley and raise cattle. As Rocky explained, “It took a long time to slowly get it going—almost 60 years—and it’s just been over the last 15 years we’ve been able to build our operation a little bit.”
Today, they sell all of their barley to brewing companies Coors and Budweiser. “This is a nice valley for growing malt barley—it likes the high elevation and cool temperatures,” said Terry, Rocky’s wife and Wood River High School sweetheart (who also does the accounting for the farm).
In March, it’s calving season on the ranch. They spend the winter feeding and bedding the cattle and, once the calves reach a year old or about 850-900 pounds, they are sold to a feedlot near Idaho Falls to “finish ‘em out” before being sent to the slaughterhouse. But before the Sherbines have finished calving, they have to start planting seeds for the year’s crop. “With the cows, it’s pretty much a 365-day-a-year job,” said Rocky.
Rocky, together with his son Isaac, work from dawn to dusk to keep the ranch running—just like his father and his father’s father before him. “I probably started working before I could talk,” laughed Isaac. “I’ve been working my whole life.”
While advancements in precision agriculture, like GPS and GIS technology, center-pivot and wheel-line irrigation systems, and automatic mowers and balers, have streamlined a few of the more grueling processes, expenses (and competition) are still high. “A mid-sized tractor that we use around here, a new one, is $250,000. Add other expenses, fertilizer, fuel … I don’t think a 160-acre farm would even support one family anymore. You just gotta keep tryin’ to get bigger,” said Rocky.
Fluctuating climates and extreme weather patterns have affected the farm as well. “For the last 20 years, it’s been more of a concern than it used it be,” said Rocky, glancing nervously at the snowless hillsides in February. “We used to get a lot more snow than what we get now, and droughts are always a big concern.” Another nationwide dry spell like the one in 2012 “would be ugly for the U.S.,” said Isaac.
“You’re really at the mercy of Mother Nature when you’re farming, even with all the high-tech stuff and everything else,” said Rocky.
Isaac is the great-great-grandson of the original George William Sherbine and is now learning the ropes to take over the ranch. “I did the snowmobile racing thing for a while” he said, with a shrug (which actually meant he competed in the Winter X-Games for two years and travelled to Russia for the Red Bull Revolutionary Machines Tour in 2009). “Probably from here on out, I’ll just be at the farm.”
He lives in the house down the road from his parents, while his two sisters, Ali and Abby, have started their own families in nearby towns. The majority of the Sherbine family, now large in number and spread throughout the West, remains close to the original homestead of George and Martha. Perhaps, after five generations in Idaho, it’s something in their blood that keeps Rocky, and now Isaac, close to the home where their roots run deep—working the same soil and sweating under the same sun as their pioneering forefathers.
“It’s all I know,” said Rocky. “I never did think of college—I just knew there had to be work done here.” Sitting tall and erect, he added, “Anyway, I stayed long enough, there’s no gettin’ out. I was born and raised that way—it’s all I know.”