Zack Wirth realized more than 15 years ago that the economics of ranching would not let him make a living on his ancestral home, a scenic slice of western Montana tucked in the Rocky Mountains.
Wirth maintained a breeding herd of cattle and weaned calves on the Rocking Z Ranch, but he needed to supplement the livestock income. He tried selling automobile parts from Montana to New Mexico, but later turned to self-employed construction work. When the physical toll caught up with him in his late 40s, he later considered but quickly dismissed becoming a preparer of tax returns.
Now, he's back at the Rocking Z nearly full-time as he and his wife, Patty, run a dude ranch where horses and nearly 2,000 acres of available riding land attract a largely European clientele. Only a handful of cattle remain at the ranch each season for guests, but the couple still grow hay.
They save money by running a solar-assisted irrigation system and using old cooking oil from a couple of restaurants in Helena, about 24 miles south of his ranch in Wolf Creek, to power a pump and make biodiesel for ranch equipment.
Wirth also brings in extra cash at Christmastime: By dying his long, gray beard white and using his soothing voice, he steps in for Santa at malls in New York and elsewhere when times are lean back home.
"All good horsemen know you never quit learning," he said.
The Wirths are among thousands of people around the country turning to economic diversification as they try to stay on ranches and farms, said University of Colorado geographer Bill Travis, who studies rural land use.
As producers of commodities "they take the price they get and that price barely covers production costs in many years," Travis said. "Individual producers find they can't make it from the wholesale prices they can get."
For nearly 78 percent of U.S. farms and ranches, the market value of agricultural products sold plus government payments was below $50,000, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. And the Department of Agriculture says most of the nation's crops and livestock come from relatively few producers.
Some operators turn to jobs away from their land to supplement their income and provide other benefits, such as health insurance. But others need to stay close, like the Wirths, by offering bed-and-breakfast accommodations or fee hunting.
"One way to diversify is just to get a job off the farm, but in a lot places in Montana there's not much opportunity to do that," said Joe Atwood, a professor of agricultural economics at Montana State University in Bozeman.
Only about 52,000 farms nationwide — about 2.5 percent — received income from farm-based recreation, the Department of Agriculture's publication, "Amber Waves," reported last year.
The Rocking Z was among them.
The Western experience
Its visitors are drawn by trout fishing, scenic rock cliffs, five dozen horses — and the chance to ride steeds across 2,000 acres of ranch and neighboring land.
Richard and Dagmar Williams and their two daughters traveled from Eastbourne, England, looking for the Western experience. The girls and their mother had ridden at British stables, and Richard went along with their idea to visit the ranch.
"This is my fourth day in the saddle," he said gamely as he sat atop his horse, Chase, on a hot July day.
Nearby, the Wirths' daughter, Anna, showed guests how to use a horse when separating a cow from its herd.
The Wirths began dude ranching in 2000. Patty figures that about 50 to 60 percent of their clients are from Europe, where the Rocking Z is marketed through agencies. The weekly summer charge of $1,610 per adult may suggest luxury, but the Wirths treat guests to comfortable simplicity and examples of environmentally friendly means of living.
"Upscale is no longer a word being thrown around," Zack Wirth said. "Now it's all about simplicity and sustainability."
And that's helped the fifth-generation rancher stay on the land that his grandfather bought in 1951.
"Without the guest ranch, we would not have survived," he said.