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How To Sell Rocks
By Sharla Ishmael
 
You’ve kicked them, cursed them and thrown them, but have you ever considered the rocks on your ranch as a product you can market?

Riding along in the pastures of our New Mexico ranch, my folks used to joke that if we could ever figure out how to sell rocks, then we would be rich! Turns out they were partly right. The rocks and minerals on many western ranches do have value to a group of folks who call themselves “rockhounds.” They are people from all over the world who love to spend their spare time looking and digging for rocks and minerals like agate, jasper and thundereggs.

While your rocks probably won’t make you rich, a rock business can definitely be a viable enterprise for ranchers willing to put in a little time and effort. Oh yeah – and you obviously must be willing to let outsiders come onto your property. That is the hardest part for some ultra-private westerners. You don’t want some city slicker leaving your gates open, playing with equipment, getting hurt or otherwise doing who-knows-what on your property – totally understandable.

However, Teri Smith, who has led some 500-plus field trips of rockhounds on private ranches in the Big Bend area of Texas, says these folks are actually quite conscientious and very much want to be allowed to come back.

“Rockhounds will do everything in their power to ensure that the rules are followed, “Smith explains. “If someone breaks the rules, they are not allowed on field trips again. That news will travel quickly and rockhounds have a very long memory, so self-policing usually works.

“Plus, if the rancher has a field trip leader like me working with them, that person will take responsibility to ensure the rules are followed, and won’t leave the ranch until everyone is off the property. They will pick up any trash and make sure the gates are left the way the rancher wants them. That’s part of what the field trip leader does to earn the privilege to be on the rancher’s land.

“Rockhounds are also not going to find an endangered plant, animal or fish and report it to the EPA as those persistent rumors say. If the land is closed to the rancher, then it will obviously be closed to the rockhound. What we’re looking for is rocks, and we look at plants only as something to avoid stepping on,” she says. “On places where we go a lot, we’ve even done fence repairs and minor road repairs for ranchers. I keep my eye out for injured livestock and that sort of thing and let the rancher know.”

Smith and her husband John moved to Alpine in the ’90s and bought the Antelope Lodge, a rustic retreat and a business that allowed her to pursue a passion – rock hunting for the famous agate of the Big Bend. She struck up a relationship with one of the local ranches and started guiding other rock hunters on their place, who each paid a fee to the rancher. (By the way, Smith doesn’t make anything on her tours; she says it allows her to hunt for free.)

She reached out to other ranchers prepared with a business case to explain how it would work and participated in Extension seminars about recreational tourism for producers. While it took time to earn their trust, Smith eventually got invitations from other ranches to come out and take a look at their rocks.

Decide on your rules
“Not all of the ranches I visited had collectible rocks, but a sizable minority did,” she explains. “When I start working with a rancher, I ask them to let me know what the basic ground rules will be. For example, if there are certain areas of the ranch they don’t want to be hunted, there’s no reason for me to take a look there to determine whether there are good rocks.

“Next, we need to know what materials are on the ranch that rockhounds will pay to collect. This may require several days of my time walking or driving through the ranch – I do this by myself and don’t take any of the rancher’s time for it,” she adds. “Based on the quality and quantity of minerals that I find, I’ll discuss with the landowner what I think the fee could be and how popular the site would be. We will discuss different pricing models, how often the rancher wants rock hunters on his land, how many he wants to allow at a time and other considerations.”

In fact, Smith would like for the rancher to decide on the smallest details – such as whether they want banana peels to be left on the ground or packed out with any other trash – before any rock hunters come on the place.

In terms of liability, the same liability you can buy from groups like Farm Bureau and some cattlemen’s associations for deer hunters should protect you from injury claims, and Smith says most gem and rock clubs also have insurance that protect the landowner from damage to their land and improvements, like windmills.

Pick a pricing method
In terms of pricing your rocks/minerals, she says there are fundamentally two ways to look at it: 1) you charge a fixed daily fee, say $35 per person, and they are allowed to take what they want; or 2) charge a small entrance fee as well as per pound of rock taken. There are pros and cons to each method, both for the rancher and the rockhound.

If you decide to charge by the pound, you may not make much money if you have a lot of hunters that just want to come in and wander around. However, if you charge a daily flat fee you can expect that eventually your profits will go down as the choice material is taken.

As for the rockhounds, they know what they will be spending when they pay a fixed fee and may pick up more material than otherwise, since they don’t have to pay for rocks that are uneven in quality. When they are paying by the pound, they will be much more selective about the rocks they want to keep, so they probably won’t be able to take everything that they want. Smith says most of the biggest ranches are charging a fixed fee at this point.

“If I had a ranch, I’m not sure which way I’d go,” she says. “You may also have a situation where you have one or two really desirable items and others that aren’t so. This applies to fossils. I don’t know how you price fossils. With agate, their value is determined by their weight; but what about shark teeth or shell fossils? You also don’t want to put somebody in a position where they have got the find of a lifetime, but they can’t afford to take it home. That makes for some bad memories.”

Other options
Some ranches have also figured out extra ways to squeeze income from their rocks. For example, the tourist types probably don’t have all the equipment that an experienced rockhound carries with them – things like picks and shovels, etc. So you could buy that equipment and rent it out by the day or even sell it. Some of the rock hunters may not want to drive their cars on your rough roads, and there are places that will charge a nominal fee to drop a group off and return to pick them up at a certain time.

A rancher could invest in the equipment and knowledge to cut or polish rocks and offer that service for a fee. Smith says some ranches make a habit of collecting rocks when they are out taking care of cattle and build up a rock pile at headquarters, where visitors can sort thru and pick some to take home the easy way.

Then there are a few like Richardson’s Rock Ranch in Madras, Ore., that have totally transformed from a family cattle operation into a fulltime – yet still family – rock operation.

From cattle to thundereggs
Back in the 1970s, Norma and Johnny Richardson ranched in the high desert country of Central Oregon on her family’s place, where they planned to run cattle the rest of their life. Sadly, a couple of cows were diagnosed with TB and their herd had to be liquidated. About the same time, they had a family friend who wanted to start a little rock business on their place. He would go dig the rocks and offer them for sale on the weekends on a card table at a roadside stand.

“The rockhounds kept coming,” says daughter-in-law Bonnie Richardson. The rocks filled up first the back porch, then the chicken coop. Finally they bought a rock shop in Redmond. On Memorial Day, the rock shop celebrated 36 years of continuous operation – it has never been closed for a single day in all that time.

“So, they leased out their grazing and bought the Priday Agate Beds, which have been open since 1928,” she adds. “My kids grew up going with their dad and me to clean the beds. I help cut rock and work in the rock shop. It’s a real family operation.”

In addition to digging, which is offered, weather permitting, seven days a week from March through October (winter roads are too wet), the Richardson’s sell both rough and finished products through their shop. You can even buy high-speed sanders and other lapidary machinery from them.

Oregon is famous for the thunderegg – an ordinary looking rock on the outside that contains a center or nodule of agate, jasper and other minerals. The Richardson’s sell thundereggs, moss agate, jasper, Oregon sunset and rainbow agate in addition to a laundry list of other types of rock that range from $0.60 per pound up to $9.00 for Mexican coconut geodes (a rock with a hollow containing amethyst or quartz).

“We probably have about 30,000 visitors each year, one way or another,” says Richardson. “We get calls from all over the country. When (the family) started this, they didn’t know anything; they had to learn it all from the ground up.”

On their website, www.richardsonrockranch.com, you can check out some great pictures of their beautiful finished products. Rockhounds who want to dig their own have a choice of different thunderegg beds ranging from easy digging for beginners to hard digging for experts. No matter the skill level of the rock hunter, safety is a prime concern at the operation. All hunters have to sign a waiver at the shop and go over the safety rules. They are given a map and a bucket, and when they return, the buckets are weighed and the rockhound is charged $1 per pound. They’ll also cut your thunderegg for $0.25 per square inch.

“We work hard at maintaining the beds and stressing safety,” Richardson explains. “In order to have thundereggs, you also have to have a pearlite wall, which is a brittle and unstable. We make a point, even to our own kids, that this is a mining operation – not a playground.

“It’s just part of inviting people onto your property. Some of them are going to leave gates open, some are going to play on your equipment. But there is a market for the rocks and the business does work. It just takes effort and a lot of hours. You don’t have to make it a tourist thing either. You can dig the rock yourself and sell it, although you do have to have backhoes and caterpillars, things like that.”

Teri Smith takes that idea one step further.

“For someone who is interested, it doesn’t take that much to turn it into a family business. You have the rocks, offer services to guide them, and cutting/polishing or making jewelry. Cutting and polishing can be tedious. It may take an hour to produce a cabochon (polished gemstone).

“But with our global markets, you can make contacts with companies overseas to do it much less expensively than we can. For example, you could send a couple thousand pounds to China. It takes about a year to have the work done. In return, you get cabochons, little carved animals, whatever you want to sell and you’ve got enough product to stock a web site.”

Do’s and Don’ts
For ranchers interested in sniffing out the opportunities in their area, Smith recommends getting in touch with the field trip leader of a good local rock club. These clubs can be found all over the Internet and she says the field trip leader tends to be the same person year after year. Those types of people can help you survey your land for collectible rocks as well as get the word out to other rockhounds once you’re ready to start the business. They may even be willing to guide the trips for you, saving a lot of time and effort on your part.

In terms of advertising and learning more about rocks and minerals, you can attend annual gem shows in the area to meet people and there are a series of guide books you can refer to, such as Gem Trails of Texas, etc. However, Smith warns ranchers to be committed to the rock operation before approaching the people associated with the guidebooks, because the books stay in circulation for quite a while. You might just get calls 10 years down the road from rock hunters who found your location in a guide book.

“I think the most important thing for a rancher to think about is what they want rock hunters to do and not do before they get people out there,” says Smith. “There are two things here: 1) trust the person leading the field trip; and 2) make sure everybody is okay with people being on the place. Make sure the whole family is comfortable with the idea and knows where the money is going from the rock business.”

She’s referring, of course, to those ranches that are owned by several members of a family though perhaps only one member of the family runs the place and lives there. For example, she worked with one such rancher who wanted to use the rock money to rehabilitate some roads on the ranch. So, he discussed with the brothers and sisters what he was planning and why they weren’t going to see any of the money.

“People just have to decide that rocks are a product to sell, year-round, except for hunting season,” Smith adds. “It requires the rancher’s interest and a little time and effort, depending on how hands-on you want to run the business. But rocks can be absolutely beautiful! I can’t imagine not wanting to see the rocks on your place or learn more about them.”

Incidentally, last year Smith gave one landowner almost $7,000 worth of rock business. And that’s a beautiful check to any rancher I know.

Editors Note: Ranchers who would like help locating a club or field trip leader who would have their best interests at heart can contact Teri Smith at 432-837-2451 or agatehunter@sbcglobal.net.

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