The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association awarded Gene Harris, a cattleman from Killdeer, N.D., with the organization’s most prestigious award, the Top Hand Award, at a banquet during its annual convention in Fargo, N.D. on Saturday.
“The Top Hand Award recognizes those individuals who have given unselfishly of themselves, demonstrated outstanding leadership and earned the highest esteem of friends and associates in the cattle industry,” Jeff Schafer, NDSA president, said. “Gene is someone who meets this definition to the tee and has been a positive influence in our organization and the broader state and U.S. cattle industry for many years.”
Accepting the award, Harris noted that he was not positive why he first joined the NDSA though admitted his family has a long history of membership.
“My dad and granddad were members, and I guess it was kind of automatic that I joined too,” he said.
Why he has stayed a member for 40 years was an easier question for him to answer.
“We need someone to maintain a powerful voice for the cattle industry and to tell our story to those who do not understand what we’re about and why we do what we do,” he said. “The Stockmen’s Association is the one for the job.”
Harris continued, “The Stockmen’s Association is there every day fighting for cattle ranchers. When I think about the Stockmen’s Association, I think of the movie ‘Lonesome Dove,’ when the storm was brewing and the cattle were starting to mill around and spread out and Gus looked at Woodrow and said, ‘Woodrow, we’re about to see how much cowboy we really are.’ They went right through the storm and came out the other side, and that is the Stockmen’s Association. There are a lot of storms that brew up politically, publicly, environmentally – you name it, someone can dream it – but we have to navigate those waters. A lot of days, the Stockmen’s Association has to wake up in the morning and say, ‘I wonder how much cowboy we really are,’ and then comes out on the other side, and we are all better for it.”
Committed to service and the beef cattle industry, Harris recognized early on the opportunity and the obligation in helping the NDSA accomplish its mission. That sparked him to become an active member, director and, from 2000 to 2002, the president of the organization. But, Harris’ contributions to the NDSA and the cattle industry in general have continued far beyond the time he passed the gavel. He served on many ad hoc committees, was the brainchild of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Foundation, now in its 14th year, and completed his service on the 501(c)’s board of directors last year.
Harris has been involved in the cattle industry his entire life, but the death of his father, Darcy, in January 1981 had a profound impact on him. Not only did the 21-year-old Dunn County cattleman have to cope with the loss of a second parent — his mother having died six years earlier — but he was handed a 500-cow ranch to manage and John, his 15-year-old brother, to raise.
Looking back, Harris said he’s not sure how he got through the transitions. But, the confidence that Alwin and Libby Carus, brother-and-sister landlords, placed in him to carry on the top-notch management his dad and maternal grandfather, John Quilliam, had implemented on the ranch before him certainly helped.
From the time they were married in October 1981, Harris and his wife Gynell, who grew up on a ranch near Dunn Center, knew they wanted more than to manage the ranch; they wanted to own a part of it, and, in 1993, their dream became a reality.
Today, the complexion of the Harris Ranch is much the same as it was before that purchase. Gene and Gynell and their adult children — son Turner and his wife Katie and daughter Skye and her soon-to-be husband James Walz — run an Angus commercial cowherd in the North Dakota Badlands, behind the scenic Killdeer Mountains, about 25 miles northwest of Killdeer. Grandsons Coy, age 4, Ridge, age 2, and Tee, born Sept. 1, Turner’s and Katie’s sons, represent the fifth generation on the ranch. Harrises’ cattle, which wear the circle-six brand, graze on a mixture of owned and leased land.
The family’s heifer calves are generally backgrounded, AI bred and marketed the following year, while the steer calves are marketed following weaning through Stockmen’s Livestock or by private treaty. Over the years, the Harrises have tracked their performance through the feeding and processing phases to learn more about their cattle and continually improve efficiency, gain and quality. Their ranch was recognized as the Commercial Producer of the Year by Certified Angus Beef and listed among the Livestock Marketing Digest’s top 25 cattle operations in the late 1990s.
Harris and his family are engrained in the community and committed to helping their neighbors, assisting them whenever needed, especially during branding season. You’ll see Harris and his 13-year-old Palomino gelding, Malibu, at more than 15 brandings in the area, where he will help brand more than 6,000 calves every year.
Harris credits Roger Stuber, another past NDSA president, for getting him involved in the NDSA. He remembers Stuber calling him and asking him to serve on the NDSA Nominating Committee, an appointment that got Harris to his first convention. He’s missed very few ever since. A couple of years after that, he was appointed to serve out the unexpired director term of Red Murphy, who had passed away. A couple of years after that, Stuber was calling again — this time asking Harris if he’d consider serving as the association’s vice president. He turned him down, but Stuber wasn’t satisfied with that response, saying, “When you change your answer, call me back,” he recalled. Harris did end up calling back with a different answer — one that set the stage for him to assume the NDSA presidency, an opportunity he embraced without regret.
He set four primary goals during his years at the NDSA’s helm — 1) serve as an educational catalyst for positive change in the beef industry; 2) strengthen the organization through an increase in membership; 3) increase the involvement of members; and 4) work together for the good of the industry. Harris’ words in 2000 are as applicable today as they were nearly two decades ago: “In our industry, we’re going to have differences; that’s a given. But we mustn’t fragment our industry’s credibility by separating ourselves from our allies.”
He led the organization living out the phrase that hangs on a plaque on the wall near the family’s back door: “When you work for the man, you ride for the brand and treat his cattle as if they were your own.”
Under his leadership, the NDSA marked some important milestones, adding its Environmental Services division and a new special projects position. It also reinvigorated its membership drive during his tenure, when Harris launched the “Crack the Gate” campaign to entice new members to join. A big-picture thinker, Harris is also credited for helping launch the Stockmen’s Foundation, which was established in 2008 and has been instrumental in providing collegiate scholarships, disaster relief and other support to this and future generations of the state’s cattle industry. His creative thinking and can-do attitude also encouraged the Foundation to institute the popular Stockmen’s Ball, the Friends of the Foundation Fellowship Night and a building fund.
Additionally, Harris has been involved in many other community and industry activities over the years. Among them, he served as the Region 7 vice president for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Policy Division, having the opportunity to meet with President George W. Bush while serving. He also was a director of the North Dakota High School Rodeo Association, the Dunn County Job Development Association, the Killdeer Co-op Board and the Killdeer Dollars for Scholarship Association and was recognized as the Roughrider Days Rancher of the Year in 2016.
Harris joined the exclusive class of 24 ranchers who have received this elite award over the NDSA’s 92-year history when he accepted his bronze.