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Magagna: Don’t be afraid to build a future in ag

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Rancher, WSGA Exec joins Wyoming Ag Hall of Fame

Rock Springs – As a law school student at Stanford, Jim Magagna was the lone member of his class who planned to pursue a career as a sheep rancher after graduation.
    He was also the only student to complete assignments in advance so he could hurry back to Wyoming for critical ranch events like shearing and shipping. “When I was a sophomore at Notre Dame my dad passed away,” says Jim of his undergraduate studies in business administration completed in South Bend, Ind. He took a semester off, situating the ranch so he could finish his education.
    Returning to the ranch full time after graduation from law school in 1968, Jim says he spent 10 years only attending meetings of local significance. A late 1970s invitation to speak at the Wyoming Wool Growers Association convention about the lamb feeding operation his family had started in partnership with three others in California’s Imperial Valley set change in motion.
    “A couple of years later I was second vice president of WWGA,” recalls Jim. Soon president, it was a role Jim’s father had filled at the time of his death. “I was the first second-generation president of the group,” he says, noting several since that time.
    From there it was on to chairmanship of the Public Lands Council in Wyoming and then at the national level. “I would only commit to a year because I was committed to be the American Sheep Industry Association President,” says Jim. Involved in the PLC’s national leadership circle to this day, Jim says he appreciates the value of federal lands grazing. It’s an appreciation with underpinnings in his home area of western Wyoming.
    Considering Rock Springs home, he says, like many area sheep ranches, his family headquartered in town with a summer operation farther north. A graduate of Rock Springs High School, Jim says he spent his winters in town and his summers on the ranch. Heading off to college, he put top priority on the things he could learn that would make him a better rancher when he returned. Business and law degrees were a natural fit and have proven continually useful despite the fact he says he’s “never earned a dollar as a lawyer.”
    Just four months after finishing his ASI presidency, Jim was asked to run for Congress and spent 1994 on the campaign trail to become Wyoming’s representative in the U.S. Congress. While Barbara Cubin went on to win the election, Jim says the many friends he made and places he saw along the way made the experience extremely rewarding.
    Each time he returned to the ranch Jim says it was with a resolve to stay home and ranch full time. Opportunity continued to present itself and Jim credits long-time companion Carolyn Paseneaux for serving as a continual source of inspiration and encouragement. “When I’ve thought I’m happy to go back and ranch, she’s been my inspiration to go on and do more,” he says.
    Jim’s efforts have earned him recognition as an inductee into the Wyoming Agriculture Hall of Fame. He and former Wyoming Livestock Roundup publisher Del Tinsley were honored Aug. 13 at the Wyoming State Fair. Each year Roundup readers nominate individuals they believe to be deserving of entry into the Wyoming Agriculture Hall of Fame, started in 1992. A panel of judges selects two inductees from among the candidates for their work to improve the state’s agricultural industry.
    In December of this year Jim will celebrate his 10-year anniversary as Executive Director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “It’s the people in every sense,” says Jim when asked what he likes best about his time with WSGA. “It’s interacting with ranchers; interacting with people in the political arena.”
    Lobbying on behalf of the state’s livestock industry is not only one of Jim’s favorite tasks, but an area where he’s earned recognition as a top-notch lobbyist. “That’s one place where the law degree comes in handy,” says Jim. “It gives me the ability to look at a piece of legislation and analyze it in a fairly rapid setting.” Strong relationships and credibility are key components of good lobbying, if you ask Jim. “I like to think that I have a personal relationship with the vast majority of lawmakers up at the Capitol,” says Jim. “You can’t be afraid to say you don’t know and go do research when you need to.”
    Also proud of the relationships WSGA has built and broadened in the past 10 years, Jim says, “This isn’t 1872 anymore when WSGA was founded and we’re not as all-powerful as the cattle industry was back then. What we can accomplish, particularly in the policy arena, we most often have to accomplish by working with others.” He says he works to find common ground while maintaining the WSGA’s philosophies and fundamental principals. Legislation relating to split estates and eminent domain are two areas where such efforts were integral.
    Jim’s successes at the Wyoming Legislature have resulted in legislation many in Wyoming agriculture can be thankful for on a daily basis. Modification of the state’s farm loan programs, which took effect on July 1 of this year, broadened that program’s potential impact on the state. A short, yet meaningful bill, signed into law two years ago makes forage use a requirement when pursuing a grazing lease on Wyoming’s state lands. The legislation was passed at a time when Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project had stepped out to compete against Wyoming ranchers for state grazing leases. Writing the legislation early in the week, Jim’s bill had cleared committee by the time the legislature convened on Friday.
    An appropriate mixture of work is also important. “There are a lot of challenges in the livestock industry,” says Jim. “There are a lot of things that can become very negative and pull you down if you have a negative attitude. You always need to have a couple of little projects that have a very positive aspect to them that keep your attitude on the positive side.”    
    Jim’s quest for the positive has resulted in several noteworthy projects. While he counts them as team efforts, they likely wouldn’t have happened without his energetic drive. Among them are creation of the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust, additions and renovations to the WSGA’s Cheyenne office and interpretive signs that will soon be placed at Wyoming’s rest areas detailing the importance and contributions of Wyoming agriculture. A standout among Jim’s quest for the positive is a bronze calf by artist Jerry Palen placed on the Wyoming Capitol lawn in honor of past Wyoming governor and U.S. Senator Cliff Hansen. Hansen, a man Jim counts among his heroes, and his wife Martha were in attendance for the 2004 dedication.
    Looking ahead at Wyoming and the nation’s livestock industry Jim says he sees two main challenges. The first is adjustment to the global marketplace. The second is maintaining the nucleus of the industry that truly finds its livelihood in ranching. “Even though we’ve had some wonderful people come to Wyoming and acquire ranches,” he explains, “I really am bothered each time I see the loss of a multigenerational farm or ranch.” While it’s not a cure-all, Jim says he’s hopeful the WSGA’s land trust can positively influence that trend by allowing additional families to remain in ranching.
    “Don’t be afraid to build a future in agriculture,” he advises the next generation of agricultural leaders. He says it’s also important to remember ranching is a business. “You’re part of an industry,” he reminds. “You’re no stronger than the industry and the industry is no stronger than your involvement to make it stronger.”
    Jim’s temptation to go back to the ranch full time is met with frequent visits to the headquarters northeast of Farson and to Rock Springs, a town he says will always be home. A veteran ranch employee of 33 years coupled with a scaling back over the last 10 years has allowed Jim to focus on his work on behalf of the livestock industry. Having spent almost 30 years doing things to better the livestock industry, Jim’s says he’ll continue to do so as long as he’s able.
     Jennifer Womack is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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