This story comes from our partners at the Center for Rural Affairs, in Lyons, Nebraska, and was written by Nathan Beacom. Their mission is to establish strong rural communities, social and economic justice, environmental stewardship, and genuine opportunity for all while engaging people in decisions that affect the quality of their lives and the future of their communities.
Before Father Bryce Lungren was a priest, he was a cowboy. Today, he gets to be both.
In the early 2000s, while working on a ranch in Montana, Bryce spent his days rounding up cattle, and was engaged to the rancher’s daughter. But, he was still looking for his life’s purpose, for a way he could make a difference in the world. That’s when he heard the call: “If you really want to make a difference, here’s how to do it.”
“When you’re called, you drop the nets,” Father Bryce said. “I don’t think I even brought my boots.”
After that, he put cowboying behind him and joined the seminary. Through years of study and preparation, he was able to become a priest, and returned to his home state of Wyoming, where he currently shepherds St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, in Gillette.
To his surprise, Father Bryce’s ranching days were not over. A 2020 amendment to Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act enabled customers to buy directly from farmers using herd shares, which opened the door for Father Bryce to start a herd of cattle and provide his small community with local meat during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m a cowboy by nature,” he said. “Being a priest is actually about following my heart’s desires.”
Following his heart also led him back into ranching and his love of the land, dirt, and animals. For Father Bryce, being a priest is about finding ways his qualities, skills, and proclivities as a human being can be put to the service of others. As it turned out, one of Father’s Bryce’s parishioners had pasture he was looking to sell at the same time the priest was wishing for an opportunity to get back into the cattle business.
“There’s a little cowboy in all of us…it’s just a matter of getting down close to the roots and to reality and seeing what that means for you.”
Father Bryce bought a few acres “to ride herd on, just for fun.” Little did he know that he’d soon be growing and cutting beef for more than 65 customers.
“Doors just kept opening up,” he said. Another opportunity arose, and the priest bought 11 heifers from his uncle to start his herd.
Just a few months earlier, Wyoming began allowing the purchase of shares in a live animal or animal herd, and Father Bryce had an idea. With help from parishioners, he put together a processing unit. Not long after, he was signing contracts for shares in his beef, butchering that beef, and selling high-quality, grass-fed, finished animals to his community at a decent price.
“Not everybody can buy, or has space for, a whole, half, or quarter of beef,” Father Bryce said.Customers generally have more room for smaller purchases, and the demand for those animal shares continues to be high.
Previously, the only option was supermarket beef. However, he said, folks turn out for quality, local meat at a good price. Nebraska processors and farmers are hoping their state follows in Wyoming’s footsteps, so that setups similar to Father Bryce’s will soon be possible under a bill being considered by the Nebraska Legislature. Legislative Bill 324 was introduced by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth.
“The lord has given me so many things back to be used for his greater glory, for the building up of his kingdom, or however you want to call it,” Father Bryce said. “Things I love to do, like cowboying. I haven’t missed anything. I’m more satisfied now than I ever was.”
To those who see a contradiction in a priest-cowboy, Father Bryce says, “The priest God wanted me to be is the man God wanted me to be.” And, that man is a cowhand. “There’s a little cowboy in all of us,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting down close to the roots and to reality and seeing what that means for you.”