Just like he dreamed many years ago, a river runs through it.
The "river" is Big Beaver in Ozark County. The "it" is a 1,000-acre ranch in the heart of the Ozarks a few miles southwest of Ava. The "he" is Cecil Huff.
Cecil and his wife Sonny have jobs that many people would trade for in a heartbeat. Jobs that many people happily pay Huffs to perform. Cecil and Sonny own and operate the Bucks and Spurs Guest Ranch, nestled among the rolling hills of Douglas County in southwest Missouri. They give people what they want, as long as what the people want involves fresh air, sunshine, horses, campfires, good grub and freedom from the cares of their workaday lives.
The Huffs have been working this particular piece of Ozark paradise since 1988, when they initially leased 700 acres. They knew they had a lot of work to do to convert it to the working ranch they envisioned. For instance the hay fields needed to be cleaned up in order to be productive. The cost, $30,000, is just an example of the many expenses they incurred to get the place in shape.
Within four years the owner of the property was forced into foreclosure. Their lease agreement gave the Huffs first right of refusal. Cecil and Sonny quickly determined they wanted to exercise their option to buy, though they had to fight for it with some legal maneuvering. By 1993 they were the proud owners of the ranch they loved.
It was the perfect melding of dream, opportunity and experience. Cecil had grown up in the region and cowboying was in his blood. He worked on an Ozark County ranch as a young man. After earning a degree in agricultural business from Southwest Missouri State University (now called Missouri State University) he worked in finance for the USDA's Farmers Home Administration in West Plains. So, with that background and the determination and hard-work attitude both he and Sonny possessed, their foray into ranching was a natural fit.
Once the ranch belonged to them Cecil and Sonny knew they would need to embark on a new approach to ranching that would combine their love of the land, a livestock operation and some kind of additional revenue-generating venture in order to turn a profit. They first thought of starting a hunting lodge, but decided the season was too short. Sonny's brother suggested they start a guest ranch. His idea stuck.
"We decided that was the way to go, so that's the direction we went," says Cecil.
It was an idea both he and Sonny tackled with enthusiasm. But it also proved to be an evolving idea. A guest ranch needs land, which they had in abundance. But it also needs a herd of good-natured horses and an infrastructure of facilities to accommodate those guests.
"With the help of a good neighbor, (the late) Russell Lathrop, we located some even-keeled horses," explains Cecil. "Horses of that nature are really important when you consider the range of horse-riding abilities our guests have."
The Huffs also developed some accommodations, but ultimately decided they wanted to improve the facilities. Cecil and Sonny's horse sense told them they were headed in the right direction, but they also realized they needed to hone their business sense. That realization led them to contact Tom Keohan, University of Missouri Extension business development specialist based in Forsyth.
Keohan surveyed the Huff's situation and determined they were on the right track. They just needed more momentum to make it up the long grade they faced if they were to obtain the financing they needed to ensure business success.
As part of the effort Keohan invited two Extension colleagues, Mick Gilliam and John Amos, to help advise the Huffs. Amos, a market analyst and emeritus professor of engineering management at UM-Rolla, organized and conducted a survey of the ranch's previous and potential customers.
"The survey John Amos conducted gave us ammunition and credibility with lenders," says Cecil. "It also gave us a good perspective on what the customers thought of our operation."
On the financing front Gilliam, an agricultural business specialist based in Douglas County, and Keohan encouraged Cecil and Sonny to revise their business plan to make Bucks and Spurs more appealing to potential lenders. The Huffs followed the advice and eventually refinanced a $400,000 package to free up some money for additional lodge construction.
This presented a great opportunity for the Huffs, as Sonny points out: "When you go from 8.3 percent interest to 5.7 percent on a loan, that has a big positive impact on operating costs."
After dealing with the details of business the Huffs have been able to concentrate on what they do best — giving their guests a memorable slice of ranch life. Whether a guest is looking to live the life of a ranch hand by herding cattle; is a tenderfoot who wants to overcome a fear of riding a horse; wants to simply enjoy the freedom that a thousand acres of country living offers; seeks the comfort of a picnic lunch served next to the cool waters of the slow-moving river where he just swam; wants to learn the art of natural horsemanship, Cecil's gentle approach to horse training, which is the antithesis of bronco bustin'; has a hankering to buy the horse that's just right for her and take it back home; or just needs to relax back at the lodge surrounded by quiet and fresh air ... Bucks and Spurs is the place for all that.
It's what Cecil and Sonny Huff know how to do best — give their ranch guests the experience of a lifetime.
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