Rocky Dillow’s parents let his oldest brother name him. And so he did—after Allan “Rocky” Lane. Lane was the voice of television’s talking horse, Mister Ed. He also starred in a series of cowboy movies in the 1940s and ’50s.
Born in 1949, Dillow was raised on King Ranch in the crosshairs of its Doe Run Division in southern Chester County. As fate would have it, he became a real-life cowboy. “It came on slowly, but we knew it was happening,” says Dillow.
Dillow is referring to the exodus of the Texas-based King Ranch. While it was here, it shaped this portion of the county from 1946 to the mid-’80s, when its lands were sold in a well-chronicled series of management strategies orchestrated by the Brandywine Conservancy. “To hear all the scenarios about what might happen to the property—Disneyland coming, the damming of the Laurels to make a lake—it was scary,” Dillow says. “But the ranch was running up until the day it sold. That was our D-Day, the day we got rid of the cattle.”
Nearly four decades removed from those days, Dillow is back in the saddle again, so to speak—though he’s more likely to be found in a four-wheeler or on foot. Today, ranching has returned to the same Chester County acreage, thanks to the dedication and determination of Lisnageer Farm’s Bill Fairbairn, who’s leasing the still-intact King Ranch feedlot and pens on 120 acres off Doe Run Road for his unique export operation. The colors have returned, too—in the form of Fairbairn’s herd of 120 purebred Black Angus, which are run in and out of faded red sheds, when they’re not grazing on lush green grass. “God’s grass,” says Fairbairn. “This is sacred ground.”
Dillow estimates that just two other Chester County cowboys remain. “With my appearance, you’d never think I was a cowboy,” he says. “Most cowboys are skinny, and I have knees that need to be redone.”
After King Ranch divested interests, its large tracts went largely to the privileged. Fairbairn began leasing here from the Jones family 15 years ago, about the same time lawyer and equestrian Richie I.G. Jones passed away. “We wanted this grass to raise our cows, and the buildings were already here,” says the 63-year-old Fairbairn, whose family farm is in north Coatesville, with additional leased land in Glenmoore and West Chester. “We couldn’t have afforded to put these buildings up.”
The opportunity to export cattle has made the operation that much more expansive and valuable. Fairbairn started with Russia in 2010. Now, in coordination with others around the country, he exports largely to Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Qatar, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
In the process, the ranch has become an impressive final export inspection facility for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On any given few days, there may be as many as 2,500 head of cattle here from all over the country—as far away as Idaho, Kansas or Texas, and as close as New York or Bedford, Pa. Then they’re loaded onto trucks bound for a ship—assuming their ship comes in. Once, a mechanical breakdown kept a herd destined for Turkey local for 30 days.
Though live animal export is the most critical part of the operation, the overseas business also includes the transfer of genetics (in the form of semen and embryos) and even stockmen and horses to impressive Middle Eastern farms owned by wealthy land owners faced with an overwhelming demand to feed people. “They’re all in agriculture, and we’re together,” Fairbairn says.
Largely based on the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar, the export market is volatile. There could be two exports a month or one a year—or the ranch may go two or three years without a load. “ We can’t depend on it. It’s so tied to politics and whims,” says Fairbairn. “But our agricultural location is so close to the ports, and that’s what makes it work. We have the logistics.”
“We’re so happy just to have the opportunity to be here doing this, and doing it right—protecting the land and the animals and continuing this way of life.”—Lisnageer Farm’s Bill Fairbairn
Now 71, Rocky Dillow runs the headgate for the export operation. As they’ve aged, he and the other King Ranch cowboys have worked where they can. Two died in the weeks preceding these interviews. One, the late Timmy Corum, appeared at Fairbairn’s every day, needed or not. He was content sitting in his car, drinking a beer, feeding the cats and checking on the herd. “He was just so happy to see cattle here again,” Fairbairn says.
Corum had a heart attack in the driveway. He recovered, only to succumb in mid-March to subsequent pulmonary complications. Another old cowboy raised on King Ranch and Dillow’s 81-year-old cousin, Kenny Wyse Young died three weeks later. “All these boys passing … We all grew up with this, and we all said we’d do it again if we had to,” Dillow says. “It wasn’t good pay, but you made your way and enjoyed what you were doing. We lived hard lives, but it kept us going.”
Dillow estimates that just two other Chester County cowboys remain. “With my appearance, you’d never think I was a cowboy,” he says. “I’ve put on weight. Most cowboys are skinny, but I’m big-boned. I have knees that need to be redone, but I won’t do it—too damn hard-headed.”
Fairbairn has been stubborn, too—in maintaining and protecting his livelihood and building his Angus herd. But he’s also been generous, selling off breeding stock to help establish other herds near and far. He’s also involved in the management, breeding and genetics of other local herds. There’s D.D. Matz’s 30 mahogany-red Santa Gertrudis cattle—the same breed her grandfather and King Ranch kingpin Robert Kleberg had. Dillow works with Dr. Bill Elkins’ 80-head Black Angus herd and Peter Weygandt’s 60 commercial crossbreeds.
The pandemic stimulated another part of the business. “Now there’s a reason to buy the side of an animal and fill our freezers again,” Fairbairn says. “The real value of our food is in who can produce it.”
Fairbairn is the son of a first-generation Irish immigrant. He named his farm after Lisnageer, a township in their homeland. The second of four brothers, he traveled back and forth to Ireland as a boy to work with his uncle. “My dad saw my interest,” he says. When Fairbairn was 16, his father started with a herd of Horned Hereford cattle on 100 acres off Sugartown Road in Malvern. The school bus dropped him off there, and his mother brought him back home for dinner.
Fairbairn is a Penn State University animal production grad, and his wife, Cheryl, is a PSU cooperative extension specialist for Chester County. “[She’s] really the beef specialist in the state,” Fairbairn says.
Both Fairbairn children are PSU alumni who work in agriculture. Caitlin works as a technical adviser for Tyson Foods in New Holland; Ryan is a veterinarian who specializes in bovine genetics and reproduction for Trans Ova Genetics on the West Coast. “We encouraged the kids to go where the opportunities were,” says their father.
Fairbairn would like to see younger people involved. “We say you can’t work here unless you’re 60,” says ranch hand Nick Liberato, whose been friends with Fairbairn since grade school.
There are signs of youth—like the “Uncle Cow Billy” crayon cartoon drawn by an unidentified young cowboy in training and taped to the screen of a TV no one has time to watch. “We want to continue to be an influence for as many years as we can,” Fairbairn says. “But we need young cowboys.”
Dillow is skeptical. “A young cowboy in this part of the country?” he ponders. “You have to go west if you want that.”