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Once considered a fixture of the American West, ranching may not make it to the next generation. There are increases in grazing fees, competition with recreation and energy exploration on leased government land, intensive agriculture opportunities, cities seeking additional water rights for their growing populations, and escalating land values from second homes and computer-commuting workers move into the West hoping to escape urban problems.

Internally, there are the simple and often daunting facts of running a ranch. Ranching is a hard life, physically, financially and emotionally. Because of these challenges, children of ranch families are not often motivated to take over the reins from their parents when the time comes. The result is that ranchers throughout the West feel their way of life is threatened.

Initially drawn to portray a way of life so unlike the one Allen Birnbach experienced growing up in New York, he began photographing The Cogan Ranch in south central Colorado in 1988. The family patriarch, Joe Cogan, and his wife, Arlene, and their children, Bruce, Brian, and Laurie, represent third and fourth generations on their family homestead, started in 1889.  

Over the years that Allen have followed them, Joe served as his guide into a new world.  Surprisingly, Allen came to understand how much alike they were in their commitment to nature and love of wide open spaces. During one spring cattle drive, Joe got off his horse simply to look at the wild iris that had just begun to bloom. “I don’t go to church,” Joe said. “Being in nature is my religion.” In that moment Allen came to understand that ranchers are great stewards of the land.

"The Cogan Ranch, Portrait of the Vanishing West," was a successful project, with gallery shows and publication in regional and national publications.  Yet over time, Allen came to feel that the story of one family was not enough to speak to all the issues facing ranching in general.  "A Handful of Dust" was conceived with the goal of drawing a more encompassing portrait of ranchers that creates greater awareness and interest in preserving their way of life. 

With the generous support of The University of Wyoming Business School, a business plan for the project was developed, and cinematographer Edward Done and editors Lucas Bishop and David Emrich joined the team.  Our goal is to shoot still and video images that can be shown in multimedia exhibits in museums, as prints in galleries and book form, in teaching materials, and as a video documentary to celebrate and raise awareness of this unique American lifestyle.  Our intention is to complete production by the end of 2018.