The Land Report

SPR 2012

The Magazine of the American Landowner is an essential guide for investors, landowners, and those interested in buying or selling land. The award-winning quarterly is known for its annual survey of America's largest landowners, The Land Report 100.

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56 The LandReport | S P R I N G 2 0 1 2 LANDREPORT.COM T h e USDA's subsequent quarantine order was a brutal blow to Klaus Birkel. Camp Cooley's owner had pledged his ranch's most valuable assets — its mineral rights, his prized genetics, and of course the land itself — as collateral for a number of other investments. In the aftermath of the quarantine, two lucrative cattle sales were postponed. Then the entire 3,000-head Camp Cooley herd was sold off. Defaults and vicious lawsuits followed. By November 2009, Birkel's Camp Cooley Ltd. had been brought to its knees. Bankruptcy protection was not just Birkel's best option. Given the dire circumstances, it turned out to be the only viable option. Unfortunately, Birkel's timing couldn't have been worse. Caught between the Great Recession and Europe's sovereign debt crisis, the U.S. economy was on life support. Foreclosure numbers had skyrocketed. Unemployment figures were soaring. Every statistic pointed to a worst-case scenario, including the market for Texas farms and ranches. By the time Camp Cooley Ltd. filed for Chapter 11, rural title companies were devoid of activity. For more than a year, overly optimistic sellers and squinty-eyed bottom feeders had been staring each other down. Neither group flinched. In 2009, the number of land deals in the Lone Star State plummeted to its lowest level in 15 years. "It has been very difficult the last few years to sell anything of any size," says Charles Gilliland, a nationally known specialist in rural land at Texas A&M's Real Estate Center. As proof of this point, Gilliland singles out the saga of New Mexico's Bell Ranch, which Orvis Cushman & Wakefield brought to market in 2007 at a sky-high listing of $120 million. Two years later, the sellers not only lowered the price, but they tacked on an additional 40,100 acres to entice prospective purchasers. Another year passed before the ever-shrewd John Malone, CEO of Liberty Media and the nation's largest landowner, snapped up the Bell for half the original ask. I t goes without saying that Camp Cooley can boast neither the size nor the history of the storied Spanish land grant. But it does possess three attributes that have never been attributed to the Bell: location, location, and location. Named for a Civil War muster point, the 10,600-acre cattle operation was patiently pieced together from 40 separate tracts by a Houston businessman who had made his fortune in the liquor business. Bert Wheeler poured his profits from bourbon and beer into his ranch on the Navasota River just a short drive from his Houston home. Among major Texas ranches, Camp Cooley is a standout in this regard. It features unparal- leled proximity to the state's major metropol- itan areas: 130 miles to Houston; 150 miles to Dallas; and 180 miles to San Antonio. At just a little over an hour and a half from Austin, is it any surprise to learn that at some of Bert and Mae Dean's parties, the guest list ranged from royalty to the likes of Senator Lyndon Johnson and Governor John Connally? Klaus Birkel purchased Camp Cooley from the Wheelers in 1991. A native of Germany, Birkel had first visited the ranch the year before on a hunting trip. Impressed with the opportunity, he added his own flair to the ranch's tradition of hospitality. It wasn't uncommon for Birkel's cattle sales to draw as many as 1,000 guests to the ranch. But to its new owner, Camp Cooley was not just a getaway. It was his life's work. After taking title to the ranch, Birkel implemented a massive campaign to enhance and improve existing operations. In the years that followed he methodically invested nearly $20 million in a long list of essential capital improvements, upgrades that every landowner dreams of doing: developing water wells, burying miles of fiber optic cable, updating irrigation systems, adding pens, and upgrading the existing exotic game preserve. Birkel's crews improved pastures, put in new fencing, and modernized existing houses, outbuildings, and other infrastructure. Although Camp Cooley was mired in bankruptcy, it grossed almost $3 million in 2010, which Uechtritz singled out as an incredible inducement for potential buyers.

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