Stan Pettit bounces his converted 1972 International firetruck over a sandy track past the ruins of a homestead, its remains partly hidden by trees that once sheltered it from the prairie wind.
Pettit calls this piece of ground "the Garsky," after the family that lived here decades ago. Touring the Pettits' 11,000-acre ranch, past "the Garsky" or "the Kermit" or "the Ed," is a little like walking through a graveyard, recalling the names of the people who worked these sandy hills before.
This harsh land didn't change; the economics of ranching did. Consolidation and globalization in the meat-producing industry have brought chronic distress to the ranchers of the Great Plains. Most are permanently cash-poor, forced to mortgage or sell off pieces of their land to survive. Thousands are being forced from the industry.
This morning, Pettit is pondering a question. Shane, his youngest son, has returned to work on the ranch, the family's fifth generation in this broad valley of grass, a chain that stretches back to its earliest settlement nearly a century ago. Doesn't that make a father happy?
"Partly it does. But partly it scares me," Pettit said. "Let me put that a better way - it concerns me. Because things have changed so much in the last 20 years. It just keeps changing, and it keeps changing faster and faster. I just don't know if he'll be able to continue in it."
Pettit converted the old orange firetruck for ranch use, training his cattle to come to its siren at feeding time. Each day, starting at dawn, he pulls into a pasture, makes the siren wail and waits as his Angus cattle appear, dark specks against the brightening sky, growing slowly in size as they lumber down the grassy hills to be fed.
This is the time when a man thinks. Sometimes, even at dawn, they are troubled thoughts.
A rancher more than 40 years, Pettit has only rarely turned a profit since fuel and machinery costs spiked in the 1970s. Like many ranchers, he operates at a loss by borrowing money on the increasing value of his land or by selling off parcels. Not long ago, a banker told Pettit that if he just sold out, he could live three times better than he does now on the interest alone.
Here in the Garsky, the herd that gathers as Pettit revs the siren belongs to three generations. Stan, who is 58, owns some cows. Others are owned by Shane, 30; still others belong to Shane's grandfather, 81-year-old Don Rodewald. In a place where the first ranchers to work this land are just beyond living memory - the first white person born in Thomas County died in 1982 - it has always been like this. One generation's lifework passes into another.
To sell out? That would be to discard everything built by the parents and grandparents who worked this ground. To sell out? That would be to deny this life to Shane, and to his unborn children. And yet ...
"It ate at me all summer," Pettit said, remembering the banker's words. "I mean, I thought about that all summer."
Here in the heart of the Great Plains, American ranching is facing a crisis, one that many ranchers say is new and different from the wrenching economic cycles that always have been part of the business. Many say independent ranching, and the rural Plains communities it sustains, are in serious trouble.
Ranchers, economists and meat-industry representatives disagree vehemently over how to weigh their importance, but several factors are in play. Among them:
The concentration of the meatpacking industry gives a few giant conglomerates more control over cattle prices.
Biotechnology brings cattle to slaughter at heavier weights and younger ages, meaning it takes fewer animals to produce the same amount of meat.
The globalization of meat production forces American ranchers to compete with ranchers all over the world.
From the point of view of ranchers, it all adds up to one thing: lower prices for the cattle they sell.
"What we are seeing is just a decline in the value of U.S. cattle, and unless changes are made that return competition to the U.S. marketplace, we are in a serious situation," said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-Calf United Stockgrowers of America, a fast-growing organization that represents independent ranchers.
For many ranchers, a day of reckoning has arrived. The Great Plains are suffering what in some areas is the worst drought since the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. For many ranchers in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, it was too dry this year to grow hay to feed their cattle over the winter.
This fall, many are facing a devil's dilemma: Do I buy hay at inflated prices I cannot afford? Or do I sell off my herd and get out, at prices that are depressed because so many others are selling their cattle?
In 2001, more than 26,000 U.S. ranchers left the business - about 1,000 of them in Nebraska, or about one in 27 of the state's ranchers, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. The USDA predicts that by the start of 2003, the U.S. domestic cattle herd will shrink to its smallest size since 1959.
"One-third of my customers are broke. Another third are broke and they just don't know it yet. And I might have one-third who are solvent," said Mike Tasler, co-owner of the Atkinson Livestock Market, who has seen ranchers sell off a flood of cattle this fall. "That's a pretty scary situation."
One result of changes in the beef industry is that the meat on U.S. grocery shelves increasingly comes from abroad, as well as from Nebraska and Texas. In 2001, following years of steadily increasing imports, the United States became a net importer of beef in terms of value, according to the Foreign Agricultural Service of the USDA.
Many ranchers hang their hopes on the planned introduction in 2004 of country-of-origin labeling, which would allow consumers to buy beef knowing whether it was U.S.-born and -raised. But many fear that the packers will use their political clout with the federal government to defeat effective labeling.
"The only thing that has kept people going is that the valuation on their land has allowed people to refinance and get more money on it, but that doesn't last for long," said Patrick Googins, a Montana rancher for 51 years who is past president of the Livestock Marketing Association. "It reminds me of a blizzard out here and wetting your pants to stay warm. It doesn't work for very long. And then you freeze."
Stan and Shane Pettit are doctoring calves. It's one of the many tasks in the perpetual juggling act that is life on a ranch. Today, the doctoring consists of vaccinating calves from a bovine virus and applying a medicine to their hides that protects them from parasites.
Mounting horses, Stan and Shane have ridden out to a pasture about a half mile away, where they collect a group of calves for treatment and herd them back in to their cattle pens.
Stan Pettit might not look at first glance like a cowboy. He has a graying mustache and wears hearing aids. At work, he favors a battered baseball cap to a Stetson. His voice is so quiet, almost shy, that you sometimes have to strain to catch his words, even in the churchlike quiet of the Sand Hills. His portly build makes him look more like Bob Keeshan, who played Captain Kangaroo, than the Marlboro Man.
But he's clearly a man of the Plains. He's only seen the ocean once. Big cities scare him. He's frostbitten his feet feeding his cattle in the winter. He's separated a shoulder trying to help a cow give birth, when she dragged him a quarter mile. He's broken bones herding his cattle, like the time his horse stepped in a gopher hole. He can't understand the lives people live, anonymous to their neighbors, on the crowded and violent East Coast. He has strong convictions, but after airing them he'll conclude, as if to respect his listener: "It's just my opinion."
Out here, more than 30 miles from the nearest doctor, veterinarian or tractor mechanic, he's as creatively self-reliant as anyone who's worked the prairie. A rancher has to be the ultimate generalist, Pettit said when he and Shane take a break in the vaccinations.
"You have to be a veterinarian. You have to be an economist. You have to be a salesperson. You have to be a procuring agent. You have to be a feed specialist. In my case, where we farm some, you have to keep up on the seed corn, you have to keep up on the pesticides and herbicides. You have to be a good boss."
"Don't think you've mastered that," said Shane.
"You have to be a mechanic," said Stan, ignoring his son's needling.
"Lot of the electrical stuff around here wouldn't meet code," Stan said, "but I can get 'er hooked up so it works. A plumber. A ditch-digger. A post-holer. A fence-fixer. I mean, it covers a lot of things."
The Pettits are constantly improving the quality of their operation. Better genetics, applied over time, means they sell their cattle at a younger age than they could have just a few years ago, but at the same weight. To sell these very calves they are vaccinating, the Pettits earlier this fall used a high-tech video hookup connected by satellite to an auction in Texas.
But all the technology, all the relentless work, hasn't meant profitability for the ranch.
"Well," said Julie Pettit, Stan's wife, "I guess a person feels like that they have cut back as much as they possibly can anyway. You tighten your belt, so to speak, and you don't know where you can cut back anymore and still operate."
The ranching crisis is not just economic, but civic. In Thomas County, where there are roughly 40 times as many cattle as people, the survival of virtually every job - at the county's only bank, its only hardware store, its only grocery store - depends on ranching.
By one measure, the Sand Hills have become perhaps the poorest place in America. Thomas County is at the center of an area of Nebraska that includes five of the 10 lowest-income counties in the United States, including Loup County, which had the nation's lowest per capita income in 2000, $6,606. Per capita income doesn't tell the whole story, however, because income doesn't measure the substantial assets many ranchers hold in their land. The cost of living is also low: the median value of a house is as low as $22,000 in some parts of the Sand Hills.
Still, the region continues to lose people, as young adults move away. The average Thomas County rancher is 53 years old. The median age of the county's population, 44, is nearly a decade older than the median age in Nebraska overall.
To participate in a food industry that is consolidating into a smaller number of big players, ranchers need bigger herds, and more ground to run them on. In the Sand Hills, the average acreage of a ranch grew by as much as 35 percent in some counties in the decade prior to 1997, as the number of ranches declined by as much as 20 percent.
That means the same land supports fewer and fewer people.
"They're trying to make serfs out of us on our own land," said outgoing state Sen. Merton L. "Cap" Dierks, chairman of the Nebraska legislature's agriculture committee, who lost his seat in November after redistricting caused by population loss. "We're seeing the population of our small towns decrease; we're seeing our school populations decline. It looks like the demise of the world as we know it out here in the Sand Hills."
Thomas County's three towns - Thedford, the county seat, pop. 211; Halsey, pop. 59; and Seneca, pop. 51 - lost between 13 percent and 46 percent of their population between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2001, three Sand Hills counties - Thomas, Blaine and Arthur - had a greater share of their population migrate away than 99 percent of the counties in America.
Some experts, such as Mark Drabenstott, director of the Center for the Study of Rural America at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, say the consolidation in agriculture is a good thing for the U.S. economy. They say it will lead to less expensive food for consumers and a leaner food industry better equipped to compete in global markets.
Just four meatpackers now control 81 percent of the cattle slaughtered in the United States, according to researchers at the University of Missouri. But a number of studies have shown that concentration in meatpacking is probably not the sole cause of declining cattle prices. Whatever the cause, few doubt that the outlook is bleak for many rural communities across the Great Plains unless they find an alternative to ranching.
"From the Panhandle of Texas all the way extending to the Canadian prairie, you've got a pretty similar economic dilemma. Their definition of value-added [agriculture] has been cattle," Drabenstott said. "The big question all those counties are asking is, `where's our next economic engine?'"
And yet, the people of Thomas County have no intention of ending up in the ashcan of civic history. Some who grow up here find the isolation too much, and they move away. But others love the sense of security, the sense of community interdependence and responsibility.
Outside the high school in Thedford, students not only leave their cars unlocked, but the keys in the ignition. The home economics teacher, Rosalea Gift, was for many years one of Thomas County's dozen or so EMTs (the county has no doctor). When Gift would go on a call, which often took three to five hours because of the distances, her students would take over the teaching, often for the rest of the day.
At the Peaceful Plains School, a one-room public school that sits out on the prairie, the only building in sight, the current enrollment is six students.
Even with other area schools closing recently, Peaceful Plains has never enrolled more than 14 students, said Tina Connell, the teacher.
School is rarely canceled. In a snowstorm, her students might arrive on a snowmobile or a tractor or on horseback. Starting out in a one-room elementary school and graduating in a senior class that might include a dozen students gives young people a community connection unimaginable in a city, she said.
Connell thinks perhaps a third of her students will be able to find a way to make a living here once they grow up. Tayler Puttergill, the only sixth-grader in Peaceful Plains when school started in September, wants to be one of them. She hopes to be a veterinarian in the Sand Hills when she grows up.
"I just like it up here," she said. "You can ride your horse wherever you want."
Autumn is always a high-stress time for ranchers. It's often when you sell your cattle, when the commodities market decides what you will earn this year.
Before bidding started on the video auction of their cattle, Stan, Julie and Shane Pettit decided they could accept a price no lower than 93 cents per pound. A lot was riding on this sale; then again, a lot rides on every cattle sale.
"That pretty well determines your paycheck for the year," Julie Pettit said.
It doesn't matter how many hours you worked, how many times you stayed up all night in subfreezing cold when the calves were being born in February or March, warming them when they don't get up and start moving, or yanking them from their mothers' bodies when they are breech-born.
Real estate taxes were way up, as Stan well knew as a member of the county commission of Thomas County. That is the painful flip side of higher land values that have allowed ranchers to borrow more money to keep their operations afloat.
Unlike farmers, ranchers don't have the backstop of federal crop subsidies. And with the consolidation of the meatpacking business, ever fewer buyers are competing to buy ranchers' cattle, said Bullard, of R-Calf, the ranchers' organization.
"It used to be there were up to 30 buyers looking at those cattle and offering bids. We've now seen where a producer will receive one call on a Thursday or a Friday and have a half-hour window to make a decision," he said.
"That producer has a perishable commodity. If that cattle gets too fat, the quality degrades."
And the price drops.
Sitting in their living room this fall, the Pettits were able to watch the cattle auction over their satellite television system. Much would be determined by the price at which the bidding on their cattle started. Stan got a sick feeling in his stomach when he saw that number - just over 80 cents a pound.
Stan wanted to get up and yell at the television as the bidding slowly edged higher, through the 80s to over 90 cents a pound. It was the sense of powerlessness that made him feel so sick. Shane stood with the telephone to his ear, ready to shout into it to Fort Worth that the Pettits would sell. They would have only a split second to make the call - accept a bid, or gamble on a higher price.
Finally, at 92.25 cents, Shane yelled, "What should I do?"
Julie looked at Stan and Shane; they nodded to each other. "Let them go," Stan said.
In a sale that featured 37,000 head of cattle, the Pettits' calves topped the market in their weight class. But the price they received, roughly $530 per calf, was more than 10 percent below the roughly $600 they earned last year.
"It took me about three hours to stop shaking," Stan said. He will have to endure it this winter when the ranch is likely to sell cattle again.
"I used to call it supply and demand," he said of the process of selling cattle, "but I don't call it that anymore."
Thedford, the seat of Thomas County and at the confluence of key north-south and east-west highways, is better off than many Sand Hills towns. Still, the Cowpoke Inn has sat vacant for years in the town center. The last restaurant in the center, the Red Brick Bar & Grill, has seen a big decline in business since the drought took hold.
"You just don't see that many people in town like you once did," said Lewis Herbaugh, owner of the Red Brick.
One of the most notable absences is young people. But Herbaugh said he's not going anywhere. In the terminal stages of a town, when local businesses shut down one by one like the organs in a dying person's body, only the church will outlast the local cafe.
Thomas County nearly lost its only grocery store a few years ago, a civic disaster that would have forced people to travel 30 miles each way to buy groceries. Fortunately, a new owner has brought the store back.
A generation ago, most every local grocery store in Nebraska's cattle country had its own butcher, who would sell locally produced beef.
Ranchers say that being able to sell their beef directly to consumers, either locally or in the nation's big cities, would be a huge help. But it's prohibited.
Ask for local beef in Thedford's grocery store, and the clerk will pull out a cardboard box labeled "IBP," the logo of the nation's largest meatpacker, full of vacuum-packed beef. You might find an identical box in the back of any grocery store in America.
This is the way all the meat arrives, the clerk said. It's the only way you can get it.