The whole point of free speech is not to make ideas exempt from criticism but to expose them to it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Grapes of wrath

The exchange following Bill’s posting regarding Sam Hurst’s views prompted me to write about some things I think about a lot. I was raised on a ranch in the northeastern corner of Wyoming. From the time I was five until I was 25, whenever I wasn’t in school or church I was riding horseback with my dad (who never learned to drive). I left the ranch in 1983 as a result of stupid personal choices and Jimmy Carter’s 21% operating money.

I think my family’s story is the prototype for ranching on the high plains. My great-grandfather came to the Hills in 1876 and operated freight outfits (bull teams) between Pierre and the mines and from Cheyenne to Deadwood as well. He was a state senator from Minnesela in the 1892-93 session. After the US finished violating its treaties with the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, great tracts of Nebraska, So. Dak., No. Dak, Montana and Wyoming were opened to homesteaders. My grandmother and her mother moved from Council BLuffs in 1904 to homestead along Bull Creek a few miles north of the Belle Fourche River in Crook Co., WY. My grandfather had a neighboring plot. They married their land and hearts.

Lucille King (my father's mother) sits in hammock to left of her cabin in 1904. Wisps of the logs still exist.

By 1932, just about every square mile (640 acres) in the high plains had a shack and a little dam or fence (you had to do that much to “prove up” and get title). My dad was the last registered homesteader in Crook Co., in 1932. During the depression and dust bowl days, he and his father bought up homesteads one after another at prices from 25¢ to $1 an acre, as people who were starving on their section of sagebrush and cactus headed for someplace else as fast as their buckboards and Model As would take them. The ranch I grew up on was about 38000 acres deeded and 10000 government lease (land that was too sparse to have attracted a homesteader). The crumpling shacks every mile or so displayed the state of the dreams of their builders.

Wilbur Newland (my grandfather, in necktie) sits with my uncle Thomas and my father (bottom right), Jim Newland, and Josie and Charles Brannum in 1922.

In a side-note that is too Steinbeckian, my mother married a sailor in 1933 and rode freights from Iowa to the Hills, where they worked on ranches west of Belle Fourche, including my grandfather's ranch. During WWII they moved to Anaconda, Mont., to work in the copper mine, where her husband died. She moved back to marry my dad.

Dad took advantage of government cost-share programs to build a reservoir on just about every drainage on the place, and to cross-fence for better pasture utilization. A number of folks said it was the best-watered ranch in Wyoming. His goal was to make it so cows didn’t have to walk more than a half-mile to water, thus assuring even grazing. There were over 200 miles of fence on a piece of land roughly 10 miles by 7 miles.

During WWII and through the ‘60s, ranchers like my dad did pretty well, cultivating their herds and selling registered bulls to one another to develop bloodlines that gained weight well. Then a combination of droughts and the withdrawal of a variety of subsidies slowed the gravy train considerably. Corporate farms and feedlots began dictating (lowering) prices. The giant corporate buyers (McDonalds) began encouraging the destruction of the rainforest in South America to provide pasture for cheap meat. Tax laws became less friendly. A series of Farm Home Administration “disaster loan” programs provided easy operating money to thousands of ranchers (like me) who couldn’t then repay them, and thousands of ranches went into default to the government, and were resold to big corps and and absentee rich folks who didn’t need to make a living on their places.

There’s much more to the story, but what I see generally is a series of artificialities compounding throughout the 20th century to give three or four or five generations of ranchers both an unrealistic feeling of heritage and a real feeling of betrayal. The 21st century will be one of divestment of ranching as we know it on the high plains. The small towns will disappear except for a few centered around gas stations on the interstates. The people will gather more and more in ever-growing population centers to eke out their existences working in dollar stores.

The worm has turned. From a heritage based on genocide and betrayal, high plains ranchers have been in turn betrayed by the same entity, which will give the spoils to the international corporations/bankers. Our children and grandchildren will reap the dust.


Bob Newland said...

Yes I understand that the US is not done violating its treaties with the tribes, but the big one was unilaterally reducing the treaty lands from the 1868 treaty by about 80% (in 1880?) after allowing the Black Hills to be populated in violation.

Jinglebob said...

Good post Bob, I hope you are wrong.

I have said for many years now that we, the ranchers and farmers of western SD and really all the wide open spaces of the west, are the new Indians. We have what they want and they are coming after it.

The governments "cheap food policy" has made things very hard. Chjeap food is really pretty costly.

Michael Sanborn said...

It is writing quality like this that brought the invitation to join this blog. Nicely done, Bob.

Anonymous said...

The business model for the great plains is a failure - a century long failure. This business model's only success is to depopulated farms, ranches, schools, towns and counties. On the other hand the plains business model that is succeeding is a socialist-based one. The Hutterites and tribes are both growing.

Les said...

Very good stuff Bob! The homesteaders got 160, not 640. Can you imagine making it on 160 of those sagebrush acres? Our federal government, contrary to public opinion on how easy gov makes it on farmers, has had policy makers since the 1970's intent on driving the family farm out. In the early to mid 70's Quentin Burdick delivered to a customer of mine, papers drafted by US Agriculture Dpt I believe. They were entitled "The Elimination Of The Family Farm". This was very Owellian to me, hardly believable, but as they say, the proof is in the pudding.

J/bobs cheap food policy needs more explanation as well to all those bitching about the family farmer having it so easy. Now don't go beating up on me, I am a family farmer and a have been retail business person who complained about family farmers getting more breaks than I as a small family main street business. Cheap food policies have equally blessed main strt and family farms of rural America.

Bob Newland said...

160 acres (1/2 mile by 1/2 mile) were enough for farmers in Iowa, but on the high plains, homesteads were 640 A. (1 mile square).

The "cheap food" policy was promulgated by means of subsidies which hid the real price of food. As farmers and ranchers became attached to the tit of subsidies, they became so dependent on them that they grew to seeing them as entitlements.

Weaning farmers from them is almost impossible, even though most give lip service to independence from government, and almost everyone sees the US farm policy as unworkable, unfair and a boondoggle.

Les said...

All my ancestors were granted 160's in Dakota. As they said, there was a dug out in the side of a hill on every 160 that some poor fella or gal as in the case of my great grandma had built for shelter. Nearing the end of the 19th century Bob there was litle land left that was not in arid uncultivated regions and they went to 640's.