Home On The Range

Cowboys, ranchers, and farmers are American icons, symbols of freedom, independence, self-reliance, and hard work. But, the American rancher is a disappearing breed. In the past 20 years, over 500,000 ranchers sold off their livestock and quit the business. The remaining 800,000 are struggling to survive. The hard-working ranchers idealized in cowboy legends are likely to go broke today.

We live in a new era, where ranchers and farmers are more often portrayed as ignorant, racist, economic parasites, and despoilers of the land. In 1959, eight of our nation’s top ten TV shows were westerns. The networks ran 35 westerns in prime time every week. That American ideal is now a distant past.

Many factors have contributed to the downfall of the American rancher, including the rise of the fast food industry, the lack of government regulations on agribusiness, unethical practices by agribusiness firms, and increasing urban development.

The growth of the fast food industry changed the face of the meat packing industry by encouraging consolidation. In 1968, McDonald’s (the nation’s largest purchaser of beef) bought its beef from 175 local suppliers. By 1970, seeking to achieve product uniformity, McDonald’s reduced its suppliers down to five. In 1970, the top four meat packing firms slaughtered 21% of our cattle, but in the 1980’s the Reagan administration allowed the meat packing firms to merge without any antitrust enforcement, and today the top four meat packers (ConAgra, IBP, Excel, and National Beef) slaughter 84% of our cattle. (Farmers are not allowed to slaughter their own cattle, per USDA regulations. Cattle are raised by independent ranchers, then auctioned off to slaughterhouses for processing.)

The four major meat packers control about 20% of the live cattle in the US. When the prices of cattle start to rise, the meat packers can flood the market with their own supplies to drive prices back down. Over the last 20 years, the rancher’s share of every retail dollar spent on beef has fallen from $0.63 to $0.46.

Cattle ranchers worry that beef industry is deliberately being restructured along the lines of the poultry industry and they do not want to end up like chicken farmers who are virtually powerless, trapped by debt and unfair contracts to large processors. The poultry industry was also transformed in 1980’s by a series of mergers. Only eight chicken processors control about 2/3 of US market.

The idea that agribusiness executives secretly talk on the phone with their competitors to set prices and divide up the market, is not just a conspiracy theory. Three executives from Archer Daniels Midland, a supplier of livestock feed additives, were sent to federal prison in 1999 for precisely this. Over a 3.5 year period, Archer Daniels Midland & their conspirators overcharged farmers as much as $180 million for feed additives through a massive price-fixing scheme.

Unfortunately, ranchers are afraid to testify against large companies for fear of retaliation & economic ruin. In 1996, Mike Callicrate, a cattleman from Kansas, testified before the USDA against the large meat packers, who promptly stopped buying his cattle. Callicrate is now an activist for ranchers, speaking at congressional hearings, and joining class action lawsuits against the large meat packers. Callicrate says that he refuses to “make the transition to slavery quietly.”

Ranchers have also fallen victim to the advice of agribusiness firms to give their cattle growth hormones. Cattle are much bigger today, so fewer are sold, and most can not be exported to the European Union where bovine growth hormones have been banned.

In some areas, like Colorado, ranchers face threats unrelated to cattle prices. In the last 20 yrs, Colorado has lost 1.5 million acres of land to development. Between population growth and the growing number of vacation homes, land costs have skyrocketed, making it impossible for ranchers to expand their operations. Plus, inheritance taxes can claim more than half of a cattle ranch’s land value. Even if a family manages to operate its ranch profitably, handing it down to the next generation may require selling off large chunks of land, diminishing its productive capacity. The median age of Colorado ranchers is 55. Ranchland in Colorado is now diminishing at the rate of 90,000 acres per year.

As our ranchers’ traditional way of life is destroyed, so is their livelihood. The suicide rate among ranchers in the US is three times higher than the national average. Osha Gray Davidson states in his book Broken Heartland, “To fail several generations of relatives… to see yourself as the one weak link in a strong chain… is a terrible, and for some, an unbearable burden.”

Our current industrialized food system is not only a nightmare for our animals, our health, and our environment, but it is also destroying our hard-working farmers and the ideals of the American west.
Brunch: Sopes without cheese or sour cream (or meat, obviously)

Dinner: Veggie spring rolls, tofu lettuce wraps, veggie pad thai


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