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Alone on the range: Texas ranches and a vanishing way of life

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 24, 2003


Paul Perner rattles off the names of three families who gave up ranching in Crockett County in the past few years.

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There's the one who used to run 9,000 sheep, but now depends on oil drilling for income. Another rancher sold all his livestock and now makes a living leasing his property to hunters and fishermen. And then there's the family that got out entirely. Their land is being subdivided and sold to "rich doctors and lawyers from Austin and Houston," says Mr. Perner.

He and his wife, Ginger, say they aren't going anywhere. But it's increasingly difficult to remain in ranching: The number of ranchers nationwide has fallen by 20 percent since the late 1980s. As in every business, mom-and-pop operations are going under or getting swallowed up. And here in Texas, where ranching is a way of life as rooted in history as sagebrush and the Alamo, that means a part of the culture is vanishing, too.

"It's like you can't win for losing," says Mrs. Perner, whose great-great-grandparents were the first permanent settlers in Crockett County in 1881. "Every day they're passing some new law that makes it harder to be a family rancher. And after a while, life as you know it is no longer."

Already, life for the Perners has changed dramatically.

The turn toward new enterprises

During the decade-long drought in west Texas that dates back to the mid-1990s, the Perners have had to sell most of their cattle herd and now run mainly goats on the craggy, weathered land. They still make less from the animals than they put into them.

That has forced them to diversify their land use, like many of their ranching neighbors. They maintain a healthy deer herd on their 16,000 acres and sell hunting and fishing rights to the property. This popular pastime is "the only thing that's making us any money right now," says Mr. Perner, saddling his horse to round up livestock.

Other small ranchers are using their land for hunting leases, bird and wildlife watching, wind farms, trail riding, dude ranches, and oil drilling.

"For those people with less than 500 head of cattle, they have to find additional enterprises to supplement their income. Ranching is no longer their primary business," says Ernie Davis, an economist in the department of agriculture at Texas A&M University in College Station. "That's a hard pill to swallow for a lot of cattlemen and cattle associations, but that's where we are today."

Ironically, in the past six weeks, beef prices have soared to record highs.

Several factors are contributing to the surge, which has upped prices by almost 40 percent over last year: Domestic supplies are down, consumer demand is up, and Canadian imports - which make up about 10 percent of beef supplies - have been banned since May because of mad cow disease.

That has sent beef prices as high as $1.15 per pound - unheard of in the industry. For many, ranching has never been so profitable. "It is good times in the beef industry. Everybody's making money," says Joe Roybal, editor of BEEF magazine in Minneapolis.

All except those like the Perners, who sold their cattle when prices were at rock bottom.

A slow exodus from ranching

Indeed, part of the reason that domestic supplies are down is that families like the Perners have been going out of business. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a prolonged liquidation period brought about mainly by the drought that started in Texas and worked its way north into the plains states.