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

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

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.

This year one of the oldest ranches in Texas went out of business - worrying many others who haven't been operating as long. The JLC Ranch, near San Antonio, had been in the family for more than 200 years since the original grantee, a Canary Islander named Don Juan Ignacio Perez de Casanova, began raising cattle there in 1794.

The family, fighting a decade of development and drought, finally gave up and sold the land. It will soon be home to Toyota's newest US manufacturing plant.

That kind of story worries the Perners, who want their land to remain in the family forever. They, too, feel the pinch of population density, as more and more ranches around them sell off portions of their land.

In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Inventory reports that more than 11 million acres of rural land (over half of that being agricultural land) were converted to developed use between 1992 and 1997.

In the Perners' case, that means higher property taxes and a less stable ranching environment. Their profitable deer herd, for instance, is dwindling because the deer are easily lured off property by hunters leasing neighboring ranch land.

"We are losing the protection of other ranching families," says Mrs. Perner, throwing out corn to a herd of goats after her husband rounded them up. She turns her collar up and looks across the Pecos River, the ranch's dividing line.

The toll of taxes, and prospects for the future

Even more of a concern to the hundreds of thousands of family ranchers is the estate tax - which taxes them up to 55 percent of the entire operation when a family member dies. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Denver has been working for more than 20 years on permanently repealing the so-called Death Tax, and this summer the House of Representatives passed legislation that would do just that.

"Families are forced to either reduce the size of their herds or sell part, and in some cases, all, of their land - just to pay the taxes," says Terry Stokes, CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "But [the family] didn't really sell it; they just gave it to their kids who probably helped develop that land."

Today, there are about 800,000 ranchers in the US, with Texas leading the states in number of ranches and total ranch land. Initially, when American colonists began flooding into the state in the 1830s, they were farmers, not ranchers. But they quickly realized that the vast pastureland was ideal for cattle grazing, and changed their methods.

Even though development continues to reach further into rural America, the quantity and quality of the land is still the industry's best resource, says Ron Gustafson, a livestock economist with the USDA in Washington.

And even large ranches understand the importance of changing with the times.

The storied King Ranch, one of the world's largest, has underwritten a new program at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. The King Ranch Institute of Ranch Management, the first of its kind in the nation, is designed to teach future ranch managers not just about agriculture, but also business, science, and consumer and regulatory issues.

But Mrs. Perner says getting young people interested in ranching is one of the hardest challenges these days. Her own son, Paul, got a computer- science degree and is working in a nearby town. He says one day he will return to the ranch, but not yet.

Mrs. Perner often wonders if there will be any ranch for him to return to.

"We're like paupers on our own land," she says, wandering back to the house after feeding the goats. "But we stay here because that's what we've always done. It's in our blood."

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