THOMAS COUNTY, Neb. - —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 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.