Last Round-Ups: The Decline and Fall of the Texas Family Rancher

With corporations (and dilettante millionaires) taking over cattleraising, the family-owned ranch may soon ride into the sunset

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While most people his age are kicking back on retirement, Alvin Parrish, 70, still gets up for work just as the sun peeks over the horizon in Archer City, Texas. He climbs into his pearly white Chevy pickup and pulls away from the ivy-covered ranch house built by his father in 1925. He turns off Parrish Ranch Road, clouds of rust-colored dust billowing in his wake, as he rumbles across back roads to check on his herds of cattle – at least what remains.

Parrish is part of a disappearing breed of Texas ranchers, those bullheaded few who refuse to give in to the bevy of obstacles that have driven away countless other family ranchers. Many say they’re last real ones of their kind, and that’s serious nomenclature in a state that never grows weary of waxing nostalgic about the good ole’ days. In an industry increasingly overrun by part-timers – a CPA who likes to work cows on the weekend or oil barons who invest in vast land holdings, for example – Parrish has become an endangered species. He’s an independent owner whose sole income comes from the herd he tends full time. About half of the state’s cattle still come from ranches like Parrish’s, but 10 years ago the number of absentee owners exceeded those who lived on the operation, according to Travis Miller, a livestock specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

Ranchers like Parrish say those numbers are turning more lopsided in a hurry. Due to the increasing economic burden caused by inflated prices for land, feed and water, not to mention extended bouts of extreme weather, small operations are unable to turn a profit. As a result, younger generations are less willing to take the reins, and family ranches are being sold off.

(MORE: How to Save the Grasslands: Bring in More Cattle)

Parrish’s family traveled on wagon from Illinois and settled in Archer City in 1897. In the best of times, 25 ranch hands set up camp around their home and ran 1,500 head of cattle. “My dad never worked away from this land a day in his life,” says Parrish, who is down to less than 200 animals today.

Recent health problems have plagued him so that he’s required help from his grandson, but when it comes time to retire he’s unsure if his family will continue the work. “I don’t know if I’m really proud of that,” he says.

Scraggly work gloves are strewn across the dusty dash of his pickup, a lariat in the side door, surplus Stetsons tossed in the back. Parrish is plump, sports sagging Wranglers and a permanent tan line where his hat rests atop his bald head. He cuts across a field, zigzagging in and out of ubiquitous mesquite trees, and dozens of cows converge around his truck, moaning and grumbling as they lumber along. He triggers the automatic feeder rigged on the truck bed and alfalfa cubes drop to the desiccated landscape. “They usually talk me into giving ‘em too much food when I do pull in here,” he says of the cattle.

Ranchers typically feed cubes during the leanest of winter months, but for the past few years Parrish has been forced to pull the trigger much more frequently. “What grass we do have is dry as a bone,” he says.

It’s one of many costs that have put him in the red. Last year he spent $44,000 digging new tanks in hopes of harnessing what little rain may fall, but they’re already depleted. Daily costs add up quickly, and there’s the never-ending battle with mesquite, whose colossal taproots sap the soil’s moisture and starve the grasses needed to maintain healthy cattle. “You’re derned if you do, derned if you don’t,” Parrish says. “It’s gonna take major dollars to control these things, I guess as long as the country lasts. Everything you do is another expense and less income. That’s not the most pleasant thing to wake up to everyday.”

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The McMurtry ranch is a few miles from here, the boyhood home of author Larry McMurtry and inspiration for his Pulitzer Prize-winner, Lonesome Dove. McMurtry grumbled that his novel was used to further mythologize life on the parched hinterlands of cowboy country. He knew from experience that the John Wayne fairy tale is exactly that, and he meant to serve up a dose of reality about the hardscrabble existence of life on the prairie.

Parrish knows the lesson well. He ticks off a list of the great 20th century Texas droughts with ease. “There was 1911 to 1912, 1917 to 1918, the 30s. It got really bad in the 1950s…”

After the recent record-breaking drought, in which Texas suffered $3.23 billion in cattle losses, Parrish was one of the few lucky enough to retain part of his herd. “In the 2011 drought we lost between 600 to 700 thousand mama cows out of a population of 5 million, so we lost a big chunk of our herd right there,” says Miller of the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension. “We went into 2011, before the drought started, with very low cattle numbers. We came out with much lower cattle numbers and we didn’t restock.”

Many ranchers wary of re-buying haven’t been encouraged by recent weather. After a promising spring, much of the state is once again experiencing severe drought. “You drive through parts of South Texas and West Texas and you just don’t see cows like you once did,” Miller says.

(MORE: Feeding the Planet Without Destroying It)

Of course, lamenting the demise of ranching has been a hobby of sentimental Texans since cattle drives ceased in the mid-1880s and barbed wire sealed off the open range. Cattle won’t vanish from the Texas plains anytime soon, but seasoned ranchers like Parrish say the herds that remain will inevitably change hands. Large landowners will buy up more land and ranches will become increasingly centralized, much like cotton or corn. “The writing is on the wall,” Parrish says. “We just haven’t read it yet.”

Drought and debt aren’t the only reasons that family ranches are collapsing, according to legendary Archer City horse trader Jackie Lane. Headstrong old-timers are still willing to endure it all because they’re “landed” – born to the land and bound to it for life. Youngsters never experienced the same attachment.

Lane stands outside the home of her old friend and retired rancher, Dorothy Davis, who still holds the deed to her family’s land, though it has long been devoid of cattle. Davis studies the night sky, as if searching for answers. “I was lookin’ up the other night and I was cursin’ God,” she proclaims. “I said, ‘God, I know I’ve said some bad things about you.’”

“Well, you didn’t mean that,” Lane reassures her.

“Well yes I did,” Davis says. “He’s a piss-poor irrigator. I mean it, a piss-poor irrigator. But he made a beautiful night sky. It’s brilliant.”

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