CROSS PLAINS, Texas—Sheila Payne Blackburn always believed that cowgirls were a special breed who never quit when things got tough.
Now, she knows even the sturdiest of them have their limits.
When her father died of COVID-19 in early 2021, Blackburn found herself alone to continue the farm and ranch that had been in her family for 150 years.
The business she inherited was $250,000 in debt, with aging machinery in need of costly repairs.
The cowgirl in her told her to press on for her family’s sake.
“I was raised never to back down, never give up, get back in the saddle, cowgirls don’t cry, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, hang tough, and every other cowboy expression you can think of,” Blackburn said in a letter she posted on Facebook.
“I have watched my great grandparents, grandparents, and my parents die young. Their bodies run down and weak, their minds overwhelmed with stress, and their bank accounts empty. They gave everything they had for our way of life.”
Blackburn concedes that she’s emotionally exhausted.
She doesn’t want to sell her children’s legacy to a real estate developer or solar farm company. But today, at 53, her pride and spirit are broken, her strength and passion are gone.
Her money is gone. And soon, her cherished way of life may also be gone, barring some miracle.
“People have come back and said to sell the farm and walk away,” Blackburn told The Epoch Times.
“What they don’t realize is it’s a whole different heart for us. The land is a piece of you. It’s a piece of your heritage. It’s what God told us to do—to take care of the land and the animals.
“If I walk away and sell everything, every day I pass this [land], I’ll see it split up and sold to other people in the city who have good jobs and can afford it.”
Blackburn looked out at her drought-stricken property through her picture window, and the tears began to flow.
After all, cowgirls are only human.
“What did [my parents] work for—wind turbines? I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I could do it. Sorry.”
Blackburn believes her father did everything he could to make the farm work by “putting up everything he had.” But there were forces beyond his control—inflation driving up the cost of everything: fuel, engine oil, fertilizer, hay, and feed to manage a 2,000-acre farm with 100 head of cattle.
The crippling drought came after her father’s death.
“Diesel prices are outrageous,” Blackburn said. “Anywhere you try to repair your equipment, it’s going to take you forever to get [parts]—or it’s triple the price now.
“My tractor’s broken down. My shredder fell apart. I can’t fix it. A used tractor that’s about 15 years old is going to cost $120,000. I can’t afford it. Then, the drought came. I had two places run out of water. I had to sell 40 head of momma cows.”
Blackburn said she can expect to receive $800 or $900 per head of cattle if she decides to sell her ranch and move on.
However, if she chooses not to sell, she would need thousands to purchase feed, vaccines, and fertilizer to plant wheat—her only cash crop. It costs about $700 to produce one acre of wheat at today’s prices—more than double last season.
While her son offered to work on the ranch to help ease her burden, Blackburn can’t afford to pay him. She feels relief that her father isn’t around to see her struggle, and now has set her hopes on a small side business selling packaged beef in Cross Plains.
“Today, I am tired of the heat, the wind, the drought,” Blackburn said in her letter. “Today I know it is only me, and no one will probably take over [the ranch]. Today I wonder what I’m fighting for. Today I am weak. Today I think I am through.”
Other small ranch owners in Cross Plains, a rural agricultural town of 982 residents near Abilene in Callahan County, aren’t faring much better during the state’s worst drought in more than a decade.
Kyle Foster has been raising cattle on a 5,000-acre family ranch in Cross Plains since he was a boy. His grandfather’s burial plot is just across the hill on rolling amber grassland as far as the eye can see.
His parents and their parents taught him early on that prosperity comes to those who keep their faith and work hard. And for many years, it did, rain or dry spell.
But this time, it’s different.
This time, standing in the middle of a dying hay field in 90-plus degree heat, Foster knows the killer drought of 2022 could destroy everything he worked for all these years.
“It’s extremely tough right now. We’ve been through lots of droughts before, but this one is unprecedented. You always get little showers off and on. But we haven’t had any showers to speak of at all. That’s the difference with this one.”
“Before, you got a couple of inches of rain a month. You just haven’t had anything—zero rain,” Foster told The Epoch Times.
The grasshoppers infesting his hay fields compound his problems as they swarm in front of him while he walks through the dry, brittle grass.
“They just fly up like crazy and eat up the dry grass, whatever is left [to feed] the cows,” he said. “When it gets dry, grasshoppers thrive on any food source left.”
Foster said if the drought doesn’t finish off his hay fields, the grasshoppers will if he doesn’t keep spraying insecticide.
All that’s left to feed his cattle are the still edible patches of grass and rolled hay bales stored up just in case.
“Dad always taught us that in the cattle business, you keep a two-year supply,” Foster said.
He says the key to survival in the cattle business is to diversify.
While agriculture is an option, it’s becoming less so as the wheat fields on his property wither from thirst. His small oil operation yields about a barrel a day to provide supplemental income.
“This is your livelihood. You walk around the cattle every day. You see them, raise them from babies, now you’ve got to sell them because of the drought. They’re like family—they are your family.”
“We’ll continue to cull down [cattle] until we run out of hay. With the beef, we can sell out and buy back [cattle]. You want to survive and not have to buy back.”
He said that the financial stress in his line of work can be as devastating as any drought, so it’s best to roll with it.
“I’m 50 years old. Mental stress can eat you alive. There’s a high suicide rate [among ranchers]—especially in the dairy business where I came from,” Foster said.
“I know three that took their lives. You go into debt so much that the stress will eat you alive.”
Many ranchers have been forced to sell their cattle on the open market or risk losing everything in the continuing drought.
Emory Livestock Auction, a cattle sale barn located 60 miles east of Dallas, reported on its website on July 9 that 527 sellers had sold 3,495 cattle—up substantially compared to previous months in 2021.
On Aug. 6, nearly 400 sellers sold 2,201 head of cattle.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 92 percent of the state of Texas remains in a drought. Thirty percent of the state is in extreme drought, and 10 percent is in exceptional drought, including Callahan County.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) notes that only 14 percent of the United States experienced severe to extreme drought between 1895 and 2010.
While the Dust Bowl of the 1930s stands out as the most significant drought event of the past century, regional droughts have plagued several parts of the United States since 2000.
The NIDIS said that by 2012, the regional droughts had combined into a “national-scale event” not seen in decades.
Two-thirds of the lower 48 states were in drought by September 2012.
“Many began to speculate that it was as severe as the drought episodes of the 1930s and 1950s.”
Foster has seen some of his water tanks (watering holes) go completely dry in the current drought. Though fortunate to have a well-water backup system, other local ranchers “don’t have that luxury. It makes it tough for them.”
“They’ll last through a drought, but not this one. The problem is you can survive a drought most of the time. Then you throw in the high fuel prices and the issue of trying to get parts. The labor force in farming isn’t there anymore. It’s not an easy job,” he said.
At Jean’s Feedbarn restaurant in Cross Plains, cattle ranchers Brent Key, Ricky Carouth, and Michael Franke were having breakfast together and talking politics.
“I don’t have anything right now. I sold them all. No rain. No grass. No water,” said Carouth, who liquidated 171 head of cattle because of drought and inflation.
Next to driving a truck hauling rock, “ranching was my second job,” Carouth told The Epoch Times.
“Same with everything else; it’s all downhill.”
With 200 cows and calves in his operation, Franke said he’s concerned about the money and time invested in the business.
“I’m the fourth generation on the same land. We wanted to retire here and run cattle. My kids want to do it. But I’m not sure it’s going to be a viable opportunity” because of inflation and a bad economy, Franke told The Epoch Times.
“If the small farmer goes away, everything becomes industrialized and commercialized.
“Corporations and big farms take over. Food prices become more concerning because the small farmer is gone.”
Reason To Hope
Still, Franke feels optimistic that the market will eventually rebound.
“If you can hold onto your cows, I think the market will strengthen. It comes back to supply and demand. But it will take a lot of money to hold onto what we have.
“You’re buying hay, you’re buying feed, and if it doesn’t rain and you run out of water, you can’t run enough water to the cows to hold onto them.”
“There’s not a lot of [profit] in a cow and calf operation. With fuel going up and with feed going up, there’s not much margin in it.”
George Taff of Cross Plains is another small ranch owner with 95 head of cattle facing a difficult decision: whether to sell or hold on.
“Right now, it’s the lack of rainfall. The rain just quit and stayed that way,” Taff, 67, said. “When it’s super-hot out here, I don’t even work the cattle.
“Feed is dramatically up. The cost of hay has risen dramatically. Last year, I could get it delivered at $60 to $65 a roll,” he told The Epoch Times.
“This year, it’s $165 to $170 a roll. I’ve seen some go for around $200, so it’s tripled. It’s not available here. A lot of your grass hays are coming from Louisiana and Mississippi. The transportation cost is a killer. I’m working on last year’s hay right now.”
Without rain, his oat crops and rye grass have died. Money, time, and effort gone to waste.
“Everything I’ve planted has pretty much died,” he said. “If I don’t find some hay pretty fast, I’m going to be forced to sell [cattle] because I can’t feed them.”
‘Our Ponds Are Going Dry’
In Canton, Texas, population 4,229, about 218 miles east of Cross Plains, Police Chief Brad Allison runs a small cattle ranch with a dozen heifer cows.
He sold 60 cows last year after he saw the “writing on the wall.”
“That’s what they’re doing—[small ranchers] are selling out. I saw the writing on the wall late last year. I knew something was coming because we were due a drought.
“I sold 60 momma cows. I [normally] run about 60 heads in three pastures. I thought you know what? The price is fair right now. Then, I bought a dozen heifers. That’s all I’m running right now.”
Allison said the challenges for the small rancher in Canton are the same as in other drought-ravaged parts of Texas.
“We haven’t had rain in a month and a half. Our ponds are going dry. There’s no grass. You’ve got hay gougers asking $120 or $140 a roll when it’s [usually] $40 a roll.”
Allison expressed his frustration with the price of hay in a recent Facebook post. He lamented that 10,000 head of cattle had been sold in three counties in three weeks as small cattle ranches were “drowning.”
“The cattlemen don’t have a chance. We are getting priced out of existence. Pray for your ranchers to be able to hang in there.”
Allison believes that if the small cattle rancher goes under, there won’t be enough full-time ranchers to meet the demand for beef.
At the same time, the slaughterhouses are making considerable profits in the current buyer’s market, he said.
“It’ll rebound—it always does—some people will be cut out,” Allison told The Epoch Times.
“People are getting out now who won’t get back in it. Some of these people that own cattle are going to lease out.
“The only people making any money are the slaughterhouses. We’re not the ones making money. We’re spending it.”
As small ranchers leave the business in larger numbers, other industries are moving in to fill the vacuum, he said.
“What’s buying up our land right now are solar companies, making solar farms. Acres and acres and acres of them,” Allison said.
Foster views his business through the lens of his Christian faith and the traditional values instilled in him growing up. He doubts he’ll ever sell his property, no matter what happens.
Raising cattle is in his family’s blood and soul.
“The biggest blessing I’ve got out here since I’ve worked on a farm is my Dad taught me a work ethic that his Dad taught him,” Foster said. “Whether we survive on the farm or not, I’m not worried about it. There are more important things than the farm, cattle, and legacy.”
Foster said what matters to him most is what comes after this life.
To lose one’s livelihood will hurt only for a short time. “But eternity is an eternity.”