WOSTER: For some West River ranchers, this could be the one that does it
It’s the first weekend in November, a full month after the blizzard that shut down roads, knocked down power lines and attempted to crush the hopes and holdings of livestock producers across a wide swath of South Dakota’s West River rangeland.
I’m told that some of the pastures and fields out west are finally drying out enough to allow regular farm and ranch machines to move through without getting stuck in every piece of gumbo and lakebed between the Nebraska and North Dakota borders. The enormity of the storm’s passing becomes clearer with each passing day. The rain and sleet, ice and snow and howling, relentless wind hit too early and too hard for even the people who muscle a living out of the beautiful, harsh western prairies to get through without losses.
I spent more than 40 years as a newspaper reporter. For much of that time, I traveled the country west of the Missouri River. That didn’t make me a resident, but it allowed me to see farms and ranches up close in all seasons and conditions, and it afforded me the privilege of hearing the stories of the men and women and children who live and work on the land. With rare exception, they are salt-of-the-earth folks whose stories are the stories of South Dakota itself.
I grew up in Lyman County, on a grain-and-cattle farm. The distances and some of the agricultural practices aren’t quite the same in my home country as they are in the butte-and-shortgrass land farther west. Still, the people, the livestock, the love of the land and the weather patterns are familiar, whether you stand on soil in the shadow of the eastern slope of the Black Hills or atop the western bluffs of the Missouri River. I understand what a crop, whether it’s a field of ripening wheat or a herd of cattle, means, both emotionally and financially to the operator or producer who raised that crop.
I no longer report the news, so I wasn’t out in the pastures and fields and ranch kitchens of western South Dakota in the days following the latest blizzard. My little brother recently became a television reporter stationed in Rapid City, though, and he has been on the scene of this disaster. Partly because our father died while my little brother was younger, he didn’t work our farm as much as I did. But he has a highly developed appreciation and respect for the land and the people on it.
Recently, he took some terribly sad and difficult-to-watch video of a rancher named Monte Williams as he operated a tractor and bucket to lift and move dead cattle. I’ve known Monte and his family for a long while. They trace some of their roots back to a farm in the Pukwana area.
The Williams family out west is kind of what I think God probably had in mind when he decided to create ranch folks. They’re just folks, like their neighbors and friends. They’re stubborn and tough, unshakeable and caring. They have that perpetual squint at the corner of their eyes that country folks seem to get from lifetimes of watching their pastures parch in a dry spell, their crops collapse in the fury of a hail storm or their cattle go to the sale barn in a down market. There’s a resigned, wry humor in that look, and sometimes it seems to me, that resigned humor is all that carries them through the losses of a thing like last month’s blizzard.
Make no mistake. Some quite probably will not make it through. For all the times they’ve endured, this could be the one that does it. It makes me sad to even write that, but I fear it’s true.
What causes me to continue writing this is a certainty that while a few fall, the rest will survive. They will struggle through — somehow. They’ll find a way to get financing again, to buy cattle again, to feed again, to brand again and to watch the markets and the weather again. They’ll find a way to hope again.
The rest of us, those of us not on the land, should find a way to thank them.