Home on the Range

Meet Montana ranchers who raise cattle the old-fashioned way

Jeff Phillips

Morning across America: Red taillights stretch endlessly ahead on the freeway, cell phones chirp, Escalades cut off Mini Coopers.

But not here in central Montana, where Rick Jarrett tugs his lariat from the saddle strap and nudges his cow horse, Foxy, to a trot. Jarrett swings the loop easily as he heads down the sage-covered ridge toward a stray. Wearing a work-stained Stetson and a ratty vest patched with duct tape, he looks like he means business; the steer's impressed enough to rejoin the herd.

From here Jarrett can see a good chunk of the state. To the south are the snowcapped Absaroka and Beartooth ranges and the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. To the north, closer and sharp against the clear morning sky, the ragged peaks of the Crazy Mountains. In between, tucked along Duck Creek, is his "office," the Crazy Mountain Cattle Company.

It's a pretty picture, but though Jarrett's a fifth-generation Montana rancher living a 19th-century lifestyle, he has no desire to be a poster boy for the vanishing Old West. If anything, he and a few of his neighbors near Big Timber hope to represent the future of small family ranching.

At the very least, they intend to be your answer to that occasional but irresistible craving for a good steak. In the process, their natural, range-fed beef just might make you ― and the environment ― a little bit healthier.

Jarrett actually does have his own traffic to deal with this morning: 10 riders funneling 350 head of cattle through a basin toward a gap leading down to the ranch. Waving hats and ropes, the riders whoop and holler as they bring the herd together. Cows and calves ― bawling to find each other in the eddies and flows of a bovine river ― jostle and push. The air is thick with dust and the pungent scents of trampled sage, manure, and sweaty hides.

By the time the last animal has been moved to a pasture overlooking the Yellowstone River, the last gate wire is looped over its post, and the last of the dusty, sore crew has unsaddled his horse, a mountain of food is ready back at the ranch house. Around the kitchen table, the talk drifts from the day's adventures ― a horse spooked by a rattlesnake ― to the ongoing drought, the price of beef, and, inevitably, the plight of the family ranch.

While cattle ranching has changed since Jarrett's family settled in Montana in 1862, it ― along with the beef we eat ― has changed most dramatically since 1950. The small Western cattle operation has become dominated by big industrial agribusiness. Jarrett and his neighbors in the town of Big Timber are increasingly rare exceptions in the cattle industry.

"Over the last 10 years, the retail price of beef has increased 50 to 60 percent," Jarrett says, "but the money hasn't trickled down to ranchers; the buyers and packers have all the control."

And they pocket most of the profits. According to the American Meat Institute, approximately 71 percent of all beef sold in the U.S. is processed and marketed at plants owned by four giant meatpacking companies. The big players in the industry control distribution and pricing, and that's slowly strangling the ranchers around Jarrett's kitchen table.

Jarrett's wife and partner, Karen Searle, puts her arm around her 8-year-old granddaughter, Jordan. "The other morning, Jordan was helping us sort some cattle," Searle recalls, "and as we're riding along, she looks up at Rick and says, 'Grandpa, someday I want to buy this ranch from you just like you bought it from your granddad.' "

Everyone chuckles at Jordan's red face, but the laughter rings hollow. All of these cattlemen, whose roots go generations deep in Montana's Sweet Grass County, would like to pass their ranches on to their kids, but not one of them is sure he can make it happen.

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