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Oregon ranchers: Politics have become part of industry

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)--There once were just cowboys, cattle and wide open space, rambling across an eastern Oregon landscape too hot for most humans, too dry to grow much other than sagebrush.

Now, Oregon steaks are served in South Korea and ranchers fret over cattle damage to streams.

To hear rancher Ken Holliday tell it, the romance of ranching has long been gone. But the constant roller coaster ride that sapped the thrill is on a downhill run with the recession, leaving ranchers feeling beaten.

"It's never been easy to make a living,'' says Holliday, who runs a 10,000-acre ranch near John Day. "But now, you kind of wonder why you even do it.''

In Oregon's vast cattle country, where life yields to nature's whims and business bucks with the market's whiplash, the global downturn is bearing down. At the start of a food chain that ends on your plate, Oregon ranchers are trying to hang on through a sudden swing that could mean a losing year for an industry that roped $664 million in gross sales last year.

In 2008, ranchers paid record high prices for corn, hay and feed an investment now all but lost as beef competes against falling prices for poultry and pork. People worldwide are buying less meat. Restaurants are ordering fewer steaks. And the hides that make shoes, car seats and furniture aren't worth much in a recession that has curbed consumer lust for material things.

Summer is supposed to be beef's best-selling season. But for many ranchers, the recession heaps pressure on an Old World industry trying to find a place in a new age. Cyclical downturns are the norm in agriculture. But this one exacerbates a fundamental shift unfolding in the beef cattle industry, moving toward tightened regulations, choosier consumers and heightened environmental concerns.

"There are many issues affecting the industry today,'' says Brent Searle, an Oregon Department of Agriculture economist. "Some are environmental and social, some are microbial. There are clear agendas and influences now on how food is produced and distributed.''

So far, Oregon ranchers have adapted while holding tight to traditions. The big hats, big belts and big boots have remained unchanged for generations. Business and life follow the law of the seasons. And the one thing a rancher knows is what goes down must come back up again if he can hang on long enough.

Hope never dies: At the Central Oregon Livestock Auction, auctioneer Trent Stewart stares from under a wide brim, noting a good omen on the way. Rain a sprinkling of gold for pastures across the high desert terrain.

"Well,'' he says. "What are we going to do with all this grass? The gentleman upstairs must be watching out for us.''

Outside Madras on U.S. 97, the livestock auction is a fast-paced cattle-hawking operation in which 35,000 head are swapped annually, totaling up to $20 million in gross sales each year. Ranchers, cattle buyers, feedlot operators, truckers and others congregate weekly to carry out the business transactions for an industry that's among the largest in terms of its economic and environmental impact.

In Oregon and the nation, cattle are among the top agricultural moneymakers, as well as the biggest consumers of corn. Oregon has 605,000 beef cattle in 11,500 operations, mostly in the southern and eastern parts of the state. Raising cattle on pastures consumes about 60 percent of the state's 17 million acres of farmland, according to an Oregon State University Extension Service report.

The heart of the state's beef cattle industry lives in its far-flung reaches. In counties such as Baker and Grant, cattle and calves make up more than half of the gross agricultural sales, and family ranches are a bedrock for rural economies.

In Malheur County, Jordan Valley would be a retirement community of 300 if not for the longtime ranchers and their families, says Jayne Collins, owner of the remaining grocery store, Ranch Hand Hardware.

"This town won't go away, because there's ranching here,'' says Collins, 59.

But in recent years, ranchers have been under the gun of changing social values that could alter their way of life. Many say they'll survive the recession but perhaps not the broader shifts in the industry.

Like logging, ranching has grown controversial and political. Environmental groups worry that cattle herds trample stream banks, causing erosion to salmon habitat. Debates wage over whether cattle should be allowed to graze on public lands, which make up a large portion of the state's pastureland.

"Obviously, grazing has been a primary use of public lands for the last century,'' says Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, which filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over the impact of cattle on public lands along the John Day River. "Now there are competing values for wildlife and recreation. With that, there are social and economic conflicts.''

At the same time, consumers demand more natural beef raised on grass, without hormones or antibiotics. That requires more grazing land. And ranchers must adjust to a globalized marketplace, where currency rates matter and consumers overseas can bolster razor-thin profit margins.

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