@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images RYAN GOODMAN
Ryan Goodman is tracking the extreme drought from his home in Tennessee. He watches closely, the statistics that show eighty percent of the Arkansas’ pastureland scorched beneath the brutal sun, hay prices spiking, and estimates that the fallout of historic drought could be as high as billions of dollars.
His interest is two-fold. As a twenty-three-year-old grad student studying animal science, he’s studying the effects of the worst drought Arkansas has seen in fifty years. And as the son of a Searcy rancher and cattle auctioneer, he has a personal interest in what’s unfolding here.
Ryan is stoic about the current condition. Ice storms, floods, drought. The rancher’s life is hinged with weather. But this summer has been extraordinary. No rain, sweltering heat, no rain, the cycle like a song set on repeat. And then NOAA released word that in July the U.S. broke a heat record that hadn’t been surpassed the Dust Bowl summer of 1936.
The weather is driving many of the ranchers who come to his father’s Arkansas Cattle Auction in Searcy to sell their stock. Two to three times as many cows have gone to market as in a typical summer, and when they sell mature cows this year, they’ll have fewer calves next year. The dilemma drew the attention of CBS News. They came to see the weathered ranchers pulling up in big trucks, their trailers filled with cattle they wouldn’t otherwise be selling. The stories stung. A rancher whose wife was too brokenhearted to attend, another rancher from Oklahoma who was buying this year because his own herd was hit by the crippling drought last year, a cattleman worried because his stock pond is all but gone. It’s hard for Ryan’s father, who is friends with many in the crowd. He knows this year will mark the last for some of them, and many of those dropping out will be the older cattlemen. In a state where there are 49,300 farms and 1.7 million head of cattle, it’s bound to have an impact.
When Ryan talks about his father, he grows nostalgic. He learned at his father’s feet, trailing him in the pastures early after school, driving a tractor to check cows when he was ten. His father is a self-made man; he doesn’t come from a long line of cattle owners, but when he landed a job managing a 3,500 acre ranch in Searcy, raising Angus cattle, he knew he was where he was supposed to be.
“I love the lifestyle, working with the land,” Ryan says. “The animals depend on us for everything. Growing up, my holidays were spent taking care of cattle. I was the oldest of five, and on Christmas, we’d either get up early and open gifts or we’d be up at the break of dawn feeding cattle, so we could get to the grandparents’ house to eat dinner.
“I learned life lessons like leadership and responsibility. I realized, going through college, that there are people out there who don’t have the appreciation for work and responsibility that I had the blessing to learn, growing up on a farm. Less than two percent of the country is directly involved with farming or ranching. I think we’ve become spoiled. We can go up to Walmart and buy our food, and we don’t really know where it comes from. I think we’ve lost our connection with the farmers and ranchers, and we don’t understand the hard work that it takes to get that food to your table. If I could do one thing, it would be to encourage people to go out and meet their farmers, to talk to them when you go out to fall festivals or farmers markets. Get to know what they do, ask for a tour of a farm. Start making that connection.”
Ryan has spent his whole life making the connection. While attending Oklahoma State University, he spent summers at places like the Texas feed yards, where he helped bring food to 60,000 head of cattle. It took a million pounds of feed to get the job done each day, which came from the feed mill on site.
He also worked at a ranch in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, a place he still loves. While he was there, he started to blog, sharing his experiences with friends and family and city folks who were fascinated to follow a young cowboy on his great adventure.
When he’s finished with his graduate degree at the University of Tennessee, Ryan plans to work in several parts of the country, learning different farming techniques. But he’ll probably end up back home in Arkansas one day. His roots run deep. And he likes working with his father. He calls his life blessed.
Watching the effects of the drought has been hard. He knows the weather is forcing many good people out. “More of our land is being sold to those wanting to build houses, so land competition is high. Ranchers, particularly the smaller farmers with fewer resources, facing this drought may give up and sell everything for urban development. That could take a big toll on the numbers of cows we have.”
Even so, Ryan isn’t pessimistic. “We’ll continue to have cattle,” he says. “It’s too big a part of our economy not to.”
So he looks ahead. “If the spring rains come,” he says, “and the grass grows green, things will pick up.” And then he turns the story back to his father, a man he says devotes his life to helping the cattlemen around him. “My dad will work really hard to help the ranchers buy back cattle to rebuild their stock. He is always giving back, offering ranchers advice on feed, just supporting those around him.”
It’s all you can do at times like these. Hope for the best. Next year could be better. The rains could fall and the fields overflow with hay. It’s a rancher’s right to imagine it. Let’s just hope he’s right.
You can follow Ryan on his blog, agricultureproud.com.