MARFA, Texas (CN) — Long before the tiny West Texas town of Marfa was reborn as an international arts destination, largely thanks to the arrival of a high-profile New York artist in the 1970s, this rugged, mountainous corner of the state was cattle country through and through.
It was in fact nearly a century before Donald Judd began turning an old army fort into a minimalist art mecca that ranchers launched their own transformative project here, filling the high-desert landscape with thousands of cattle and spawning an almost mythic western culture that has persisted for generations.
That history was famously memorialized in the classic 1950s western “Giant,” shot at a local ranch.
“What Texas once was, Marfa still is,” Texas Monthly later declared in a 1977 profile of the town and its colorful cast of close-knit ranching families.
Though Marfa’s economy these days arguably depends more on high art-minded Airbnb dwellers than the price of cattle, the ranchers are still here. But their storied industry, like so many others, has now found itself suddenly in the crosshairs of the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants across the U.S. have disrupted beef supply chains and sent cattle prices plummeting in recent months.
“It’s not good times,” David Williams, manager of the local MacGuire Ranch, said in an interview. “It’s just depressing some days, you don’t even want to get out of bed and go do anything.”
So far, this part of Texas has been mostly spared from the virus itself. Only a couple local cases of Covid-19 have been identified, though testing has been limited.
Still, some worry the pandemic’s financial toll on ranchers could wind up rivaling the impacts of a devastating drought from almost a decade ago, the state’s worst on record. “Abnormally dry” conditions have already started to develop here, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“My gut’s telling me it’s going to be worse than the 2011 stuff,” Williams said. “If we don’t get rain, it’s just going to devastate everybody in this area.”
The problems from the pandemic are rooted in basic supply-chain economics: as some of the nation’s largest meatpacking plants were forced to slow or altogether stop their operations in recent weeks, the number of cattle being slaughtered fell dramatically.
Weekly cattle slaughter numbers in the U.S. fell by about 250,000 from late March to the end of April before rebounding this month to about half of where they were before the drop, according to data from the Livestock Marketing Information Center.
“There’s plenty of cattle here, there’s plenty available, it’s just that it’s getting slaughtered at a much, much slower level,” said Katelyn McCullock, the center’s director.
The resulting bottleneck of cattle in the production pipeline made the animals worth much less than they would have been without the disruptions, a harsh reality for ranchers who have had to sell cattle in this environment and for those who will now have to spend more on feed and other logistics while they hold onto their animals and wait for prices to improve.
“Unfortunately, they’re just not valuable, because there’s nowhere to process them,” said Tyler Lyda Gates, a rancher who runs cattle on the sprawling La Escalera Ranch, partly located south of Fort Stockton, Texas. The Lydas are among the nation’s top 100 largest landowning families, according to the Land Report magazine.
“That’s what’s happening with the pork as well, they’re too big,” Gates said.
A similar glut of hogs in the pork industry has forced some producers to cull their numbers by whatever means possible, sometimes gassing them or simply shooting them.