ACTION Cowboys drive a herd of weaned Hereford calves toward Whit Ranch during the winter of 1933. PHOTO BY CHARLES BELDEN

One Wyoming ranch’s fight to keep operations on the market

BY EMILY REED

Outside the office windows of the Pitchfork Ranch, black cattle meander across the Wyoming prairie under the shadows of the Absaroka Mountain range. While it’s a picture of wide-open space, the famous ranch isn’t quite what it used to be. Inside the office, ranch managers Ben and Lindsey Anson pull black and white photos off the walls that tell the stories of the Pitchfork’s early days.

Ben taps the glass on the picture frame. “When these photos were taken,” he says, “the Pitchfork used to encompass seven ranches extending across the base of the Absaroka Mountains for 250,000 acres. At that time, the ranch supported over 10,000 Hereford cattle and 20,000 Rambouillet sheep.” He takes a long pause. “The Pitchfork is smaller now. It’s about 100,000 acres and supports about 1,100 angus cattle.”

The photos on the wall were taken in the early 1920s by photographer and former Pitchfork Ranch owner, Charles Belden. With his medium-format camera in one hand and horse reins in the other, Belden made the Pitchfork and the ranching lifestyle famous, publishing photos in popular magazines such as National Geographic and newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, New York and beyond.

Belden’s collection is a rich historical record of the ranching tradition, drawing attention to the romantic yet harsh reality of day-to-day life in the West. Both the photos and the stories behind them reveal that history has a way of repeating itself in ways that Belden might never have imagined.

LEFT: The entrance to the famed Pitchfork Ranch. PHOTO BY DELLA FREDERICKSON. RIGHT: A cowboy riding a pale horse ropes a calf out of the Hereford herd for branding, circa 1930s. The Absaroka Range looms in the background. PHOTO BY CHARLES BELDEN

“You can recreate almost every photo Belden took on the Pitchfork today,” Lindsey says. “Very little has changed over time in regard to how we work and brand the cattle.”

Today, the Pitchfork is owned by the Baker Family. Ben and Lindsey Anson manage it. While the harsh weather and rugged landscapes of Wyoming can make ranching difficult, the couple says the biggest challenge has been the market structure.

The beef market is controlled by four meatpacking companies: Cargill, JBS, Tyson Foods and Marfrig Global Foods, often referred to as “the big four.” By controlling nearly 85 percent of the market, these companies set prices for all other cattle producers as well as consumers. The first few years the Ansons managed the Pitchfork, prices were set so low that the family ranch struggled to even turn a profit.

Belden’s black-and-white shots from the early 1900s reveal that Ben and Lindsey’s modern-day battle with Big Beef isn’t anything new. His photos show cowboys trailing Pitchfork cattle to Cody and loading them into railcars. Those cattle were shipped to a terminal stockyard—most likely in Denver—where they were sold to the five meatpackers that dominated the market at the time.

Spurred by Federal Trade Commission reports citing corporate monopoly alongside newspaper articles about unsafe working conditions at the five largest plants, Congress sent the Packers and Stockyards Act to President Warren G. Harding’s desk in 1921. By dispersing control of the beef market through merger regulations, the legislation addressed the issues in the 1900s; but over time several Supreme Court cases weakened its enforcement, allowing a few large companies to once again dominate the market.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch and desperate to make a profit, Ben and Lindsey took a risk and converted some of their herd into a direct-to-consumer beef program in early 2020. By deciding to sell a portion of their meat themselves instead of through the big four, they reclaimed the power to set their own prices.

Transitioning to a direct-to-consumer program came with its own set of challenges. The Ansons rattle off a long list, ranging from installing cold storage to finding a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified butcher and producing marketing materials. Then, right before they were about to launch their new beef program, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, giving the Pitchfork a window of opportunity.

“When we started meeting with our first customers, they were mostly buying from us because they were concerned about not being able to buy beef at the grocery store,” Lindsey says. “They were looking to local ranchers for food, not because it was a new hot trend but because they literally could not get it from a store.”

In the wake of the pandemic, the Pitchfork’s direct-to-consumer program has continued to thrive. The Ansons attribute much of their success not only to their high-quality beef but to their social media marketing. After nearly 80 years, photography is once again putting the Pitchfork on the map, only this time it’s on Instagram.

LEFT: A Pitchfork ranch hand heels a calf during a branding. PHOTO BY EMILY REED RIGHT: Ben Anson pushes cattle to an upper pasture on the Pitchfork Ranch. PHOTO BY EMILY REED

Change will only come if people show up, and that really starts at the local level.

“You can recreate almost every photo Belden took on the Pitchfork today,” Lindsey says. “Very little has changed over time in regard to how we work and brand the cattle.”

Ben adds that he’s only noted a few subtle differences. “You can see in the photos that the range health during Belden’s time was not nearly as good, and as a result of that he was feeding hay to his cows and sheep all through the winter,” he says. “We also are using our horse trailer to get from the barn to the pastures, which cuts down on our need for ranch hands and makes everything a lot quicker.”

Even though the Pitchfork’s hybrid approach of commercial and direct-to-consumer sales is allowing them to make more money than before, the couple is still concerned about what the future may hold for the ag industry so long as the monopolized market stays intact. In the past year, the big four have increased the price of meat by nearly 14 percent, according to an April 2022 report by the Department of Agriculture. Ranchers, on the other hand, receive just 37 cents for each dollar spent on beef, a historic low, reads a report from the Open Markets Institute.

Similar to what happened in the early 1900s during Belden’s time, recent economic reports and media surrounding the beef market have sparked the Biden administration to take action. In December of 2021, the USDA announced it will allocate $1 billion from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act to reduce the consolidation of meatpackers and increase competition in the livestock industry. The department also said it will work on three proposed rules to tighten enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act that will provide producers with more leverage and the ability to sue for unfair competitive practices by meatpackers.

Still, ranchers like Ben and Lindsey are concerned that the federal money and regulations will take too long to implement, and history will again repeat itself—but this time there will be more landmass lost. Between 2001 and 2016, more than 11 million acres of farmland and ranchland were converted to residential land use, according to the American Farmland Trust: Farms Under Threat report.

“These meatpackers are pricing family farms and ranches out of it,” Ben says. “They have already figured out who’s left and they’re going to have these huge corporate ranches and if those ranches are not bought up by the packers, they’re going to be bought by developers and turned into houses.”

The Ansons believe the answer to breaking this cycle won’t be found in federal policy, but rather in shifting consumer behaviors.

“Change will only come if people show up, and that really starts at the local level,” Ben says. He explains that if consumers want beef that’s raised sustainably and also affordable, they need to start buying product directly from ranchers instead of going to the grocery store and buying it from the packers. But it can’t stop there. Ben suggests that consumers should also be thinking about the land required to sustain the food we need.

“If you want to eat good beef, you also need to show up at local planning and zoning meetings, commissioner meetings, etcetera,” he says. These local decisions about subdivisions and zoning codes have massive impacts on food availability. In short, if you want to buy beef from a local rancher in 10 years, you need to ensure that your community leaders aren’t paving over the pastures needed to produce it.

In the Pitchfork office, Ben and Lindsey hang Belden’s photographs back on the wall. The images are not only a relic of the past and what’s been lost but are also a reminder that the story of the Pitchfork Ranch is not over, and it’s one worth fighting for.

CALL TO ACTION

Building a local food system in your community starts with you, the consumer. You have the power to demand locally sourced products to support your local ranchers and farmers while advocating for sustainable land-use planning. Encourage your community to work together to establish the infrastructure needed to support that local system, from land zoning codes to your dinner plate.

Cover image for the Summer 2022 Issue of Mountain Outlaw