I was re-reading an old classic just the other day, on one of those
in-between winter days when youre lucky to be feeding grass hay,
and you know its warm enough not to have to worry about calves.
The book was that great old tome with a daunting title, The Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Gibbons. Not exactly your everyday
tack-and-gear catalog reading, but you can ride over its landscape
at a pretty fair lope, once you get moving.
The thing that really got to me about what happened with the Roman
Empire is that such a mighty, vast empire could, in fact, decline
and fall. What makes this classic a page-turner is that it asks
one of the fundamental carrot-on-a-stick questions of all time:
Why do great civilizations fall? What happens from within a
seemingly unassailable empire that suddenly causes the ultimate
decline of a culture powered by great armies, philosophers, and
imperial rulers? Its clear that great civilizations dont crumple
from outside pressure until something becomes weak in the infrastructure
of the whole.
A ranch is a pretty good microcosm of what happens in any system.
Ranches usually fail when you cant feed the animals any more.
Feeding is the whole story, whether youre feeding protein you
produce, or feeding protein someone else produces. A rancher had
better make sure the supply lines are not too far out on the periphery,
which makes it too expensive to get the feed to the livestock.
If a rancher is a farmer too, and he grows his own feed, hed
better make sure the supply is protected and guaranteedsomething
that is virtually impossible to pull off year after year.
Allan Savory, holistic thinker and philospher/student of the rangeland
once said, Civilizations fail when their agriculture fails.
This includes a nations policy toward agriculture, too. In the
case of the Roman Empire, thats exactly what happened. As the
Roman Empire grew, the focus of its elite citizens became sophisticated.
It became more important to build a great city with beautiful
buildings and public forums, than it was to have great farms and
ranches. As time went by, the Romans forgot about, even ignored
the rubes of the country, and even the gentleman farmers were
pushed out to the fringes of the empire. The supply lines were
more and more controlled by those who were dependent on slaves
and bondsmen who were not a part of the political process, and
even their masters were regarded as rough men who had no place
in the senate, where the hands of the rulers were not the rough
hands of toil and herding.
Just when they were feeling that the empire was all of the known
world, the Roman civilization went into a sharp decline. The barbarians
who were kept at the fringes on the outland farms, swept down
on the armies of the Roman Empire and won, because they had the
real control of the food supply, or easier access to the destruction
of it. Roman senators who were once proud of their agricultural
wealth, and admired for it by the citizens, lost interest in the
business of feeding and clothing people. They were more interested
in becoming immortalized by patronizing a great public building
or festival than they were in perfecting the abundance of the
food supply, or the quality of the other products yielded up by
Today in America we are doing the same thing. We are more interested
in information than the food supply. We take it for granted that
good food will be in abundance forever, because somebody out there
somewhere will grow it for us. The rancher and the farmer are
ignored, get little press, except when a tornado rips through
Kansas, a cold snap kills a large number of livestock, or a drought
or flood wipes out a large swath of agricultural wealth. Rising
prices and disasters are always big news. The rest of the time
there is no interest in the rubes, way out there on the frontier,
in those boring little country towns. We have more fun with virtual
reality than reality, because we think we control it. That beef
jerky we munch while we are locked on to the internet actually
comes from cattle raised by somebody, but who knows or cares who
When was the last time you heard a president talk about agricultural
policy in a State of the Union address? Presidential primary candidates
rarely talk about farm policy, even in agricultural states. After
all, they are hitting the big cities in those states anyway, where
most urban dwellers have lost touch with anything but digital
reality. And they dont visit agricultural states very often anymore,
anyway. After all, its usually flat and boring out there on the
How can the vital issue of the source and health of our food supply
be ignored? Simple. We can always get it from some other place,
right? Beef from South America, Mexico, and Canadaplaces where
we can export our real environmental problems, so we dont have
to look at them. As long as theyre cutting down someone elses
rain forest, politicians can brag to their constituents that were
preserving our own.
So on we go, buying beef from other nations, while we make television
specials about that most romantic of a vanishing breed, The Noble
but Lonesome American Cowboy, and the rancher who employs him.
While we slowly strangle those who grow a quality food supply
in this nation, we reward the ranchers of other nations, no matter
what methods they used to grow the beef. We make it easy for consumers
to buy what they offer cheaper through free trade agreements
(how about equitable trade agreements?), then we demonize our
ranchers for taking up all that beautiful land out there.
We want easily accessed playgrounds next door to our resorts,
not ranches and farms, where theres open space you cant reach.
The government closes the roads to the ranchers, pushes them farther
out on the fringe or even out of society completely, so that we
can have three times as much traffic on non-motorized vehicles.
Our government thinks its better to get that six-person ranching
family operation off the ground, so that thousands can hike and
pedal over it without having to encounter a messy horseapple or
cowchip; unless its a buffalo chipwhich, of course, is a politically
correct by-product of a noble beast!
Downtowns are coming back. Dot-commers are moving into lofts in
the inner-city. Mayors are cleaning up the trash and trashy peoplethe
hungry and homeless pests who make a row of stores with upscale
fashions so unappealing. Nature is a store in a mall with cute
posters of wolf cubs and pandas. Planet Hollywood and The Hard
Rock Cafe are never far behind. Wealth is being thrown at better
and better arts districts, industrial parks, and upstart Silicon
Somewhere out there, beyond the city gates where Caesar cant
hear them, the barbarians sing their quaint folk songs and dance
their folk dances. If they are good, they might even form a troupe
and present a charming but antiseptic version of their folk culture,
at the new arts center. But the citizens dont have to deal with
them all of the time. Most of the real folk culture is beyond
our frontiers, over the border, but hopefully, controlled by the
distant legions we sent out there. But, hey, maybe those legions
are getting a little expensive. Maybe its time to downsize and
create a little better net profit. What are those uneducated,
unsophisticated barbarians going to do to us anyway?
Maybe its time to ask the spirits of the emperors of the past.
After all, they claimed to have a democracy, too.
Michael Martin Murphey raises pure-breds and crosses from Texas
Longhorn and Corriente cattle and American quarter horses for
M.M.Murpheys Rocking 3M Ranching Co. He is a performer of cowboy
songs and other original music. He is originator of the Westfest
(a festival celebrating the American West culture), owner of Westfest/
Valley Records of Santa Fe, founder of The Murphey Western Insitute
for American West Cultural Studies, The Murphey Public Trail Fund,
and The Murphey Library of the American West. He serves as an
adjunct professor at Utah State University and The University
of New Mexico-Taos. His websites are <www.MichaelMartinMurphey.com>, <www.Westfest.net>, and the soon-to-be launched web portal for the American West,