The Rancher's Backstop?
On the other side of a dirt track in the hill country of Guanajuato, Antonio, a local rancher is helping to build a stone wall. He also manages the house where we stay, so I’ve got to know him quite well. He speaks no English, and my Spanish is a work in progress, but I know most of the phrases relevant to grass and cattle. I’ve ranched for a good part of my life, though somewhat differently than Antonio. For him, outside employment is a necessity if his family is to survive. Their forty acres, most of it tilled with a team of horses and a single bottom plow provides enough food to survive, with only a little left over to market in the nearby city. They have no machinery, so when they plant the maiz, (corn) frijoles, (beans) and calabaza, (squash), it is all done by hand. The offspring from their few head of sheep and goats are kept to feed their growing family. Two of Antonio’s brothers and one sister live in the family compound and are part of the farm operation. During the growing season, every person is needed. Corn, the staple crop is harvested in October. After twenty days of backbreaking work with a machete, the cobs are transported to dry storage to later be stripped and ground for tortilla meal. The stalks are then stored for supplemental feed for the livestock.
The family owns eight horses, a necessary part of the operation. All are used to plow the ground, gather the livestock, and haul the maiz to the family compound where they store it. Last week was a good week. It rained. We shivered. They rejoiced. In this high desert climate, weeks, or even months can pass with no moisture.
With a wife and five children, Antonio’s brother has the largest living quarters in the compound. Two of his boys are in their teens. Last week, one of the boys was kicked in the stomach by a horse, with possible internal damage. The family does qualify for social security which pays hospital costs, but they felt their son wasn’t getting the care he needed so they took him to a private hospital. The family scraped together the twenty-thousand peso charge, but for the foreseeable future, life will be hard.
Another brother spends five months each year on a Louisiana based fishing boat. He’s crossed the border ten times, traveling through the desert with the same guide. On the border, the guides that spirit illegals across the border are called Coyotes, and though it pays well, it’s often dangerous work. Antonio has crossed five times. He tells me the trip takes eight days. Once, they ran out of food and he got very hungry before the Coyote finally dropped them in Dallas. With a Coyote (guide), he said, the trip costs ten-thousand American dollars because the Coyote must split with the drug cartel that controls that section of the border. The last few times, Antonio and his brother have crossed alone, cutting out the extra seven thousand they must pay to the Coyote. However, they still have to pay the cartel that controls that section of the border. I asked him if he would go again. He nodded. “Yes, of course. The family needs money.”
While sipping the popular Coka drink in the family compound, I asked Antonio if they would buy more land. He says they would like to, but the burgeoning population of ex-pat Americans have driven the price of land to fifteen-hundred dollars an acre, more than the family could ever afford.
“What about the new president of Mexico?” I ask. With his goofy business policy, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has already driven much investment out of the country. “He’s good,” Antonio says in Spanish. “There are no problems.” Beyond that, he wouldn’t elaborate. He was less non-committal about the President of the United States, Donald Trump. He wagged a finger. Anger clouded his eyes. “He is a big problem. He has made it very hard for us.”
I nodded, trying to understand. Most of what the farm produces does not add to their income. The livestock and a good portion of the corn, squash, and beans must be used to feed their growing family. Compared to Canada, their agricultural input costs are non-existent, but Mexico’s increasing rate of inflation, and the sinking value of the peso against the American dollar has made what they do have to buy much more expensive.
With no tractor or other machinery, the work is hard. The government is perennially corrupt, and the current federal administration appears to have found an even higher level of incompetence. There is no federal program in Mexico to assist farmers suffering from any of the crop disasters that so often define the industry, which means Antonio’s family is always one crop failure away from grinding poverty—or starvation.
For generations, Antonio’s people have been able to slip across the border and work for American dollars. With the Trump administration’s tighter border security, that option is endangered. But after the initial anger, Antonio shrugs. It doesn’t matter if there’s a wall. We will find a way.
Nobody knows the exact number of Mexicans who make the trek across the desert to work in the fields, orchards, and factories to the north, but for Antonio and many thousands of others, that option is their lifeline.
I trudge back to the house where we stay as I mull our own ranching state of affairs. Our dependence on America is not unlike Mexico’s. If Antonio can’t cross the border to work, his family is up the creek. If America shuts the border to Canadian cattle, we’re up the creek. We both depend heavily—on the great American Backstop.