Those miles and miles of grass that separate Faith from other places make it one of America’s greatest livestock pastures. Sheep were an especially good friend to the rancher, according to Gary Vance of Faith Livestock Commission Company. “Everybody had sheep at one time. Sheep paid for a lot of the ranches. But they’re more work than cattle, and they have more predators.” Also, the federal government ended wool incentive payments in 1996. So coyotes, the enemy of sheepherders, and the bureaucrats teamed up to thin sheep numbers and create more acres for cattle.
“Ranches have gotten bigger through the years,” says Vance, who operates a market run by his family since 1960. “Some ranchers have taken on partners … usually sons, and daughters and sons-in-law. In the last five or six years, we’ve seen some outside money come into the country, but most of what you see is old, established ranches. The biggest ranches have 700 or 800 cows, but our business is founded on the guy who has 50 to 150 cows.”
How dominant is the beef business in northwest South Dakota? Here’s a perspective: there is one grocery store in Faith and three cattle feed stores. The Vance family’s sale barn sells up to 5,000 head of calves at the regular Monday sales during the fall “calf run.” In late October, so many calves are “coming off ”grass that the Vances hold a special three-day sale to accommodate the buyers and sellers.
Ziebach County, just east of Faith, has 2,500 people and 33,000 beef cows on 227 ranches. Perkins County, north of Faith, has 3,300 people and 53,000 cows on 452 ranches. Those census numbers indicate that on average there are less than 150 cows per ranch.
Cattlemen are wondering what the recent spike in corn prices will do to their industry but, as the Lakota understood centuries ago, grazing bovine is the most efficient way to use the shortgrass prairie — whether the bovine be buffalo or Black Angus.
Some farmers and ranchers subsidize their cattle income by hosting hunters. Antelope, deer and pheasant are plentiful, and so is the controversial prairie dog. A rancher who insisted on anonymity told us that his neighbors are crazy for complaining about prairie dogs. “They are a resource, not a nuisance,” he said. “Hunters pay us several hundred dollars a day to hunt them.” The lobby of the Prairie Oasis Motel features color photos of local game, including the prairie dog. Hunters help keep the 30 rooms full in summer and fall.
Horses are a sideline for others. Gerald Trainor breaks horses for a living, as his father did before him. Bewhiskered, in a kerchief and big hat, Trainor looks like a man a horse might obey. But due to his Meade County modesty (or a sly plan to discourage competitors), he claims it’s not much of a business: “If you have an outlet, it’s OK,” he drawls. Trainor trains draft horses to pull wagons. “The good ones are worth a lot of money,” he notes, “and the average ones you can’t give away.”
Can’t picture yourself taming a bucking horse or pulling a calf from a heifer at midnight in the mud? There’s always politics. Faith, for its size, has been a hotspot in the latter half of the 20th century. Thompson, the longtime local pharmacist, was a legislative leader in the 1960s and ran for governor in 1972. Bob Samuelson, a local rancher, served in the legislature and ran for governor in 1990. Dick Butler, a Faith insurance agent, was elected state treasurer in 1992 and gained attention by battling the state’s biggest banks over whether lost credit card payments should be considered unclaimed property (which eventually becomes state property). Ryan Maher, a young Faith banker, now represents northwest South Dakota in the state senate.
The waving sea of grass that surrounds Faith seems as permanent and precious as the fossils it hides. Like a sea, the prairie attracts a special breed of people who appreciate the solitary landscapes and the independent spirit of their neighbors. For some, Faith is just a curious place to visit, while others will dream of it as a way of life. Which are you?