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Hard Times, Strong Citizens, And Freedom: The Story of The Ranchers, Businesses, And People In The Only State Not To Shut Down

Terrence herds a calf. Martin Avila.

The story below is the fifth in a series on America’s small businesses, their struggles under the shutdowns and threats of rioting, and what they’re doing to survive. Over two weeks, The Federalist traveled the country to tell stories like this one.

In South Dakota, the only state in the union to never enforce a government-mandated shutdown, we spoke with cowboys, ranchers, steakhouse owners, hotel managers, great grandparents, actors, bartenders, and even the governor to learn the state of American business. We heard of their successes and perils, those who hadn’t made it and those who still might not.

SOUTH DAKOTA — It’s a long, beautiful haul, driving across Wyoming. Pulling out of Jackson Hole, along the storied Snake River, past Grand Teton Mountain and up into the north. It’s nearly 60 degrees in the town below, but up here the snow is falling fast.

Blizzard in the Tetons. Martin Avila.

Then it’s back down the mountains into the high desert. Towns of less than 50 residents dot the hills below distant snow-capped peaks. The first sign we’ve entered the Wind River Reservation is a black-haired woman stumbling barefoot from a bathroom outside a gas station, eyes wide, red bandanna tourniquet still tied around her sagging bicep. That and the low price on tobacco.

America’s reservations, already suffering from heightened rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, abuse and poverty, have been especially hard hit in the economic shutdown.

Along the sides of Route 26, oil derricks heave up and down like slow-marching hammers. These isolated outposts reach for miles, leading in and out of towns built for and dedicated to the industry. A high school and its impressive football field are the only stone-and-brick buildings in sight.

Just outside Casper, three young cowboys drop a few empty beer cans in the gas station trash before loading back into a rigged-up camper cranking Johnny Cash for everyone in ear shot. One boarded-up building promises travelers the last good meal they’ll find for a hundred miles, and then its north, past a sign warning of toxic orange clouds after mine blasts. Hard work in gorgeous country.

The hills, mesas and salt beds of central Wyoming. Martin Avila.

The sun has set when we cross the border to South Dakota, climbing up into the Black Hills and back down into the forests. Cliffs hug the road’s left, while to the right a thin line of pines, strong barricades and impenetrable dark warn night-time travelers of the steep plunge just beyond.

Crazy Horse is lit up through the darkness, his unfinished monument carved into the rock face. Down the winding state highway and past the little town, the walls of the K Bar S Lodge are decorated with pictures from Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s encampment. It was here his men discovered the gold riches of the Black Hills, giving American history the gift of Deadwood and with it, the end of Wild Bill Hickok. Custer would meet his own end just a few hundred miles further into the West.

It’s quiet now, even during the day, though as apocalyptic worries subside and summer calls, things are picking up. After a voluntary closure by the local hotels, they’re open again, though tourism is far from normal levels. It’s late May, before millions of Americans crowded into streets to protest everything from police brutality to the president, but already outside the big cities and coasts, much of the country has shed its fear of the virus. The open road is calling — and our beloved kids are driving us all insane.

“You’re just missing it,” Jeff Kingsbury tells me when we stop in tiny downtown Keystone for coffee the morning of the 21st. Jeff spends most summers acting at the nearby Black Hills Playhouse, traveling from his home in Washington where he once headed a theater company. With the playhouse deciding to close for the first time in 75 years due to coronavirus, he took up a friend’s offer to come work at his coffee and fudge shop.

Holy Terror Brand Coffee less than three miles downhill from Mt. Rushmore. Martin Avila.

Holy Terror Coffee cuts a presence in a row of t-shirt, sub, and souvenir shops housed in the strip mall’s Western false-front facade. It’s named for the area gold mine, once among the country’s richest and itself named by its founder to honor his lovely wife.

“This town will be packed by Memorial Day,” Jeff tells me in between carving fresh fudge and teaching a young lady how to craft a customer’s latte.

True enough, the K Bar S Lodge had plenty of rooms when we’d pulled in, but were booked solid for the weekend. “For a while there, we were 50 percent occupied,” Kyle Olson, the general manager, tells me when I call back in early June to check in. “We’re about 70 percent of normal now.”

If anything’s been good this year, it’s the rain. It’s three hours east through the forests and hills of the Badlands, then up through lush, green prairie to the Missouri River and the capital of South Dakota. Chosen when it was just nine years old and beating out more established cities with its central location, Pierre had the misfortune of being one of four capitals bypassed by President Eisenhower’s national highway project. With a permanent population of less than 15,000, the city’s largest employer is the state government, followed by the hospital. Small business make up much of the rest, including ranching, agriculture, hunting, tourism, and restaurants and bars. Among their owners, employees and customers, the governor is a hero.

“I am so grateful that I am in in South Dakota and not in California,” the heavily tattooed woman behind the bar shares proudly, “because all the bars in California, they’re still locked down. The regulations are just absolutely ridiculous. [Gov.] Kristi Noem, … she came through and she left everything open to everybody — she didn’t put us on mandatory lockdown. And then, of course we’re, what? The first state to go test for hydroxychloroquine and make it so anybody can get it here?”

Bob’s Lounge’s neon, shamrock sign advertises “Where Your Friends Are.” The unadorned brick building with darkened windows and a simple green awning would fit in fine in Roslindale, Massachusetts before the yuppies moved in. You could film from the inside, too, and skip Boston’s movie taxes. The owner is one Dave Kelly, from the well-known Kelly family. His cousin is the bartender’s landlord.

Bob's Lounge in Pierre, S.D. Martin Avila.

Erin Hildabrand, 35, is a transplant from San Francisco celebrating her first year in town this August. She tended bar there, before Kate Steinle’s 2015 murder in a “sanctuary city” by a five-times-deported illegal immigrant. The moral and legal acrobatics authorities went through to let him go were enough for her, and so she left. “I love it here,” she beams. “I absolutely love it here.”

We’re the first men to walk in that Thursday afternoon. The three customers all know Erin and each other, as you’ll find in most good local bars, but they’re all ladies too — a wild rarity in my 15 years of tavern tourism.

The early evening crowd at the neighborhood bar. Martin Avila.

The lounge decided to shut down for two months, after the president asked Americans to distance and business dried up. It wasn’t easy, but they made it. “I did unemployment for three weeks,” Erin says, “and then we got the [Paycheck Protection Program] loan, which we’re almost through now but luckily we opened up. This will be our third week open.”

“It was the first time in my life,” she adds, near disbelief. “I’ll be 36 next month; I’ve never filed for unemployment. I am glad to be back at work, I’d rather work for my money. And I feel like I make more when I work than I do sitting around waiting for a check, so I was very glad when we reopened.”

Erin Hildabrand moved from San Francisco to Pierre a year ago August. Martin Avila.

While some regulars, especially the elderly, remain cautious and have been slow to return, the weekends are filling up with young people, and a few old-timers still make it every day. While I’m exploring the town, George grabbed a seat across the bar. He’s in his 90s, part of what the bartenders call “the 4 p.m. Crew,” and was happy to get back to his daily routine. Earlier that month, he hadn’t been able to find his keys so had called the bar to let them know he wouldn’t be in and not to worry. “He found them later and he came in,” she says, smiling. “He was trying to teach somebody to jitterbug earlier today.”

The South Dakota Capitol is just five blocks up the hill. At 96 feet high, the century-old Neoclassical building commands the skyline, its walls and Corinthian columns supporting a central rotunda and mighty copper dome. Inside, a metal detector, bag scanner and pair of officers greet visitors, who are then free to roam the halls admiring the artwork, sculpture and children-centered history displays.

“Are you doing the social distancing thing?” Gov. Kristi Noem asks me, before crossing the second-floor meeting room for a hug. We’d met on a fishing trip 10 months ago, when the economy was booming, a global epidemic was hypothetical — and before journalists from New York to Washington to Pierre had attacked the 48-year-old former congresswoman and mother of three as a wild-eyed murderer, digging up perhaps the only unflattering photograph of her in existence, for refusing to use state power to order citizens to stay inside and shutter business.

“Oh it was awful,” she laughs, thinking back on The Washington Post’s propaganda.

We’re not wearing masks. Barely any one in South Dakota is wearing a mask. Reporters with an activist agenda were quick to accuse those governors who did not clamp down on their citizens’ rights as soon as New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio realized their hive city was infected. Since then, every governor in the country has caved save Noem. Pierre residents had thrown her a surprise thank-you parade of construction vehicles, fire trucks and automobiles less than a month before, and speaking with the residents, the seemingly cheesy, movie-like moment becomes very real. In town, the people sang her praises, lifting their glasses around the bar in an afternoon salute at Bob’s.

The South Dakota Capitol Building. Samir Luther/Flickr.

Reporters were quick to glom onto an outbreak at a Sioux Falls meat packing plant, gloating over their proof that the governor’s refusal to issue a stay-at-home was a death sentence. That the plant would have been deemed essential in any state didn’t get in the way of the story, and while the shocking 800+ infections were blared across national news, the total who lost their lives — two — did not meet their standards for a follow-up. Indeed, by the first week of June, there have just over 60 deaths total attributed to coronavirus in South Dakota.

“In a crisis situation,” Noem reflects, “where you have the potential to really lose sight of what makes this country great, and if you have a leader that will take too much authority in a time of crisis, that’s when we lose our freedom and our liberties, and this was something that I approached as needing to constantly be teachable every day, to take in information.”

“There was a conversation we had around the table with my team one day, where my health secretary said, ‘Do you want to feel good, guv, or do you want to do good?’ And I said, ‘We want to do good.’ Every day we want to do good; we don’t want to take any actions that just make us feel good. And so having a team around me that constantly was willing to have tough conversations and then ultimately said, ‘You decide,’ I think helped us stay grounded in those principles that make us special.”

There was a real downturn in business and social activity, though unlike in a many other states, the responsibility was taken by the citizenry instead of the government.

“As soon as the president said, ‘We all need you to stay home for 15 days,’ people in South Dakota did,” she says. “We didn’t tell them they had to. We didn’t close any businesses. But people here just said, ‘Our president’s asking us to stay home — we’re going to stay at home.’ And so we still saw a decline of people out and about doing things. Personal responsibility.”

“I think what happened [elsewhere] is that leaders didn’t trust their people.”

Mary Lou has been making the excellent French Onion soup since her daughter first opened Mad Mary’s Steakhouse just over 20 years ago. She used to work in government, but is retired now.

An antique, upright honky tonk piano, stacked with empty bottles of liquor greets guests in the lobby, guarded by a John Wayne stand-up and a rack of jean jackets. On the right, old Merle, Mickey Gilley and Patsy Cline vinyl, cowboy boots, guitars and rodeo pictures frame a Budweiser saloon mirror. To the left, lies Mary’s. Dark red, plastic table cloths, a row of booths, and walls of liquor, antlers, rifles, old cowboy gear and vintage advertisements are lit dimly by hanging chandeliers and ceiling fans. A scuffed wooden floor leads to a six-seat bar where a Coca-Cola machine keeps the beer cold.

The lobby of the steakhouse. Martin Avila.

This is Mary Etzkorn’s steakhouse — not to be confused with her since-passed ex-husband’s steakhouse, The Cattleman’s Club, on the other side of town.

“We were together eight years, and then we get a divorce,” Mary, 53, tells me. “And a couple years later I wanted to start my own steakhouse downtown, leased everything — I didn’t have any money to finance — and used my credit cards and got it going.”

“And my sister came in,” she laughs, remembering, “and she said, ‘You’ve got to name it Mad Mary’s because everybody’s going to know you’re mad at him.'”

The character doesn’t end with Mary and the walls. Waiters and waitresses who’ve been there eight, 15, 18 years whirl about, taking orders with the brisk, no-nonsense style of a late-night highway diner. And there’s sure as hell no dress code, with men’s garb ranging from trucker caps and sleeveless shirts to collars and pressed slacks.

Truckers, young families and the odd business traveler alike come through the doors. The governor, too, just like about every South Dakota governor before her. In fact, she recommended it to us. Erin and the bar crowd at Bob’s pitched in, warning us to not miss the tin taters.

Ashlee opens up Mad Mary's in downtown Pierre. Martin Avila.

As they watched state after state shut down businesses, Mary and her daughter Ashlee Shmulsky continued working, nervously waiting for their turn — but it never came. At least not from the government.

“Everybody was scared and a lot of restaurants started closing left and right,” Ashlee, 33, says Friday morning, long before their doors will reopen for guests. “And my mom thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to have to close too, and we had no business in here — everyone was staying home. The first week was completely dead, and then we started getting all the to-go orders.”

“The fear people had for a couple of weeks,” Mary reflects. “I didn’t go to a grocery store, I watched the news and got freaked out and thought everyone else in the country is closing down so we have to, and then I was like, ‘No, we do not until someone comes in and forces us to close the doors.'”

Mary keeps a small staff of about 15, but had to let some in the kitchen and nearly all of the tip-reliant employees go so they could receive the bolstered unemployment benefits. She and Ashlee worked nearly every night through the slowdown to keep their doors open, waiting on Dakotans to return. “Right away we had to lay off a lot of people,” Ashlee says. “We laid off two people from the kitchen. And a lot of the servers didn’t have anyone coming in, so they weren’t making any money. … One of our servers has six kids at home, so he was better off getting unemployment. But we’ve brought him back now and he’s on full time again.”

Remaining the only spot open had its advantages with customer loyalty. “I got so many ‘Thanks for being opens,’ especially from truckers,” Ashlee recalls. “They’d come in when everything else was closed. I had one particular guy that would come in every week because he came through town every week, and he said, ‘You know, you’re the only place that I can come in and sit down. I don’t want to go sit in my hotel and eat with a plastic fork out of a Styrofoam container.'”

Mary Lou and Ashlee at Mad Mary's. Martin Avila.

“You can come in in a tuxedo or you can come right out of the field,” Mary adds, “and everybody feels comfortable. We have guys from a [livestock] sale barn come over –”

“–With cow poop shoes,” Ashlee chimes in.

“And yeah,” Mary laughs. “They smell like money, my husband taught me. That’s the balance.”

After Black Lives Matter riots erupted in Sioux Falls three and a half hours east, fear spread through the already hurting business community. The governor deployed the National Guard and owners armed themselves.

“We stayed open and I went home and got my gun,” Ashlee texted me Monday. “Our husbands came with their guns along with their friends, so we had quite the crew of armed good guys having a good time in our steakhouse and protecting our business, even though nothing happened. Every other place closed because rumors spread like wildfire that rioters were coming, so we were really busy that night!”

Even aside from the anger and discontent gripping the nation, business has not yet returned to normal. Social distancing is in effect, and a number of restaurants around town have had to close their doors for good. “We’re here, we’re established, and our building is paid off,” Ashlee tells me, “so we can afford to have lower numbers.”

“But the ones that paid rent? She’s closed forever,” she adds, pointing her thumb over her shoulder toward a neighboring building. She’d heard of another popular spot across the river that was so overwhelmed with people refusing to follow rules and getting rowdy that it closed again after its first night of reopening.

And with national shortages and meat prices soaring, restaurants across the country are faced with the choice of passing the costs onto already tepid customers or taking the hit themselves. “Our prices have skyrocketed,” Ashlee says, “and then for my stepdad, who takes his cows to town, his prices have completely plummeted where it’s not profitable or even sustainable to take his cows to town right now — he can’t get any money for them.”

Mary Lou at her daughter's bar. Martin Avila.

“My mom was saying she might have to put market price on her menus because it’s changing so much. We’ll have to counteract with alcohol sales to keep our profits going, because we’re not making any money off the meat anymore. For a steakhouse, it’s crazy, and then having both sides of it in our family. We’re both getting hit really hard with the meat industry right now.”

“When COVID first started and everybody was scared and people weren’t even coming in, they were practically giving meat away for $3 a pound or so,” Mary echoes in her kitchen that afternoon. “And if I would have known I would have bought a bunch of freezers, because now, for example, he was out of sirloin this last truck. He couldn’t even get it. He did find some ribeye for me and it was $13 a pound. Normally it’s $8. And he said it’s going get worse, it’s going to get higher and harder to find, which is bad because now everybody’s starting to open up again and now we can’t get product.”

The luxuries afforded during good times, like earth-friendly, biodegradable boxes, were a quick casualty of rising prices and plummeting profits. “We had just gone to biodegradable to-go boxes — we’re trying to be a little Earth friendlier — but those were so expensive and then all of a sudden it’s all take-out,” Mary says. “And to go back is $20 a case, and the biodegradable was $120 a case. I was going to eat that cost to go green, but not during this thing.”

“Hopefully people just start drinking more. It’s a social act: People don’t want to sit at home and drink alone.”

The dining room at Mad Mary's. Martin Avila.

Good thing I’d ordered another round of shaken gin martinis and a glass of red wine the night before, having already surrendered any pretenses of appearing local after the governor corrected my pronunciation of Pierre twice.

Thirty minutes east down the Missouri River, Ashlee’s stepdad — Mary’s husband — has been working since six in the morning. Allen Etzkorn, 62, comes from a family line of ranchers and rodeo cowboys, more than a few generations of which today joined Allen, a blue healer named Jasper, and some hired cowboys to herd his 200 cattle out of the fields and into pens for branding, inoculations, fly-repellent and castration. It’s just about the busiest day of the year, and it’s hard work not for the fainthearted.

Allen runs a calving operation, meaning he manages the births and then raises the young cows, caring for and bandaging injuries, keeping them safe from Dakota’s murderous winters, and protecting them from disease.

The Etzkorn home and ranch. Martin Avila.

“Bucky’s in the barn, that’s the one we’re bottle feeding,” Mary says. “He was a twin and the mom only took one. It seems like every year we have one or two that have to be bottle-fed, and that’s me unless I’m in town.”

“And I name them every year, and then I’ve had to learn not to get too close because they go to town! I’m like, ‘Where’s Bucky?'”

When the calves are big enough, Allen sells them to the men and women who will fatten them up on feedlots. And then from there, they’ll go to the processors, and then to the public.

“When you start calving these cows out it’ll be March,” Mary tells me while we watch the cattle now being shepherded into separate pens. “And it’ll be blizzarding and horrible and you’ll go out in the pasture on a horse and hopefully you’ll find a cow that’s calving and bring her in and get her in the barn. But if you don’t, and she calves out in a blizzard, the calf dies and you know you’re screwed. So it’s just, it’s a hard life, but it’s the life that they love, and that’s all they’ve ever known, a lot of them.”

“He only gets paid once a year. He gets pretty edgy around that time, making sure everything goes good and all.”

It's a long, hard day. Martin Avila.

This year will likely be the hardest. With the coronavirus jolting American consumption habits from food service to their homes, processing plants closed by disease, supply-line disruptions and consumer hoarding, the factories have backed up and farmers and ranchers across the country have been forced to euthanize livestock by the millions. While consumers and struggling restaurants are forced to pay high prices, the glut of animals has led to plummeting rancher profits — and allegations of price fixing by the meat packers.

“Of all the industry, the cattleman is on the bottom and he works the hardest — he does the hardest job.” Mary tells me, watching her family and friends canter by in the mud. “I’m on the way better end of the deal at the steakhouse.”

Terrence and Scott, as 200 calves wait their turn. Martin Avila.

“My brother-in-law runs 15,000 heads of cattle, it’s a feedlot is what they do, “Kathie Bartlett, 62, tells me. “They get to a certain point, and they take the cow to the packer. And he lost a million dollars in one day, just because when they’re ready to go, they’re ready to go — you’ve got to take them to the packers. I mean, the meatpacking plants just upped the price [to the consumer] so they give [us] nothing, but when they go to sell the meat, they make a lot.”

Her husband Scott is riding by now. He grew up with Allen, under the watchful eye of his riding partner, Allen’s father Terrence. At 84, Terrence reckons he’s been doing this since he was just four years old.

Of his and his wife's six children, five still live locally. Martin Avila.

“Allen’s mom and dad live right down the road here, and he’s got two brothers over there,” Mary says, pointing them out in the pen and manning the gates. “His dad’s got a lot of land, Terrence, and Terrence’s dad is the one that I think came over and started the whole thing –Allen’s great grandfather.”

“Here’s the man you need to talk to,” she interrupts herself.

“Welcome to America!” Allen calls out, smiling as he walks over, wiping the manure and dust from his hands.

“We’re giving the cows their breeding shots and pouring their backs for worms and ticks,” he tells me of today’s once-a-year operation. “And the calves, we’re giving them their seven-way shots for pneumonia and disease, and we’ll castrate the bull calves.”

“They were out in the pasture up ’till six this morning. We brought them up,” he says, looking over his 200 heads. “I’m not a real big ranch — I’m small compared to a lot of them in South Dakota.”

Allen Etzkorn, 62, runs the ranch. Kathie Bartlett's husband grew up with him. Martin Avila.

Rock-bottom prices are hitting small and large cattlemen alike, though it’s the smaller operations that lack the means to absorb so much as a year at these levels.

“The markets are terrible,” Allen says, shaking his head. “My deal is I don’t put up any feed, so I can’t feed my calves in the fall. I ween them off a cow, and then I have to sell them off because I don’t have any corn around in the fall so I can’t afford to feed them. We’re at the mercy of the feeders and packers: whatever they want to give to me that day, I’ve got to take. I’m hoping [prices rebound] so we can liquidate and jump back in, but it’s one day at time.”

“When I sell my calves in the fall, I’ll maybe get $1.30 a pound for them. Packers are buying the fat cattle [from the feedlots] for $1 a pound, and then they’re selling meat for I-don’t-know-what a pound. It’s quite a [price] gap there, between when cattle get killed and when they get to a restaurant.”

Allen and his lifelong friend Scott Bartlett take a short break before the next phase. Martin Avila.

“Back in the ’80s when the interest was high it was pretty tough,” he admits, “but I’ve never seen it this bad. … If the bank tells you no and you got to pay you’ve got to sell something, ain’t no getting around that,” he continues. “We’re just hoping it comes back. We’re trying to tighten our belts all we can.”

“And there’s lots of jobs for me starting out raising these calves to the packer, I mean we’re supporting a lot of people with this cattle deal. And if everybody starts losing money, people are going to go work at Walmart if they can; find a job. It takes a long time to build up a herd, you know — years and years of breeding, getting a lot of stuff, then it starts all over again. I can’t go selling my cows for $600 and then go buy another cow for $2,000 later on — that don’t pencil out. It’s been kind of rocky for a while and this deal, it’s going to weed some of [the ranchers] out.”

Allen Etzkorn explains the day's work. Martin Avila.

“It’s tough,” he says as he heads back to work. “You just persevere.”

Around the other side of the pens where the calves and their irate mothers have been separated, the matriarchs of the family are setting out their lawn chairs. A few ice cold beers and waters greet the men on a short break before they get started on the hard, one-calf-at-a-time job they brought them in from pasture for.

“I grew up here around the river,” Terrence tells me. “I’ve been through a lot of deals, but this is kind of a tough deal. But it’ll probably straighten out, I’m guessing — they generally do. You better hope so, anyway.”

Interviews after the morning herding. Martin Avila.

He and his wife Rita have been married 65 years, he tells me. They raised three boys and three girls. This life is what his father gave him, it’s what he gave his children, and it’s hopefully what they’ll give theirs.

“That’s my grandson,” he says, pointing as one young man walks by. “He’s been born and raised in it. That’s another one of my grandsons. That’s my wife over there in the checkered jacket.”

Mary Lou and Rita watch the day's work. Martin Avila.

“Thank God that somebody’s paying attention to what’s going on,” Terrence comments on our trip. “That’s good.”

“I’m not a very good P.R. man,” he chuckles, “but when you got that many people that are out there that need help, and you can’t give it to them when they need it…” he fades off.

“They’re trying. Hopefully it will straighten out.”

“I’ve got six children, Terry and I do,” Rita says, “and they all live around here but one, she lives in Omaha. She works with the Corps of Engineers, but the rest of them all live right around here.”

“And I’ve got a lot of grandkids,” she beams.

Mary and a nephew walk on the farm. Martin Avila.

John Bergeson, who’s also with the Army Corps of Engineers, up the road on the Oahe Dam, is one of them. He’d been showing Allen’s son, his cousin Spence, which gear to put the golf cart in before joining us.

“Before this coronavirus it was this way,” John, 34, tells me. “It’s been this way for the last two or three years. Now coronavirus, I understand that it’s a problem for the packers because their staff is getting sick and there’s not much you can do about that but be careful, but when before the coronavirus the meat packers were making record profits the last two or three years?”

Branding a calf. Christopher Bedford.

“We’re the producer and then you’re the consumer, and there’s somebody in the middle and that’s usually packers. And they,” he observes, “seem to be doing pretty good. I think the persons that get hurt the most are at the beginning, the producer, and at the end, the consumer. Those are the people who get affected — the middle man seems to always get his in the end.”

Politicians from the U.S. Senate to state attorneys general have taken an interest. In late March, packer margins were over $600 a head, and lawsuits alleging price fixing have begun.

“I understand they’ve got to make a living,” John says. “There’s costs to safe production… but when they’re slaughtering 15,000 critters a day, I don’t think they need to make that much.”

The administration is exploring bringing back “Made in America” for U.S. meats — a label the World Trade Organization banned in 2014 after Mexican and Canadian ranchers complained our consumers preferred meat from our own ranchers. The proud label would make a joyfully welcomed return here in South Dakota.

Terrence hasn't seen prices hit this bad. Martin Avila.

“It’s all a cycle,” John shares hopefully. “Two years before [prices sank] it was really good.”

“And tell Trump I’m going to vote for him,” Rita pipes up. “He’s a man who will stand up for us, I think. He can see whenever there’s something wrong, he gets in there and fixes it right away.”

Mary is fairly new to this life. She and Allen had dated in the ’90s, she tells me back at the house, “but then we lost each other.”

They were finally married on July 3 four years ago. “I’m a town girl,” she laughs. “A cow’s a big animal to be throwing around. I tried to help one year and decided I’m just going to be like the Pioneer Woman and stay in the house and cook.”

She and Ashlee are preparing food for 20 cowboys as we sit down for lunch before getting on the road. Mary Lou is resting before it gets crazy inside. Hot dogs, homemade chili, slaw, beans and macaroni and cheese. And of course fruit. “Take some fruit to-go please because the cowboys are not going to eat that,” she remembers from the last few years. “They drink plenty of beer, but they don’t touch that.”

Chili, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, slaw and beans greet the men when they're done. Martin Avila.

From here, Ashlee will have to go open the restaurant for Friday night’s dinner crowd and we’ll be on the road toward Kansas City. The weather is warm this May day, but blizzards as late as April are a danger in these parts.

“Last year in the middle of March we had a terrible blizzard,” Mary recalls, “and then one month later in the middle of April, we had the same thing. The whole town got shut down for three days.”

It's a fourth-generation business. Martin Avila.

“He lost two calves between the two blizzards. We were very lucky.”

“That thing out there is a calf shelter,” she tells me, pointing out the window to a low structure with a metal roof. “So he had a bunch of calf shelters so the calves crawl in there, but then he has to go out and make sure that they don’t get buried in there. And the mamas, they get behind the windbreaks and they hang out there and just shiver the whole time because those blizzards, it was like, 30, 40 below wind chill. So how they survive, I have no idea”

Jasper follows Allen through a bullpen. Martin Avila.

“I’ll be like, ‘Tie a rope to the house!’ she laughs of her husband heading out into the drifts. “You can’t see the barn from here!”

“This isn’t an easy life,” Kathie told me earlier, as we’d watched the end of the round-up. “It’s a fun life, but it’s a hard life.”