The life of country people, the Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry has observed, is marked by a surprising complexity. To be successful it requires deep knowledge of the land, of the seasons in their time, of plants and animals—to say nothing of markets, freight costs, and federal regulations. Plant early, and risk late frost; plant late, and risk summer flooding. Calve early, and risk the high mortality rate winter brings; calve late, and risk the infectious diseases the warm air carries. Make the wrong guesses and face foreclosure, battle the elements and hope for the best: each day brings a new challenge to the farmer, the rancher, the orchard keeper.

For the country people who populate Sam Bingham’s The Last Ranch, the complexities are constant, even in the quiet times. “The learning,” he writes, “all seems so simple in the middle of winter. You get good stock. Train a sheepdog. Lay off the coyotes. Lay the hay in this new way. Your land improves. Your margin improves. A few new techniques and you gain a stride or two. . . . You learn to beat the system. But of course, this is only February, agricultural dreamtime, when everything seems possible, predictable, and even mechanical. Inevitably the season will turn.” Turn it will, to summers of beleaguered herds, unpredictable rains, the occasional twister, and always the vagaries of the beef market; one complicated matter unfolding into another.

Bingham’s ranchers dwell in the high desert off the Gun Sight Road in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, gypsum and snow country. Theirs is not good land. The soil in the northern section of the valley is coarse, sandy, hostile to cultivation; heavily ranched since the 1840’s, it is now all but denuded of native vegetation. “The rich mix of grass species that had flourished in Saguache County at the turn of the century had changed,” Bingham writes. “Artesian wells that once shot 20 feet in the air now required pumping. Chico brush grew where old-timers once grew hay, and here and there bare alkali ground outcropped as hard as cement.” The southern section of the valley is no better, but there industrialized agriculture has made a stand against the ever encroaching desert; the area is the site of one of the world’s heaviest concentrations of center-pivot sprinklers, irrigating thousands of quarter-mile circles of potatoes, carrots, lettuce, alfalfa, and malting barley, pumping fossilized water millions of years old to bring profit for yet another season.

But overgrazing and exotic agriculture have ruined the land; land that is marginal to begin with, and that will not easily recover from the hard use humans have put it to. In Bingham’s account the condition of the San Luis Valley is scarcely different from that of drought-stricken Africa. The African drylands, now a theater of famine, make news where ours do not because, he suggests, American media coverage of purely agricultural issues is so poor and because other sources of income—the occasional oil royalties, light industry, various kinds of federal welfare, and always the beckoning cities just over the horizon—keep the people of San Luis from starving.

“Ecologically speaking,” Bingham writes, “the semi-arid region along the Rio Grande in the United States has come strongly to resemble the Sahel, in spite of a small rural population, relatively little livestock, private ownership, and no end of education, technology, and capital.” No place in Chad or Niger, he continues, is much more barren than the Rio Puerco Valley west of Albuquerque, which a century ago was covered in grass so high that a mounted rider could not see over it. “In significant ways,” he continues, “rural Colorado has more in common with rural Burkina Faso than with Denver, which in turn shares more with Ouagadougou than with the principal town of Saguache County.”

The problem is not the San Luis Valley’s alone; more than 10 percent of the earth’s surface is now desert or dryland vulnerable to desertification. But it must seem to those who live in southern Colorado, where the quality of productive land is rapidly deteriorating, that the possibilities of making a life there are dwindling with every advance of the desert. To combat its spread, San Luis Valley residents are eagerly seeking remedies, even grasping at straws. An especially attractive one is South African Geologist Allan Savory’s theory that cattle grazing, no matter in what number, improves the health of rangeland, an argument, Bingham notes, that falls into the “curious category of counterintuitive propositions that contradict all evidence and common sense as the situation appears but might change the situation if you dared apply them.” Savory’s theory—and Bingham does not do enough to discuss its obvious flaws—makes sense if applied to truly nomadic herds that graze an area, no matter how heavily, and then move on; not to land grazed again and again without being allowed to regenerate fully.

Seek as they may, the people of the San Luis Valley have found no immediate answers to their problems. They are fully aware that their land is fast approaching ruin; as Bingham says, “They knew the range had limits and at the end of the day accepted responsibility for them.” By showing their quest for solutions, Bingham does much to exonerate rural people, who are often depicted in the environmental literature as simpletons out for a quick buck no matter what the cost to the land. (To be sure, they seek the work where it comes, riding the waves of the global market as best they can; the last big paycheck for some residents of the San Luis Valley came from Iraq, whose government bought up local wool with which to make uniforms so that its soldiers could go off to the cold mountains to fight Kurdish rebels.)

This is a rare and beautifully written book about hard lives in agriculturally hard times. Bingham shuns the temptation to oversimplify and to offer the too ready prescriptions of urban people for rural troubles. He instead explains complexities that city dwellers can only begin to guess at, limning the staggering problems that threaten to overwhelm those who produce food in the Sahelian margins of the American Southwest, “where the desert bares its teeth at our fabulous global economy.”


[The Last Ranch: A Colorado Community and the Coming Desert, by Sam Bingham (New York: Pantheon) 384pp., $27.50]