It’s a Saturday morning in eastern Oklahoma.
The sky is clear and big…the air is sticky and hot — and the mosquitos are vicious.
I’m here to meet a local rancher named Nate Bradford Jr. One of our producers, Camille, is with me. We’re at Nate’s corral: a cluster of pens on rolling, grassy land.
Today they’re full of beef cattle. Like most Black ranchers in Oklahoma, Nate raises animals for meat.
There are dozens of cows grazing in ankle-deep grass, and galaxies of flies following them around wherever they go.
Nate pulls up in a truck and steps out wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a long sleeve denim button-down, Wranglers, work boots, and brown leather chaps.
NATE: Boy, it’s already getting sticky.
This part of Eastern Oklahoma is where the South meets the mythic “Western frontier.” And Nate tells us we’re right by an important historical marker.
NATE: See these cows on the hill here, just on the side, there’s a road, that’s the Georgia Line.
The Georgia Line is an area where Black migrants from the Deep South settled. Like other migrants, they came in search of land and opportunity. But they also came to escape Jim Crow.
Nate’s family made that move in the early 20th century, up from Georgia and Louisiana.
NATE: So this is where the family and stuff has been at for years. So this is why we call it the G Line Ranch. So we running three miles to the west.
G Line is Nate’s Ranch. And today he’s vaccinating and deworming his cattle.
It’s a family affair. He’s got his whole extended family, as in kids, brothers, nieces and nephews, here to help out.
They get the cows into a kind of assembly line and walk them towards a big, yellow metal chute.
NATE: We’re gonna bring ’em through the squeeze chute and give ’em the
Each cow moves through to the end, where its head gets locked in so it can’t move. Then, Nate vaccinates it with a massive, massive syringe. And Nate’s eldest son puts a deworming paste, a white, watery liquid, in its mouth before setting it loose.
APRIL: Ooo and they spit. And their mouths look so nasty.
Everybody has a role in the work, which Nate reminds the kids when they sneak off to take a break.
NATE: Sooner you get done, the sooner we leave.
This is grueling work, especially in this 100 degree heat. Everyone’s sweating right through their shirts. But it’s fun, too. It’s family time.
Nate radiates this joyful, exuberant energy, even hours into handling one angry, spitting cow after another. This is his element.
NATE: It’s going good for a hot, sunny, cold day.
CAMILLE: I noticed you got some beers.
NATE: Yeah. We gotta, gotta enjoy it. Uh, it’ll work you to death. You gotta know how to do your time. You know what I mean?
CAMILLE: You have fun out here with your family?
NATE: Oh yeah. You hear some of the crap talking going on. You ain’t gonna get away with nothing out here. Everybody wants to tell somebody something. That’s just kinda the cowboy way.
Nate talks about the cowboy way a lot. Sure, it’s about making hard work more fun. But it’s also more serious than that.
It’s a common creed in this part of the country – a kind of morality, a way of living life — being connected to the land, to nature, and to the ancestors who were here before you.
It’s a code cowboys like Nate follow — to live with unbendable integrity, courage, and self-respect.
To show up on a Saturday morning in 100 degree heat to care for your herd.
NATE: We don’t like it ourselves getting this kind of weather, but just how the cowboy way is. You gotta do what you gotta do.
And, for Nate, keeping the cowboy way alive has been a battle.
I’m April Simpson and from the Center for Public Integrity, this is Season 3 of The Heist.
This season: a heist by the US government of land — and wealth — from America’s Black farmers and ranchers.
One study found that Black farmers lost 326 billion dollars in land in the 20th century alone. That’s more than the entire GDP of Chile or Colombia.
I started reporting on rural issues five years ago, which led me to writing about agriculture. I grew up in rural America, but I’m not a farm kid. So it’s only through my reporting, I learned about the long, documented history of government discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers.
That discrimination has largely been at the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the USDA.
It was established by President Lincoln during the Civil War, and grew to serve all farmers and ranchers, to help them keep their businesses alive – through droughts and storms and market crashes – so that they can feed the country.
And government support has arguably become more important as agriculture’s become more challenging.
Land costs have soared, inflation has driven up the cost of equipment and supplies, and big corporations have come to control much of the industry. It’s very hard to be a small player.
I first heard about USDA discrimination from elder farmers, and over the decades there have been congressional hearings and reports about it. But I started to wonder whether it’s still going on today.
That led me to a quest for data from the USDA that could help us see how the department is treating Black farmers.
And, it led me to Nate Bradford. His story is both extraordinary and ordinary, a story about how Nate went to the USDA for help, but instead met obstacle after obstacle, nearly killing his ranching business.
A story that shows how a history of discrimination looms over Nate and other young, Black ranchers.
On another hot Oklahoma summer day, Camille and I are driving to Nate’s house, which is two left turns and about 16 miles outside of his hometown, Boley.
We pass a large prison on the way. A highway sign warns us hitchhikers could be escaped inmates and others tell us we’re near tribal nations. Turn off the two-lane highway, and the roads are mostly dirt or gravel, and littered with roadkill.
Green hills roll into the horizon and cattle lie in whatever shade they can find, desperate to avoid the sun.
There are horses here and there, and lots of farmhouses — some look abandoned and others look brand new.
We see a sign with Nate’s address on it and the letter “B,” for Bradford.
His house is at the end of a winding, gravel driveway.
(sound of car stopping and getting out)
Nate’s house is a really neat, thoughtfully decorated farmhouse. There are chimes by the front door, flower pots, a sleepy dog, and, as I knock on the door, I notice a beautiful wreath hanging on it.
(sound of chimes and door opening)
Soon enough, Nate opens the door with a big smile.
NATE: Good morning.
CAMILLE: Good morning.
NATE: How we doing?
APRIL: Good. How are you?
NATE: I been out this morning.
I’ve talked to Nate dozens of times over the past few months, and I’m struck by how different he seems today: much more relaxed.
NATE: I’m on vacation. It’s about as good as it’s gonna get.
Being on “vacation” means he’s only doing ranch work. Normally, to make ends meet, Nate works nights at a gas plant an hour away. He uses time before or after shifts, and his weekends, to work on the ranch. His sons have often helped him.
NATE: Me and my boys, you know, when they was young, we’d come in. We’d get started on a Friday and we’d finish on Sunday about 10 o’clock. And then they’d go to school on Monday morning. We was chasing cows, you know, working cows, moving cows.
Today, he’s relatively well-rested and eager.
NATE: Y’all had to come in here and have a seat here. Water?
APRIL: Yes, please.
CAMILLE: Yes, please.
He carefully takes off his work boots once we step inside, and walks us into his dining room, which has warm maroon walls and a maple table that we all sit around.
NATE: Mic check.
CAMILLE: Yeah, exactly. Thank you.
Nate and I have had dozens of conversations, but this is one of the first times we’re meeting in person. And he wants to check in about what exactly we’re here to do.
NATE: I would say, what would you guys goal? What would you say y’all goal is
to do what?
APRIL: Our goal?
NATE: Yeah. In this, you know, reporting this, what would y’all like to see? What would y’all like to see?
APRIL: Well, I’d say I wanna tell a good story, like a real story that hits on a lot of the systemic problems that we know exist in the USDA and just in agriculture.
APRIL: Yeah. What do you want? What’s your goal?
NATE: Man. My goal is to be a full-time rancher. My goal is to you know, get, you know, the message out there there’s a lot of people going out of business right now.
Nate grew up in Boley, a Black town with a long history of agriculture. He’s part of a distinct and important community in Oklahoma: Black cattle ranchers.
About two in three farms with Black producers in the state are in beef cattle ranching. But they’re vastly outnumbered by farms with white producers.
Ranching is a part of Nate’s family’s story too. His grandfather and dad both had land and cattle. But they weren’t trying to make ranching their full-time job. It was a side gig.
NATE: Everybody there was working jobs. All the land was pretty much vacant.
Only producers you had round here was like my grandpa. My grandpa had a few head of cows. And all he did with them cows was he’d buy him a Nissan pickup and he’d sell them the few cows he had, make his truck payment.
Nate liked living in the country, but he went to college about an hour away and got a two-year degree in automotive service technology. He thought maybe he’d move to California, make a life somewhere other than Boley, but at college he realized that he was fundamentally a country kid.
NATE: I’m talking to people. They don’t know nothing about no fishing, they ain’t
talking about no hunting. Boy they ain’t talking about nothing. You what I mean? It’s like go to the club but you know like I don’t really want to go to no club. I was quickly drawn back to the country and I wanted to figure out how to get back here. And so I just kind of wanted to latch on back to my roots, it was just like this is my calling.
Nate decided he wanted to be a full-time rancher. He wanted to do more than have a handful of cows like his grandpa and dad. He wanted to quit his off-farm job and throw himself completely into building a successful ranching business.
Nate is trying to buck the odds — most Oklahoma ranchers, regardless of race, do have off-farm jobs. Still, there are ranchers who pull this off.
And Nate’s been working towards that goal for the last 20 years. It’s put a strain on his finances and his relationships. But for all the hours — years — he’s put in, the ranch still hasn’t made enough money for Nate to quit his job.
And the clock is ticking for Nate: he’s not going to keep working at it forever. Just until he turns 50, which is about six years away.
NATE: When I turn 50, I’m going to look at this deal with a whole other set of
glasses. I don’t wanna lose my family, and, you know, I don’t want to lose no more friends by being buried so deep in this deal that you ain’t got time to be on earth. You know what I mean? Just to be normal.
I can’t run like this for 20 years, 20 more years. Right. How we gonna make it happen? Y’know what I mean? It’s almost looking impossible and my heart get tired thinking about it. Lot of pressure. But, you know, God’ll make a way.
The way I see it, there are two major forces that have made it seem impossible for Nate to succeed as a rancher, no matter how many hours he and his family put into the business.
They’re headwinds I hear about from people across the country. And they’re the key to understanding why Black farmers and ranchers have been losing land and wealth at such a devastating pace.
The first big force is the transformation of the American cattle industry. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of beef, but many smaller ranchers have been squeezed out by 4 companies that control most of the slaughterhouses that ranchers sell to.
Ranchers used to be able to do one thing to survive: if they had land suitable for grazing, they could run a cow-calf operation, raising cows, breeding them — and then selling the calves, or the adult animals, at a stockyard.
But now, ranchers have to do a lot more to stay in the game. Nate has a term I really like for this, the “Walmartification” of ranching.
NATE: Walmart, it sold a lot cheap stuff but they brought in food, clothes, toys,
tires, auto center, that’s where ag is now. If you think you gonna do, you might just specialize in the cow calf deal, but ain’t gonna be enough money to sustain. This business has got to where you have to do everything ever. And we are, we are doing that and still not sustaining.
(sound from walking around on ranch)
NATE: Alright so, here’s our property, it’s 160 acres. We built this in 2003.
To give us a sense of everything he’s added to his operation, Nate’s walking us around G Line.
NATE: Here on G Line Ranch, what all we do, a little bit of everything.
His cattle are at the center of his business. His income grows for every pound he can put on the animals.
NATE: Goal is to get ’em to 1,000, 1200 pounds.
CAMILLE: Ooh, heavy.
NATE: Yeah. Which is, um, takes about a 16 month process.
Keeping his cattle healthy – with the kind of deworming and vaccinations we saw — gets him a higher price and a bigger profit.
NATE: Because they know the death rate, the sickness rate is greatly declined.
Raising the cattle means buying feed, too. For all the acres Nate owns, not all of it is suitable for grazing. He’s got to supplement it with hay. So Nate’s started farming hay as well, while also trying to improve more of his land for grazing.
It all takes a lot of equipment, and a lot of time.
NATE: It’s 24/7, you know, I tell my boys that this place open 24/7. So there’s
something to do around here all the time.
But selling hay, and raising, breeding, and selling cattle — it hasn’t been enough to make G Line consistently profitable. The money coming in hasn’t outweighed the costs of paying for his land, maintaining it, and buying equipment and feed.
So Nate decided to make a big move towards “Walmartification,” by selling beef directly to customers.
NATE: Trying to sell straight from my farm to the plate type of deal. We’re selling,
um, G Line beef. So you know, me and my wife started this, started doing this about 2010, but we didn’t really have much success and the internet wasn’t as popular. And so, um, we’ve got, right now the whole family is involved and so it’s a lot bigger and better deal now. Everybody’s involved in helping sell G Line Ranch beef.
But selling beef to customers is totally different from selling animals at a stockyard. It means Nate needs to be a marketer too.
So, Nate’s gotten into TikTok. He’s using it to build the G Line brand. He posts videos of life as a rancher: getting a cow’s head unstuck from a hay ring, joking about buying feed during a drought, dancing with his kids at the corral, cutting off a cow’s ingrown horn…that one has over 4 million views.
NATE: I used, um, it’s called an OB cable, used for like amputating your
leg cause it makes a good sharp cut. She actually kind of relaxed. And was like, oh, this feels so much better. I know you doing what I need, you know what I mean?
Nate’s GREAT at TikTok. His videos are funny, surprising, and really charming: I can see how it would make someone want to support him, and buy G Line beef.
One of my favorite things about his videos are the music pairings. Like, he has one about deer hunting, paired with these lyrics: “I wouldn’t wait forever. Just shoot your shot.”
TikTok is a place for Nate to show the countless skills that go into ranching, to talk about the things that make it hard to survive in the industry, and to promote everything G Line is doing.
He posts videos of cooking with G Line beef, bailing hay, and working on another project the family has taken on, processing deer meat out of a semi-trailer behind his house.
It’s another product line for G Line, another potential income stream. One of Nate’s sons came up with the idea when he realized there was nobody else doing it nearby.
NATE: ‘Hey dad, they don’t have anywhere for deer processing. I think you need,
we need to get deer processing, uh, going here. What can you do?’ So I come across a deal with this 52 foot semi trailer. So this semi trailer has a cooler in the front of it and we process deer out of it. We make summer sausage and we’re gonna look at making some other stuff, you know, maybe do some deer jerky and jerky sticks or something my son wants to do, because people had a strong interest and they liked our product. So it was like, hey, you know, why not? You know what I mean?
Another product line, another potential source of income, and also more work. Nate and his family do all the labor on the ranch. G Line is a product of their skills, ideas, and hard work. Unlike larger ranches, Nate doesn’t have other employees to count on.
Despite all that, Nate’s dream lives on. He still imagines what his life would look like if, one day, all that work made the ranch really successful and all the labor wasn’t just on him and his family.
NATE: I know I have this house here, but I would like to cross this creek and go to the backside and build a new house on top of the hill back there and, uh, have a ranch foreman stay in this house here, help me see about the ranch. That’s what, that’s what the dream would be.
CAMILLE: Sounds nice.
APRIL: That does sound nice. Is this business kind of isolating sometimes?
NATE: Um, I wouldn’t say it’s really isolating. Um, you know, everybody
kind of goes through the same thing, but it’s uh, I say it’s kinda spiritual ‘cause you’re just at the mercy of whatever, you know, God has to provide, you know what I mean? Um, you know, it’s not man made. Uh this is, all about mother nature. Um, you can’t get closer to God, you know, than in this business.
Mother Nature definitely has a strong hand in the agriculture business. But farmers and ranchers can get support to survive droughts, bad winters, and brutal storms.
The U.S. Dept of Agriculture is supposed to help people with that and much more.
But for Nate – and many other Black farmers and ranchers – getting the help they need from the USDA has become another battle.
More after the break.
The USDA offers farmers and ranchers subsidies and loans to help them weather agriculture’s tough and unpredictable economics.
The subsidies are often direct payments to help farmers recover after something like a natural disaster, or to get them through the disruptions of an unexpected event like the COVID-19 pandemic.
USDA LOANS are a crucial lifeline, too. A lot of what farmers and ranchers need to start and run a business — animals, acres of land, big equipment like tractors — is expensive. It requires a big investment. Often it requires a loan.
And if you’re a rancher or farmer, you may not be able to borrow from a regular bank. Most don’t have an agricultural lending department. Or, they might see it as too risky if you have a low credit score or little experience. Or, because agriculture is so unpredictable.
Instead, you go to the part of the USDA that manages loans: the Farm Service Agency or FSA. The FSA is the primary lending agency for family-sized farms that can’t get credit anywhere else.
But the idea is that eventually, once a farmer or rancher’s business is stable, they will be able to move to a business loan with a commercial bank.
In a typical year, across the country, the FSA issues about 10 billion dollars in loans.
FSA loan officers are supposed to understand the economic realities of agriculture: that revenue can be determined more by the whims of Mother Nature than the abilities of farmers.
NATE: Maybe your calves, you in drought year your calves come in they
weighing 380 pounds instead of 480 pounds And now you need to hold them three months to precondition them and allow you to sell at a higher market. So now you’re looking at a situation well, I’m short. Well, the cow ain’t gonna have another baby till next year.
Loan officers are trained to understand a situation like that, and to respond with flexibility and support. But the response often depends on the office and its leadership.
And, Black farmers and ranchers have not had the kind of help that white people have had. The USDA has a long, documented history of discrimination against Black ranchers.
Nate knew about that history. His dad says he experienced it directly, and had lost land and wealth as a result.
NATE: I already kind of knowing what I was up against. You know what I mean?
When Nate was starting out, he needed an FSA loan for cattle and another to buy some land. But he was wary.
NATE: They was not gonna help me fill in the blanks. I knew I had to know how to fill it out, so, what made my situation better than my dad’s situation was, I would say I was more educated than my dad.
It took two years, but in 2000, Nate was approved for an FSA loan to buy cattle. He then got another loan to buy land.
But in the long run those loans would threaten his business, his land, and his home.
NATE: How can I say this? So it’s kinda like, the Farm Service Agency is kinda like you got this, got this molester guy in a family that, you don’t want nobody to be around, but he’s part of the family and you gotta deal with him. That’s the way I went into FSA. I mean, I knew I was dancing with the devil.
This season, we’re going to follow Nate’s struggle with the FSA and our struggle to get government data that could help us really understand how Black farmers and ranchers are being treated by the FSA — whether the systemic discrimination faced by generations of Black farmers and ranchers is still at play today.
Because this isn’t just a story about Nate and G Line Ranch. USDA discrimination has had an enormous impact on American agriculture.
In 1910, Black farmers held between 16 and 19 million acres of farmland. But according to the latest Census of Agriculture, in 2017 they owned just over 2.5 million acres of active farmland. That’s around an 85% decrease.
As Nate’s struggled to hold onto HIS land, he’s also learned about the broader history of Black farmers and ranchers. And it’s made him even more determined to succeed.
NATE: They come right outta slavery and after 1920, you know, 1921 was Tulsa
Race Riot and industrial change. You know what I mean? The world was changing. Dust Bowl rolled up, they all declined and, and, and the numbers just declined off. But how did the people gain so much coming right outta slavery. And now that it just was going down, I can’t sit here and just watch it.
For many Black farmers and ranchers, their struggles with the FSA aren’t just about a loan or a piece of land. Or, in Nate’s case, realizing a dream.
Rural Black life, rural Black agricultural life, has its own traditions, its own place in American culture. Nate is part of a very particular kind of the cowboy way. One that he thinks is worth preserving.
NATE: We do a lot of things in the United States. We don’t shoot the American Eagle. We don’t kill it. We don’t, you know, any stuff that’s about to be extinct, those animals, we save them. All I’m saying is we save a lot of stuff in the United States. What is the bad thing about saving them black ranchers?
Next time on The Heist, Nate faces his first big obstacle as a rancher and doesn’t get the support he needs from the FSA.
NATE: I just wasn’t in his eyes worthy of it. You know what I mean? I’d been
counted out, stereotyped.
This season of The Heist is hosted by me, April Simpson.
and brought to you by the Center for Public Integrity.
This episode was written and produced by Camille Petersen.
Our team includes Kiarra Powell, Wilson Sayre, Sara Nics, Keishel Williams, Dan O’Donnell, Mc Nelly Torres, Matt DeRienzo, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Lisa Yanick Litwiller, Ashley Clarke, Vanessa Lee, Charlie Dodge, and Janeen Jones.
Our fact checker is Peter Newbatt Smith.
This episode was mixed by Louis from Story Yard.
And this podcast was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
Special thanks to Rural Advancement Foundation International USA.
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