Sarah Sortum grew up near Taylor, Nebraska, on her family’s cattle ranch in the Sandhills, the descendant of homesteaders. Her family continues to operate on the same property, running their own cattle, custom grazing operations for others, and Calamus Outfitters, a nature-based tourism operation. A few years ago Sarah started the Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival to encourage an appreciation for grassland birds.
Being a steward of the land, that’s our calling. I mean that’s how we feel. It’s our business of course and we have to make money and all that, but deep down, this is what we’ve been called to do.
When we started out our tourism operation it was solely for another revenue stream. And it has done that for us, it’s helped our family bring the next generation back. But as we got into our tourism business and started to talk to our clients that were coming from a long way away, we learned that a lot of the wildlife is in peril. We didn’t know that for instance, grassland birds were in such danger. Cause you know, they’re doing okay here. But it kinda shifted our perception of what maybe some of our responsibilities as landowners should be.
Private land, actually, is going to become more and more important in the future. Because we definitely need those set-aside places like national parks and wildlife refuges. But we still need to feed and clothe people. And so I think our challenge as landowners is figuring that out.
My parents never told my brother and I to leave. But it was definitely hinted. But at that time period, things were pretty tough. And so kinda the unspoken message was, if you want a better life, you need to go somewhere else. And the problem for my brother and I is we didn’t want to go anywhere else. But we both left. And I’m glad we did. I think it just makes coming home that much sweeter.
I came home with my family cause I wanted to raise my kids here. What a place to grow up, you know? There’s nothin’, nothin’ better. For me, I mean, I have two boys, but for me growing up as a girl, it gave me a lot of self-confidence. You’re doing stuff with big animals, you know, and big pickups and big tractors.
It was important for me and my husband as well to have our kids understand that side of life, or to learn that side of life. If you don’t grow up in it, it’s really hard. Especially for ranch work, it’s really hard to teach that.
We love the wide-open space, and we love seeing the animals, we love hearing the prairie chickens, we love seeing the cranes go over. We love seeing a nice healthy coyote. You can list all those things but it’s home. And home is everything.
The culture’s changing but there’s still a lot of good here.
It’s not heaven yet. But it’s about as close as you can get.
Photography contribution from Mariah Lundgren and Michael Forsberg
Music excerpted in this piece: “Out On The Plains” by Terry Gadsden and “This Time Together” by Paul Lawler (De Wolfe Music). Additional sound via CC.
Voices of the Platte is a collaboration between Platte Basin Timelapse and NET Radio’s Humanities Desk. These audio essays have been edited for length and clarity.