Welcome to the “Women in Ranching” Series
In November, Kathy and Rachel went to Albuquerque for the Quivira Coalition Conference, and met a group of women who are a force of nature. In a captivating panel discussion, the women gave insight into the dynamics of ranch life for them. The conversation wove in family, gender, culture, and obstacles to ranch life. Addressing these issues head on, we saw them help each other through challenges. We thought you’d like to hear from them too, so we asked them to share their stories. Here is the first story from this powerful group, from rancher and author Julie Morris.
When I told my parents that I was going to marry a cowboy and move to his family’s working cattle ranch the first thing they did was try to talk me out of it. My mother sat me down and asked if I had considered what it would be like to live isolated and away from all that I knew: bustling cities, social groups, plenty of entertainment and job opportunities. I listened, politely, and replied that I had indeed considered all these things and was still going to marry him.
I’ll admit, it was an adjustment to move from cities where I had lived – San Francisco, San Diego, Florence, Italy and Washington, D.C. to a town of 1,800 one hundred miles from San Francisco. What they didn’t realize was that life on a ranch offers an entirely new set of opportunities that I would have never experienced had I not said “Yes!” to Joe’s proposal.
My first victory was landing a reporting job at the local newspaper, the Hollister Free Lance. Owned by a respected news company – McClatchy Newspapers – I cut my teeth with seasoned professionals who taught me how to look for and tell stories, write on deadline, and protect my sources. I was immediately thrown in to the heart of the community covering courts, schools, agriculture and county government. I met more movers and shakers working at the local newspaper than I ever would have moving to another large city. In fact, when I left my fact-checking job in Washington D.C., my boss and bureau chief told me that going to work for a small town daily was “better than graduate school” if I wanted to learn journalism. He was right. I ended up working for the Free Lance newspaper for six years and went on to write for an independently-owned paper where I won first place for environmental reporting from the California Newspaper Publishers Association for a series I wrote on the diminishing dark skies of our rural county. I worked with a Pulitzer-prize winning editor and made great friends.
My working off the ranch was how we paid the bills (and got health insurance) as we started our grassfed beef business. In 1991, the term “grassfed” was always met with an inquisitive look. Old time ranchers told Joe that he was crazy to get in to the cattle business, but we were determined to do things differently. We would make this work and create a profitable business. We started direct marketing our Morris Grassfed Beef to the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas after bidding $50 on a website design at a charitable auction. “Might be a good idea to have a website!” That was 2000. Although I loved reporting, when we did the math, we realized I could earn more working on the ranch direct marketing our beef once we had built a market. In 2001, I joined Joe full-time on the ranch as we committed ourselves to building a sustainable, family-owned grassfed beef company that took into account land, animals and people. Inspired by the work of Allan Savory, we managed using the Holistic Management model and watched as our customer base grew from a handful of family and friends to more than 800 customers throughout the state. Today, we are one of hundreds of grassfed beef companies direct marketing and although having competition has proven a challenge, we are grateful that consumers are asking how their food is produced and care about the land, animals and ranchers producing it. We like to tell ourselves, we’ve played small part in the local food revolution.
My mother wasn’t completely wrong: there are days when I miss the city. It’s no fun being so car-dependent, which is one of the drawbacks of living on a ranch. I can’t run to the corner store for milk or butter. My mailbox is a two-mile walk from my front door and it’s annoying not getting a clear reception on NPR, although I have learned to stream it on my iPhone. The water tank empties occasionally and we have to find the leak. Now that my children are grown and have moved away, the house is quiet and sometimes lonely, especially on days when Joe leaves at daybreak and doesn’t get home until sundown. But office work is only part of my job. There are plenty of days “in the field.” Joe and I still deliver beef directly to our customers on a monthly basis. We host field days on the ranch with customers, student groups and scientists. I sometimes go with Joe to check and move cattle. I still write for our local, online news site and have recently completed my first novel.
The thing about living on a ranch is that you have to create your own fulfillment. Inspiration may not come as easily as being surrounded by museums, theater, live music, and all the other perks of city living but a ranch is its own entertainment – you just have to be open to the potential around you. As far as the creative process, living on a ranch is a dream. It’s quiet and the view out my window could inspire even the most painful writer’s block. Just read an Annie Dillard or Wendell Berry essay to see how the natural world inspires.
During the first months of my marriage, I did have brief panic attacks: “Oh my, God! What have I done?! Maybe Mom was right. How am I ever going to be fulfilled here?!” One of my sisters-in-law must have sensed my mood when she wrote me a note that said simply: “You can find interesting people wherever you go.” She was absolutely right and I wouldn’t change one thing about my choice to marry a cowboy … except maybe that fuzzy NPR channel.