The number of ranchers in the US is on the decline. There’s no recruiting for the gig and some of the generational ties to ranchland in the west have been severed, so it’s not clear who will take on the business in the future. One answer may be women.
A lone coyote calls out from a ridgeline, as a group of women gather around Beth Robinette –since 1937, her family has raised cattle –first for milk and now for beef - here on the Lazy R Ranch in Cheney, just outside Spokane.
She explains what to many ranchers may be a radical shift in mindset: how she moves her cows around on the landscape to minimize negative impacts on the regeneration of the plants cows eat.
“We’re not looking at forage utilization as our main indicator. We’re looking at ‘is the next paddock ready to be graze?’ and if it’s not, I would rather stay in the previous paddock too long than go into a new paddock too soon," Robinette says.
Robinette’s teaching partner, Sandi Matheson, a lifelong rancher and veterinarian from Bellingham says, like herself, ranchers and farmers are in their early to mid 60’s. Many are ready to retire.
“We’re going to talk about monitoring later on this week and one of the things that you look for to see if you have a healthy plant community is if you have young plants in there," Matheson says. "If you only have mature plants, you do have a dying community and so farming if you really look at it in that sense, is a dying profession.”
In fact, Matheson says ranching itself might be facing crisis. Well over half the farms and ranches in the United States are likely to change hands in the next two decades and that turnover has to do with age. Here at Cowgirl Camp, there are seven women. Over five days they’ll learn basic farm management skills, take a deep dive into animal husbandry and discuss at length how to manage a ranch as a business and the land for resilience.
"It’s not the knowledge in itself," Rose Dyer says. "Like I can acquire that, like I can study it, but it’s the mindset, it’s the vision behind that that I can’t gain from a book.”
Dyer is the youngest here. She’s Danish, and currently working with five other women on a ranch in Northern British Columbia.
The workshop is sponsored by a non-profit, Roots of Resilience – a group that aims to restore Pacific Northwest grasslands. As coyotes continue to howl, Matheson tells the group she has high hopes for women in agriculture.
“Well, for instance when I wanted to go to vet school, I had a lot of flack from men particularly male vets with comments like ‘why do you want to become a vet, why don’t you just go marry one, I’ll set you up!’" Matheson says.
Matheson and Robinette want to revamp old-school ideas.
“We want to have an image of a woman, doesn’t matter the age - any age, who is standing on her own two feet," Matheson says. "She’s got a calf or lamb under one arm, she’s got a laptop in the other, she may have fence pliers in her back pocket and maybe a GPS in her other back pocket."
Cece Bloomfield, here from Colorado, wouldn’t have come had it not been geared specifically for women.
“I associate the traditional workforce more with the male workforce, but when I am surrounded by women doing what I’m passionate about it feels like it’s ok to follow my passion and try to create a career out of that," Bloomfield says.
Bloomfield doesn’t want to be a rancher, but she does hope to create a business that makes use of cattle hides.
And that’s the goal for Cowgirl Camp: to take traditional practices and get new women to think outside the box – or the paddock.
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