The number of ranchers in the U.S. is on the decline. There’s no recruiting for the gig and some of the generational ties to ranch land 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.
An Eastern Washington nonprofit this week debuted a five-day workshop on ranching traditions and skills to get novice women ranchers to think outside the box – or the paddock. It was dubbed Cowgirl Camp.
A lone coyote called out from a ridge line as the first cowgirl class gathered around Beth Robinette on the Lazy R Ranch in Cheney near Spokane. Robinette's family has raised cattle there – first for milk and now for beef -- since 1937.
She explained her philosophy of sustainable ranch management: 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," Robinette said. "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’s teaching partner, Sandi Matheson, a lifelong rancher and veterinarian from Bellingham said a lot of ranchers and farmers are in their early to mid 60's, like herself. 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 said. "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 said 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. Seven women attended the inaugural Cowgirl Camp. 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. Like I can acquire that, I can study it. But it’s the mindset, it’s the vision behind that that I can’t gain from a book," said the youngest camp participant, Rose Dyer, to explain why she was there. Dyer is Danish and currently working with five other women on a ranch in Northern British Columbia.
The workshop was sponsored by the non-profit Roots of Resilience, a group formed to restore Pacific Northwest grasslands. As coyotes continued to howl, Matheson told the attendees 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 recalled.
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 said. "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."
“No rhinestones though," added Robinette with a laugh.
In fact, none of the women at Cowgirl Camp are wearing rhinestones. They’re all clad in blue jeans, t-shirts and ankle high boots.
Cece Bloomfield, 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 said.
Bloomfield doesn’t want to be a rancher, but she does hope to create a business that makes use of cattle hides. Which counts as a success at Cowgirl Camp.