Female Ranchers Are Reclaiming the American West

Female Ranchers Are Reclaiming the American West

Here is an inspirational report about the growing leadership of women in ranching. Our mechanized era has eliminated women’s disadvantage in terms of strength. With the removal of this handicap, women’s nurturing instincts and intuitive grasp of holistic principles make them – in many ways – better ranchers than men.

NOTE: this article was originally published to NYTimes.com on January 11, 2019. It was written by Amy Chozick.

As men leave animal agriculture for less gritty work, more ranches are being led by women — with new ideas about technology, ecology and the land.

Hundreds of years before John Wayne and Gary Cooper gave us a Hollywood version of the American West, with men as the brute, weather-beaten stewards of the land, female ranchers roamed the frontier. They were the indigenous, Navajo, Cheyenne and other tribes, and Spanish-Mexican rancheras, who tended and tamed vast fields, traversed rugged landscapes with their dogs, hunted, and raised livestock.

The descendants of European settlers brought with them ideas about the roles of men and women, and for decades, family farms and ranches were handed down to men. Now, as mechanization and technology transform the ranching industry, making the job of cowboy less about physical strength — though female ranchers have that in spades — and more about business, animal husbandry and the environment, women have reclaimed their connection to the land.

Amy Eller and her daughter Wendy checking on cattle in the mountains of Colorado. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

At the same time, the brothers, sons and grandsons who would have historically inherited a family ranch have, in the last decade, opted to pursue less gritty work. As a result, in 2012, 14 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms had a female proprietor, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That ratio may rise, as over half the farms and ranches in the United States are expected to change hands over the next 20 years.

Caitlyn Taussig with her mother, Vicki. “Even though my mom did all the cooking when I was growing up, she was really involved on the ranch, too,” the younger Ms. Taussig said. “She was working right alongside the men every day despite that. So that’s how I was raised.” Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

Growing up on her family’s ranch in Kremmling, Colo., Caitlyn Taussig watched her mother do all the cooking and housework even as she helped tend to the cattle and horses. Today, Ms. Taussig, 32, helps run the ranch with a cadre of cowgirls, including her mother and sister. They only really rely on men on the days when they have to brand the Angus Cross cattle. “We just sort of treat each other differently,” Ms. Taussig said shortly after a cow kicked a gate that split open her forehead. She got six stitches and was back at work that afternoon. “There’s less ego.”

Ms. Taussig after injuring her forehead while loading cattle onto a trailer. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

Against the vast blue skies and craggy prairies, female ranchers have found the same independence and adventure that first lured their male antecedents, but they are also forging a new path. Women are leading the trend of sustainable ranching and raising grass-fed breeds of cattle in humane, ecological ways.
On the west bank of the Missouri River in north central South Dakota, Kelsey Ducheneaux, 25, raises sustainable beef on the land that generations of the Lakota Nation have worked. “We believe that we can only be as sovereign as a nation as we are in our food systems,” she said.

Kelsey Ducheneaux raises beef on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

For Native Americans, the concept of women working the family ranch isn’t revolutionary, but a return to the natural order. Ms. Ducheneaux attended South Dakota State University and had planned to work on the 7,500 acres of tribally leased land that she had grown up on, but it wasn’t until her grandmother died that she understood the importance of the role of women on the ranch. “She was the actual rock of the family,” she said. “That’s how Lakota families are. We are a matriarchal society, always have been.”

“We are a matriarchal society,” said Ms. Ducheneaux, a member of the Lakota Nation. “Always have been.” Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times
Ms. Ducheneaux moving an electric fence. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

Beth Robinette, 31, is the fourth-generation owner and operator of the Lazy R Ranch in Cheney, Wash. She runs New Cowgirl Camp, a five-day course that trains women in animal husbandry, ranch management, financial planning, ecological monitoring and regenerative grazing. Ms. Robinette recoils at the gaudy, country-pop version of the overly feminized cowgirl, and calls her program a “rhinestone-free zone.”

ew Cowgirl Camp participants listening to a lecture on pregnancy testing at the Lazy R Ranch in Cheney, Wash. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

“Our current generation of land managers is aging out of that role,” she said. “You could look at that as a disaster, or you could really look at that as an opportunity to change the paradigm.”

Students at New Cowgirl Camp learn to evaluate soil and plant health. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

Cory Carman, 39, thought she’d spend just a summer working on her family’s ranch in Wallowa, Ore., but she has parlayed her parents’ prairie into a leading local provider of grass-fed beef. “I had a certain period of feeling a little bit angry about the challenges of not being taken seriously,” said Ms. Carman, a Stanford graduate. “The number of times that I’ve walked into a meeting and people are like, ‘You don’t look like a rancher.’”

Barb Bartlett doing chores at 6 Ranch in Enterprise, Ore., after a day of work at Carman Ranch in nearby Wallowa. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

But the same judgment also proved liberating, as female ranchers like Ms. Carman redefined the job. “If I don’t look like a rancher,” she said, “I don’t have to act like one all the time, right?”

This reimagining of a role that has for so long loomed large — and male — in the American imagination hasn’t come without conflict.

When Amy Eller, 33, first took on a major role on her family’s ranch after her brother had less interest, she clashed with her father about how to treat the livestock. “He’s like, ‘Oh, you’re wasting your time putting that hay in there.’ And I’m thinking, it calms them down,” she said of a recent conversation with her father.

Ms. Eller with her daughter. Three generations of Eller women work on the family ranch. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times
Inside a barn on the Ellers’ ranch. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

Today, three generations of Eller women work on the ranch. When her young daughter, Wendy, was a baby, Ms. Eller would strap a car seat into a tractor and take her to feed the cows.

Becky Eller, Amy’s mother, feeding a calf named Orphan Annie. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

Maybe it’s because women can finally feel the freedom of the American West in a way men have long romanticized, but Ms. Eller said there was just something different, spiritual even, about women working the land together.

“If the tractor breaks down, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m thankful my dad is here.’ But when it comes to everyday work, like feeding the cows, I would much rather go with my mom, because we can actually enjoy it,” she said. “We’ll both say, ‘Oh, isn’t this beautiful out here today?’ We notice how beautiful it is when the sun’s shining on the snow.”

The Taussig women in August. Credit: Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

Amy Chozick is a New York-based writer at large for The Times.  @amychozick Facebook

Ranching, wildlife management, finance, oil & gas, real estate development and management.

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