SLO County Cattlewomen: The Past, Present and Future are Female

By / Photography By Jennifer Olson | February 28, 2018
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Left to right: JanaLee Johnsen, Ann Hansen, Susan Cochrane, Claire Johnsen, Stacey Twisselman, Patti Davis

“These cattle are our family” Susan explains, “and there’s nobody that cares more about the land and these animals than the people who work it.”

The reality of the modern American rancher is, more often than not, far less glamorous and far more female than the classic cowpoke of cartoons and spaghetti westerns. In fact, more that 30% of American farm and rangeland is operated by women*. That’s more cow-hoss boss-lady buckaroos than there are button willows in the bottom lands! With the largest constituency of American National Cattlewomen right here in San Luis Obispo county, the SLO Cattlewomen (CattlewomenSLO.org) have their fair share of representation in that impressive figure. 

Past

During the early 1950s, in response to the baby boom and increasing consumer demands on the beef industry, ranchers needed to organize their efforts to produce and distribute enough beef to feed all those new families. As a way of unifying the cattle industry under one national banner and in an effort to coordinate their lobbying efforts in Washington, American ranchers created The National Cattlemen’s Association. While the Cattlemen generally focused on the legislation and policy-making affecting ranching operations nationwide, in 1952 the American National Cattlewomen organized to spearhead educational and philanthropic efforts at the regional level.

 

Present

“In the fifties we had to figure out how to feed everyone, so we organized and developed highly productive means for raising, feeding, processing and distributing our beef,” explains Susan Cochran, a fifth-generation rancher and 2016 SLO County Cattlewoman of the Year. This is how the modern commercial beef industry was created; hard-working Americans doing their best to feed other hard working Americans.

In addition to fundraisers benefiting several local charities and scholarships for students interested in pursuing ag-related studies, the SLO County Cattlewomen also help educate the public about the importance of the American cattle industry. Lynette Sonne, a construction management consultant and relative newcomer to the SLO County Cattlewomen, organizes regular educational gatherings for the Cattlewomen in conjunction with her “agricational” project, FARMstead Ed. Last August, Sonne and the Cattlewomen raised $7,000 for must! charities, a non-profit organization that funds charitable projects fighting poverty across northern SLO County. Just more hard-working Americans, trying help other hard-working Americans.      

For most of these women, cattlework is a side job. “This is my retirement,” Susan says with an ironic grin. “I was up at four o’clock this morning to feed the steers.” Susan raises about 500 steers a year on Navajo Ranch, a property that has been in her family for five generations.

“I’m a banker,” Susan’s daughter Ann adds.

“And I’m in commercial real estate development,” one of the other cattlewomen chimes in with a laugh. But by the looks of their weathered ranch wear, silver spurs patinaed by horse sweat, and by the air of confidence they exude while moving between 500 steers on horseback, one might assume they never leave the ranchlands.

There may have been a time when Navajo Ranch could sustain a large family on beef sales alone, but that time has passed. Like many businesses, most ranches must diversify their offerings to survive in the modern agricultural economy. With a wedding and event site, a seasonal hunting program, and vacation rental accommodations, Navajo Ranch is no exception. Some ranchers have planted crops to contribute to the bottom line, while others like Susan rely on vacation rentals and agri-tourism to help pay the bills. When Susan talks about the insurance policy on her steers being the only reason she doesn’t have to worry about the price of beef suddenly bottoming out―like it did in the 70s―you wonder why these women work this hard just to maintain such a challenging way of life.

“These cattle are our family” Susan explains, “and there’s nobody that cares more about the land and these animals than the people who work it.”

Photo 1: Claire Johnsen
Photo 3: Stacey Twisselman

Future

The most interesting part about the SLO County Cattlewomen is that many of them do run cattle, but it’s certainly not for the money, and even those who don’t operate a ranch know the importance of preserving this way of life for future generations. They don’t do it for recognition, although their efforts literally feed the nation. They do it because the ranch lifestyle connects them with their history, the land, the animals they love, and the legacy of the American Cattlewoman.

* 2012 US Department of Agriculture report on Women Farmers

Jensen Lorenzen has spent the last 25 years living on the Central Coast and working as a professional chef. After closing his last restaurant, The Cass House Luxury Inn & Restaurant, Jensen founded Larder Meat Co: pasture-raised, all natural meat, delivered to your door once a month (lardermeatco.com).

Jennifer Olson is an in-demand editorial, advertising and portrait photographer on the Central Coast specializing in food and the people behind the plate. Her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, Life & Thyme, Vegetarian Times, 805 Living Magazine and Edible Communities.

Article from Edible San Luis Obispo at http://ediblesanluisobispo.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/slo-county-cattlewomen-past-present-and-future-are-female
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