By Natasha Nicholes
Hi there everyone! Today, I’m interviewing Megan Brown from Chico, California. She’s a 6th generation, Northern Californian, commercial, cattle, and heritage hog rancher, who happens to be quite vocal in regard to best practices, and fair treatment of consumers in learning about farming in general. She has a B.S in Agricultural Business from Chico State, and is absolutely one of my favorites to listen to where farming is involved. I appreciate her willingness to discuss different points of view, and share hers with me. Let’s welcome her as she talks women in farming with the houseful!
1. How would you encourage other women to join this field?
An active step I’ve already taken to encourage other women to join production agriculture is I invite all my friends’ children out to the ranch. I encourage them to get involved. I’ve had toddlers come out just to pet pigs and help gather eggs. As they get older, I try to include them in more appropriate work. For a lot of these girls, the first time they use a tool or drive a motorized vehicle will be with me, they learn skills none of their peers have and it’s a huge confidence builder for them. They learn they are capable of doing this work, that our society has largely deemed “man’s work”, which opens a lot of doors for them.
I also have a very active and loud social media presence where I talk about being a woman in agriculture and the challenges, and rewards I face. I know when I was a child, seeing other women be vocal and honest about their unconventional careers or experiences help me continue to forge my path.
2. What is the hardest thing about your job? The easiest?
The hardest thing about my job is seeing animals suffer. I loathe it. It is my job to care for them and make sure that doesn’t happen. But no matter how much we try, we simply cannot control Mother Nature. Inevitably, I will have a newborn calf get stepped on and have a broken leg, or I’ll have a piglet with a sticker in its eye. I do the best I can to treat the animal quickly, with as little stress as I can, or if I know the animal won’t respond to treatment, euthanize it. Those things never get easier for me, and I think if they ever do, that means it time for me to change careers.
The easiest is probably feeding time. It’s something I do every day. Not too much can go wrong. The animals all get super excited to see me, at least I tell myself it’s over me and not their food.
3. Is this a field that you would recommend people to go into? Why or why not?
It depends on the person. Being a rancher is definitely not for everyone. It has to be a passion and a lifestyle choice. You rarely have days off, the animals always come first. You’re constantly exposed to the elements, don’t get a 401 k or make that much money. Getting badly hurt or killed by the animals you care for is a major possibility. These things don’t appeal to everyone.
Also, getting into this field takes a lot of specialized knowledge, experience, and if you want’ to own your own ranch, capital. It’s an industry joke, if you want to be a farmer or rancher, marry into it.
4. Working with livestock can really be a bear. Do you find that being a woman puts you at a physical disadvantage? If yes, how do you work around that?
Yes, sometimes it is harder for me to pick up a calf or move a pig. I’m about 5’5 and 125 pounds, that means I’ve had to find ways to work livestock in a non-physical way. Since women tend to be more empathetic and nurturing than men. I think this helps us be more sensitive to the stress our animals are feeling when we are around them. I think that is what helps me be a better livestock handler.
5. Do children help you with the livestock? If yes, what lessons do you hope they learn in the process?
Yes, I do have children help out. I am incredibly careful to make sure they have age appropriate “jobs” where they will only have positive experiences. The beautiful thing about raising animals is there are so many lessons they can teach us.
I think the most important lesson kids learn is food comes from farms and ranches, not the store. There is a huge disconnect between farms and forks. It doesn’t shock me when a child says meat comes from the store and not an animal. But as a child spends more time with me and the different animals, they learn different lessons. Each child has been rather unique in what they take away. Some really love the responsibility, some love the physical hard work, some just like learning about animals.
6. Why cattle and hogs rather than cattle or hogs seeing as how they require distinctly different care and equipment?
Cattle ranching is something my family has been doing for six generations. It is our bread and butter. I was born into it, so I already had the equipment and skill set to raise them. The hogs are something I started myself. I needed my own income and passion at the ranch. I raised market hogs in 4-H and FFA, so I did have some basic knowledge and a small pen to begin this endeavor. I found myself enjoying them so much, and I had such a strong demand for heritage pastured pork, I continued getting more and more hogs and investing all the profit I made from them back into the operation. I was able to recycle a lot of the equipment – like feeders and some fencing – from the cattle. Part of the fun of raising the hogs has been trying to reuse old ranch “trash”. My customers really like that aspect too.
7. Which species do you prefer to handle and why?
It depends what we are doing and what time of year it is. For day to day interactions I do really enjoy the hogs. They have so much personality and I spend a great deal of time with them, so interacting with them in a blast. I enjoy calving out (that means the cows are giving birth) the cows in the summer because watching all this new life enter the world is incredible. The cows are very peaceful to be with the field, but because of their size sometimes I do feel a little intimidated by them because of that.
8. Have you experienced discrimination from your male counterparts or the community in general? How do you handle it?
I have experienced discrimination. Everything from certain vendors not wanting to do business with me because I am a woman, to people asking if they could speak to my husband (I’m single) to men trying to “protect” me from my own cattle. This past year has been especially interesting since I’ve been promoted to more of a managing partner within our family ranch. Since many of these people have known me since birth, it can be a challenge for them to realize I now actually have a say in the business. I found that if I create and maintain firm boundaries and communicate in writing I can circumvent some problems.
I don’t feel like the women in my community look at me any differently because of my profession. If anything, they want to come join me, and I try and make that happen if I can.
I chose this path because five generations of family worked very hard to give me this opportunity. Growing up I always knew this was what I wanted to do. I was just lucky enough to be born into a family that wanted me to continue in their footsteps.
I think a lot of people forget that farmers and ranchers are for the most part, normal people. We shop at the same grocery stores you do, eat the same food, so we have many of the same concerns about our food supply as our consumers. We are consumers as well.
9. What do you think Ag’s biggest hurdle is in regard to consumers today?
Clear and united communication. There are many voices telling agriculture’s story right now. Activists, marketers, journalists, etc. It makes overall messaging confusing, even to a rancher like me. I know we all want to do the right thing, we want to support sustainable practices, but with all these voices, each saying a conflicting “fact” it’s impossible.
10. Do you find explaining to consumers what you do, and why you do it helps them in their quest to make informed decisions about the food they consume?
Being able to explain the what’s and why’s of what I do is a game changer. My blog, thebeefjar.com has helped me do that with antibiotics. When I shared that we don’t give our animals antibiotics constantly, we only use them when we need to, it blew minds! My readers (and consumers!) learned that it’s not humane to not administer antibiotics to a dying calf, just for the sake of saying our ranch is antibiotic free. It’s an emotional topic, and it really helps when you can show real world situations. I’m thankful that social media is letting me tell my story and connect with my consumers in a way that’s never been possible before.
11. Anything else you want to share?
Yes, if anyone is looking to learn a bit more about the environmental sustainability of beef, I think a good place to start is here.
Thank you to Megan from The Beef Jar for giving us a bit of a peek into her daily life raising cattle and hogs. Visit her site today to learn more!