My daughter’s middle school counselor asked me to speak at their Career Day. Along with other adults – probably accountants, grocery store owners and others who choose fine footwear over muck boots -- I get to talk about how I became a rancher and a writer.
My career path.
How my career relates to my interests when I was middle schooler.
I was 10 years old when I decided to ranch.
My dad needed the money from our house in town to buy another tree farm so my family moved to a dilapidated farm in Oregon’s Coast Range. Before he could plant the pastures to trees, my dad bought a few cows along with two Holstein-Angus heifer calves. Sam and Smokey. My job was to take care of these heifers every day.
“Someday, I’m going to raise cattle,” I told my dad.
“Cattle are just like trees only you sell them every year instead of every 40 years,” I said.
That was the first step.
My high school journalism teacher encouraged me to write, even before I took her class. When I carried her groceries to her car for her one spring day, she suggested I take her class in the fall. That chance conversation sparked a lifetime’s flame of words.
At Conrad’s Career Day, my first piece of advice will be: When someone tells you your dream of ranching is impossible, be polite and nod, always be polite. But inside, tell yourself ‘this person doesn’t know me very well. I can do this.’ Then do not spend time with that person.
The hardest part for a child who has a dream is not finding the money or learning the myriad skills, it’s the nay-sayers. Adults love to tell kids they can’t succeed. Ignore those people. Run away in your heart.
“I’m going to have a ranch someday,” I said to an adult.
“The only way to get a ranch is to marry a rancher.”
I didn’t want to be a ranch wife, I wanted to be a rancher. I quit telling people what I was going to do.
People who believe in you exist, but they can be hard to find.
I thought a couple who had built a ranch from scratch in eastern Oregon would believe in me so I accepted an internship near Brothers. When I pulled up, Doc asked if I knew how to ride a motorcycle – they used dirt bikes to herd cattle. I had spent most of my high school years riding behind my boyfriend. Yes, I knew how to ride a motorcycle. I just didn’t know how to drive one. I learned. Their cows paid my tuition.
At the end of my internship, Connie told me I should get a bank job.
I nodded at Connie, remained tight-lipped, but polite, and decided I needed to learn more than my ag-business degree. All I needed were experience and money.
Experience was easier to come by. I took the next step and finagled a day-job at a remote ranch on the Utah-Nevada border because I happened to be working in a convenience store when the ranch owner struck up a conversation.
A hundred miles from the nearest stoplight, I found someone who believed I could ranch. For seven years, I learned to ride a horse, put up hay, team rope and load ornery cows and calves in a horse trailer. One day, an ornery cow and I were in perfect sync, both of us comparing the width of her horns and my rear end while she overcame her nearsightedness and I scampered up the corral poles. I slipped and found out I fit between her points.
I might not tell that story at Career Day, but I will suggest each student take advantage of the opportunities that come up.
One day, I picked up a copy of the new Range Magazine. The editor needed stories so I wrote about using cattle to graze rank old grass on a sheep allotment. She paid $55, more than a day’s wage for me on the ranch. I’ve been writing magazine articles ever since.
Writing would help pay the bills, but it wouldn’t buy a ranch.
Another person who believed in me suggested a wild, far-out opportunity to make more money: I should become a county extension agent, earn a living wage, buy a small place and leverage it to buy a bigger place. Now I had a long-term plan that just might work, but to be competitive, I needed more formal education.
I took the next step to implement that long-term plan and was surprised by how much I learned at Utah State University before that piece of paper opened the door to Montana.
Each step on a career path can get rocky.
I’ll say to the Career Day kids: Do not sabotage your dream when it gets scary. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t marry the wrong person. Just take the next step.
A phone call to tell me I was no longer an editor with a dependable salary turned into an opportunity to write and, eventually, buy the Graham Ranch.
The irony of this invitation to Career Day coming toward the end of a long, hard winter is not lost on me. Talking about how I got here when there’s so far to go seems hypocritical, but I’ll do it anyway. Kids need encouragement just like the fences need to be fixed and the sheep need to be sheared.
I just have to take the next step. And ranching is so much better than being a banker.