Idaho Ranch Women
Photography Kendall Nelson
Ranching is a passion for women who work and live on the land. It is as simple as that. If they say they are doing exactly what they want to do and can’t imagine another kind of life, believe it. They mean it.
They’ll tell you ranching is about life connected to the land, the seasons, the environment—usually far from town, and without neighbors to block the view. It is about an intimacy with sweeping vistas, open space and, in Idaho, a landscape of sagebrush, tall grasses, willows, rimrock canyons and pine-covered ridgelines, water that seeps from hillside springs, and rivers that flood their banks in April, then dry to a trickle in August. It is about an abiding respect for that water supply, for feed grasses, for natural landmarks, for weather, and for the stories passed down through generations—stories that can save the ranch. “Know your land, and you will know yourself,” Lyn DeNaeyer-Messersmith advised a roomful of ranch woman. Her northwest Nebraska place has been in the family since the 1880s.
“I grew up on the land and I know it like the back of my hand,” she continued in her quiet, insightful manner. “You can put me on that land at any point and time or in any season and I know exactly what the next footstep is going to feel like, whether I’m on horseback or foot.”
Ranch women will tell you their lives center around that connection to place, and the physical labor that allows them to spend their days outdoors, sunup to sunset. They may grumble a bit, but they largely ignore heat, dust, rain, snow, and gasping cold—even though the weather turns their hands and faces into proverbial shoe leather. They just stock up on bag balm and make sure there’s a large bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care at every sink. And they wear gloves. “Nothing better than elk skin for gloves, Yellowstone brand,” one woman advised another at a ranching survival conference.
In ranching there are no hours, no weekend breaks. And you’d best be a morning person. Ranch woman meet the first light of day with breakfast in their belly, dishes done and a mug of coffee in hand while the pickup is warming up outside the kitchen door. They’ll tell you they find promise in each sunrise when the day is new and clean and clear, the same way they find hope in each newborn calf as it struggles to stand on wobbly legs. In ranching, families work together day in day out in a way that doesn’t happen much in town. They share the chores, rounding up cattle, cutting hay, bucking bales, fixing fence, feeding livestock on snowy winter mornings. No one is left behind. For some women, the joy in ranching comes from living and working mostly alone. Rarely lonely, they like living their lives on their own terms, or at least trying.
Yet almost every woman in ranching will tell you something else. They are hanging on for dear life because there is little money to be made in this business these days and a lifetime to lose at any given moment. Ranching is about knowing the books, the banker, the land value, the price of cattle from day to day. Knowing that the tax law changed last year and what that means for passing the place on to the kids. It means knowing your lawyer, your accountant, and the barrage of federal regulations that impact public lands and your operation. It means being a businesswoman with ink-stained fingers as well as a rugged cowhand riding the backcountry.
I came to ranch life twenty years ago but it took a while for me to understand this new life, its landscapes, its obligations. It took even longer to understand the vagaries of economic, environmental, bureaucratic, and climatic forces that whip us around, eroding our successes and disturbing our silence.
When I first arrived fresh from urban life, I immediately (and somewhat petulantly) learned to change a flat tire. I had come to live in remote country, 24 dirt-road miles from town. In the beginning I was not partial to being alone, so I drove to town frequently for groceries and to meet friends for lunch. The solitude and size of our ranch frightened me. But I could not postpone the inevitable. I settled in to learn about my new home.
I road around in the pickup with my husband, whose absolute joy in his work helped bring me into ranch life. I quickly realized there were no women to guide me. I was alone in this undisputed “man’s world.” I moved cautiously, uneasily, watching the men work around me, hesitant to ask too many questions all at once. I have never fully overcome this reticence. Marveling at women who threw themselves into roping, riding, and castrating calves alongside the men, I retreated from this performance until some years later, when I realized that if I was serious with my questions, the men took the time to help me. Yet I see clearly how we women still dance around the issue of respect today.
With time and experience, I began to meet other women who had questions like mine or were far enough ahead of me to advise without scorn. I learned from them, only to discover we were learning from each other. No one can work a cattle drive without picking up something to pass along to a friend.
Kristy Molyneux ranches with her husband, John, south of Bellevue. They run 400 cows, 100 of them calving for the first time this year. Kristy grew up in town and worked there the first ten years of married life. After her third child she decided to stay home at the ranch, and started learning in earnest. It can be hard to learn from a husband, Kristy admits, but John told her she could do whatever she set her mind to do. And she did. “He believed in me.”
When I talked to her, Kristy was handling the night calving. After checking the cows every two hours throughout the dark, 5-degree night, she stayed by the “first timers” from 4 a.m. until 9:30, when the last of the three calves was born—the last for that night.
If you’ve grown up on the place or around ranching it makes the learning easier. Kristi Barg was raised helping her father work on several eastern Idaho ranches. “My Dad depended on me, haying, moving cattle, calving,” she says.
When Kristi was 14 her father took a job “in the middle of nowhere,” a ranch between Mud Lake and Leadore, Idaho. She took driver’s ed early so she could get to the nearest school bus stop, a half-hour from home, and from there make the hour trip to the high school in Dubois. Eventually, she stayed with a family in town during the week so she could compete in sports, except during spring calving. Then she drove home every afternoon to watch the cows through icy nights, sleeping in a small room in the back of the barn.
She married her high school sweetheart because she liked the way he worked, breaking colts and riding bulls in rodeos while he was still in school. She knew hard work and recognized it in others. She and Lonnie have been working at the K Bar K for Bud Purdy since 1992. Their two boys have been riding since age one. “I packed diapers and bottles for the babies when we’d go out to round up cattle,” Kristi remembers.
Even with a jump on ranching, though, there are new things to learn every day. And if you run your own place as Pat Millington does, you have good people working for you because you can’t do it alone.
When Pat bought her Picabo ranch, the Susie Q, in 1972, she had a lot of fixing up to do. She and her kids picked rock and irrigated, moving hand lines every day all summer to green up the place. From the beginning Pat has been a hands-on ranch owner, doing the work herself—from swathing and baling hay in summertime heat to hitching up a team of horses and feeding the cattle on icy winter mornings.
Pat grew up on ranches in Arizona and California, where the animals didn’t need the attention they do in Idaho. “We just turned them out and rounded them up once a year,” she says. In Idaho, raising cattle means doctoring, watching the calving, feeding hay in winter, and moving the animals to fresh feed throughout the summer.
“I love it,” Pat says. “This is my home. I love the outdoors, the change of season. It is never the same one year to the next.”
Most women in ranching know the economic setbacks are relentless. While the costs of new farm equipment, pickups, gas and power rates soar, crop and cattle prices are no better than they were several generations ago. Ranching is one of the only areas of the U.S. economy in which income has remained statistically below average for several decades.
Some ranch women will tell you the only money to be made in ranching is in selling out. But Inge Molyneux of Carey maintains you can do all right if you have good farming and management skills, and a contract with Coors Beer for the barley. She worked on her family’s dairy farm (a “Producer of the Year”) for years, milking twice a day, knowing you can’t go far from home for long. Now she raises calves for 4-H kids, teaching them how you break to lead, care for, clean, and show the animals. She also puts her ranching experience to work as a member of the regional Farm Administration Services Committee, a position to which she was elected by farmer neighbors.
Ranch men are often reluctant to think about the future, but women are usually the ones that feel its effects. Women partner with their men and, somewhere along the line, things change. The men leave or they die. Women get left behind. Then the ranch becomes a choice—but not much of one, because ranching gets in the blood.
So women are the keepers of the books, the translators of tax laws, estate planning, wills and such. They stand to lose a life’s work if they don’t read the fine print, watch for tricks, inconsistencies, know about generation-skipping and living trusts, and the difference between C, S, and LLC Corporations. Today’s ranch women know about exit plans, conservation easements, recreational diversification, the penalties and pluses of selling out fully or parcel by parcel.
When I look around me at women in ranching, I see an array of friends and neighbors who are wives, mothers, hired hands, pipe movers, balers, vets, horse trainers and handlers, tractor operators, truck drivers, mechanics, bookkeepers, tax accountants, and counselors—for starters. But mostly, I see women doing what they most want to do with their lives and with their families in landscapes that will forever hold their stories and their hearts.
Diane Josephy Peavey lives on a sheep and cattle ranch in Carey, Idaho. The stories she writes about that life—its people, history, and the changing landscape of the West—air weekly on Idaho Public Radio; and a collection entitled Bitterbrush Country: Living on the Edge of the Land was published in September 2001.