Ranching can be an isolating profession in a good year. But the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the few staples of social contact women ranchers rely on. A program led by a woman in Garfield County, Montana is forging new ways of connecting that will likely outlast the pandemic.
Amber Smith and her family ranch on 53,000 acres in eastern Montana. When social distancing went into effect last month, Smith says, “I had someone reach out to me and say, ‘You’re so used to this, it’s probably no big deal.”
She says in some ways that’s true, but the isolation caused by the pandemic is still very different. Special community events Smith and her family had been looking forward to like an Easter sunrise church service, an annual potluck in Cohagen and plans to see relatives were cancelled.
As were the in-person summer retreats Smith had been planning as the Women in Ranching Program Manager for the nonprofit Western Landowners Alliance.
Normally, the program facilitates two-day gatherings or "Circles" on ranches in Montana, New Mexico and California to connect women ranchers, build leadership skills and set personal and professional goals.
Smith reached out to her network mid-March to see if they’d want to meet virtually for weekly check-ins and facilitated discussions.
“Which was really just me saying, ‘I have no idea if anyone is going to be interested; let’s just see if anyone shows up.’ I was prepared to talk to myself for an hour, but six women showed up,” Smith says.
Smith says it has grown to 20 with different women joining each week. She says it’s ironic they’re going virtual this year because funders have suggested it as an easier and less expensive format.
“I’ve always been very against that because, again, these are women who never go anywhere. They are on their ranches, working really hard, and so if once a year I can pull them away, there’s so much transformation right at your fingertips,” Smith says.
Finding mentors and a sense of belonging can be a challenge for anyone. Smith says young female ranchers often face added scrutiny and isolation. She says there are more opportunities for growth when you’re out of your daily experience. But this isn’t a normal year, and in some ways it’s going to help the young program in the long-term.
Chia Thrane is one of the Women in Ranching participants. She runs a herd of goats for meat, milk, fiber, invasive weed control and land regeneration with her family near Red Lodge. Thrane says the weekly virtual gatherings aren’t as deep and immersive as the annual two-day Circles, but --
"I think it carries a little bit of that sense of trust and camaraderie that we’ve built by being intimate together and allows us to be accountable to each other on a more regular basis, which I like,” Thrane says.
Amber Smith says Women in Ranching will continue the weekly gatherings even when the pandemic subsides.
April Martin Chalfant is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, a rancher, and the executive director of the Wild Rose Center in Busby, Montana. Martin says Wild Rose started as a women’s retreat center and has expanded to include community programs ranging from learning how to make cheese to dealing with grief.
Last year, the Wild Rose Center hosted one of the Women in Ranching Circles.
“Well, it was really amazing for us to have a diverse group of people, all ages, all professional backgrounds, doing amazing work, here on our land, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, talking about how we impact the land,” Martin says.
She says the reservation has identified nearly 100 different plants with traditional medicinal value.
“We didn’t really have time to go out on the land and look at them, but just knowing that on your land, you have these plants that have more value than just forage was really interesting for a lot of the people,” Martin says, adding she had been planning a horseback ride with a Northern Cheyenne ethnobotanist at the next Circle in September.
She’s working with Program manager Amber Smith to figure out what a virtual format might look like.
Smith says virtual or face to face, Women in Ranching is a catalyst for growth. She’s seen participants become business partners, go on to buy ranches, write books and just come into their own.
“Being heard, appreciated and understood for exactly who you are at that moment and having a group of people who fully believe in your capacity and fully embraces the skills that you bring to agriculture is huge.”
Smith says 2020 will be the year to scale up the program’s facilitators, develop virtual education models and create a mentorship program.