Amber Smith had to go to the Middle East to realize she wanted to live in the American West.
“I was a Junior in college and spent that year studying Arabic, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and the geopolitics of the Middle East,” recalls the Illinois native about that college semester abroad in Egypt. “But every time I was in class, I thought about how much I wanted to be outside.”
A big reason for that longing: Amber had worked the previous summer of 2004 as a wrangler at the Home Ranch in Colorado. It had been a glorious experience.
“One day I was sitting in a café in Cairo and I decided I needed a change. I decided to call the Home Ranch, hoping that they might still have a job open, although it was pretty long after they usually made that decision. So I was a little worried.”
Finding a Passion
Happily, they did have a job. That summer of 2005 in Colorado not only cemented her love for the region, but she met a young man named Trevor Smith who would become her husband in 2008. After Amber finished college, the couple lived in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. In addition to work on the family’s cattle operation, Amber also served as Activities Director in nearby Atkinson. Over time, the couple had learned about holistic ranching techniques, some of which they tried to implement. When the family resisted the suggestions, they realized it was time to strike out on their own.
By this time the couple had learned about Grasslands, whom we have worked with at Mirr Ranch Group and how I first met Amber. Grasslands manages more than 300,000 acres worldwide, in locations as disparate as Florida, Colorado and New Zealand. The management focus on Grasslands properties, which are acquired for or owned by its investor partners, is “ecologically regenerative and economically profitable livestock ranching.”
Through Grasslands, in 2013 the couple was connected with Antelope Springs Ranch in eastern Montana. They have now spent 10 years (five as managers, five as lessors) on its 53,000 acres of native grassland. The Smiths run more than 350 mother cows year ‘round, offer custom grazing for as many as 3,000 yearlings to outside clients in the summer, and also run bands of sheep.
A NEW DEFINING MOMENT
Amber says their commitment to holistic ranching has made it possible to succeed, even in the face of a three-year drought. “Our biggest cost is feed. By employing holistic grazing practices, we’re able to save a big pasture of grass to use for winter feed. So instead of paying for feed from outside the ranch, we can feed them ourselves … And by moving our livestock in a structured way, some of our pastures can go a year without being grazed. The grass can realize what it can be.”
The couple’s success led to Amber’s next defining moment. “I got an email in 2018 that said ‘We’ve heard about all you are doing with holistic ranching, please come to a Women in Ranching meeting at the Tomkat Ranch in California.”
Amber had heard good things about TomKat Ranch — a cattle operation and educational facility focused on holistic practices in northern California managed by my friend, the wonderful Wendy Millet — so she went. “It was an incredible experience. There were all these inspirational, intelligent women who were excited about working the land, sharing their challenges. I thought these women were all bad-asses. But hearing them, I found out they shared the same fears and challenges that I did. I came back to Montana on fire, wanting to share my experience with the community.”
By that fall Women in Ranching had moved under a new management umbrella at the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA), a powerful voice for policy and land stewardship where I’ve had the privilege to serve on the board. A few months after that move, in January of 2019, Amber convinced WLA to hire her full-time as the Women in Ranching Executive Director. The result was an immediate uptick in events, with up to 30 women at a time gathering at ranches across the region to hear the landowners’ stories about working the land.
The Next Chapter
Then COVID hit,” Amber recalls, “and we realized that if we were to maintain our momentum we would have to go virtual.” She soon realized that change had advantages. “If you move things to virtual, you can bring speakers in digitally you could never afford in person. And instead of inspiring groups of 30 women at a time, now we had more than 200.”
But something else was changing.
“Post COVID we were setting up programs for women in agriculture focused on soil management and the like. But we also had people showing up with more basic needs: They had experienced domestic abuse during the pandemic, their businesses were in disarray, the emotional and professional pressure on them was tremendous. People were losing jobs and leases. They needed another level of support that was not the central work of the Western Landowners’ Alliance, which is much more policy focused.”
So Amber went to the board with a difficult request: Women in Ranching needed to go out on its own, with a new board more attuned to these growing needs. “That was a huge ‘ask’ of them, since I had hired on at WLA and built a successful program. There is absolutely a Women in Ranching program that WLA can have, focused on policy and more particularly land ownership interests for women. But I wanted to support the needs that were showing up.”
Turns out some of those new needs struck a chord with Amber. “I had more culture shock moving to rural America than I ever had in the Middle East. Go figure!” she recalls with a laugh. “In rural areas, the surrounding families know you well if you grew up there. But if you come in later from outside the area, it can be a very isolating experience. People can push away from those with who arrive later because they are afraid of change and different ideas.”
Creating a Community of Women In Ranching
Since launching the stand-alone Women in Ranching during the spring of 2022, Amber has been building a new board (meet them here) and fundraising — the group counts The Heartland Fund, Patagonia, Tomkat Ranch, and Paicines Ranch among its supporters. Other work has included:
- Gathering more than 200 attendees (in person and virtual) took part in their annual Confluence, and more will gather at smaller Circles events on ranches in Texas and Montana. In all, the group counts roughly 2,700 women as members.
- Sending an email newsletter that now reaches more than 3,000 recipients, and
- Enabling roughly 300 women to routinely interact on its Listserv about ranch issues. (“The other day we had a 67-thread convo about cattle management and lice!” Amber reports.)
They are helping create community as well. “At our last gathering in Colorado, one woman, who had just bought a ranch, hired one of the other participants to be her ranch manager. So now, when they show up for our programming, they are both on the same computer screen. That’s powerful.”
Even better, Amber has been excited to see responses to surveys “where people are saying ‘I love this, I finally feel like I have a home in agriculture, now I want more from Women in Ranching.’ ”
Amber’s team is working on that ‘more.’ Their goal is to access USDA Farm Service Agency funding to ultimately help others purchase land and livestock, as well as secure operating funds. FSA grants are designed to help ‘under-represented’ people in agriculture. “Women are part of that definition,” she says.
Then there is the expanded work that Amber wants to accomplish, enunciated in the new mission statement: “This is a community and a support network for anyone who works with, cares for, or feels called to the land. Together we connect, educate, inspire, and grow as a diverse community of women in agriculture … We aim to create a connecting space for all women to be seen and affirmed in their leadership and stewardship of the land.”
Women’s Role in Ranching
While it’s hard to determine the exact number of women working on western ranches, the 2017 Census of Agriculture reported there were 1.2 million “female producers,” accounting for 36% of the country’s 3.4 million producers. The US Department of Agriculture survey also noted that female-operated farms accounted for 38% of U.S. agriculture sales and 43% of U.S. farmland.
Give those numbers, Amber suggests there isn’t any magic to making sure women are “seen and affirmed,” she says.
“Women have a ton of roles at a ranch, including family relationships and community relationships. And yet … I would get regular emails from women that said ‘I live on a ranch and work there but I don’t feel like a woman in ranching because I don’t have that decision-making role that men traditionally have. But they are women in ranching!”
Amber understands that longstanding tradition dictates much of that insecurity among women on ranches and suggests if we can move past that dated reality everyone would benefit. “Yes, there are women who absolutely love cooking the big meal for branding, but there are a lot of women, particularly among younger women, who want to be in on the action, roping calves.”
“Today on ranches it’s ‘Here are the roles of men, here are the roles of women.’ And honestly, in rural communities the pressure is on the man’s shoulders. So when the ranch fails, when your family is hungry, all of that is your fault as a man. When I ask my husband about that he says ‘Yeah, that is how we feel.’ We have a pretty equal partnership in our business, and he still feels that pressure.
“We want men to be high-risk, high powered, dominant. But when you invite women to share that vulnerability, that thoughtfulness, it makes a bunch of space for other people to do the same. I feel like agriculture is really good at engaging 50% of the community (the men). So there’s an another 50% of people who have always been here doing that work but are not engaged. I am trying to engage the other half of rural America.”
Ken Mirr is the Founder and Managing Broker of Mirr Ranch Group. Have a question about the West or investing in a ranch? Email him at Ken@MirrRanchGroup.com.