Valley journalist chronicles women in ranching
The industrial meat system in the United States is fraught with problems, but across the American West ranchers are seeking creative solutions to the way they raise meat.
In a new podcast series hosted by Boise Public Radio — “Women’s Work” — Methow Valley resident and journalist Ashley Ahearn chronicles the challenges and successes of raising meat through interviews with female ranchers who are reimagining land and livestock management in the west.
When Ahearn moved from Seattle to the Methow Valley in 2018, she was a vegetarian. “It was easy to do that as a city person,” she said. “I knew the narrative: Beef was bad for the climate, cows were overgrazing pastures, beef’s [global water footprint] was huge.”
But as Ahearn settled into life in the valley, joined the Methow Valley Backcountry Horsemen, and began volunteering to help others move cows, she began seeing how much ranchers care for the land.
“Their livelihood depends on a healthy landscape,” Ahearn said, “so they’re not going to just trash it. You don’t ranch to get rich. You ranch because it’s in your heart, in your gut.”
It was seeing the heart underpinning the ranching community that inspired Ahearn to tell the stories of meat raisers across the west. “It’s an attempt to change the conversation,” she said. “To find solutions to the problems with beef, we have to change how we think about it and how we talk about it.”
Focused on women
As Ahearn researched her topic, she began to realize that ranching is changing, and that it was women at the forefront of these changes. Although she has been writing about farming and ranching couples for years, more often than not the women were silent partners, pulling their weight but imparting few words.
“I wanted to pass the microphone to the part of the couple that doesn’t usually do the talking,” Ahearn said.
Ahearn’s decision to focus on women in regenerative ranching was further crystalized in the research process. She was talking to a longtime rancher who told her, “Everybody knows that if you want to get something done in a ranching community you talk to the women.”
“It’s true,” Ahearn said. “Women are the connectors in these ranching communities. They share the information. And when it comes to presenting new ideas, to changing ranching systems, it’s the women who are the ones convening these conversations and leading the charge. The more contacts I made, the clearer it got that I needed to focus on the women.”
But ranchers in general aren’t just issuing wholesale invitations to journalists to visit their properties, especially those without street cred in the ranching world. Ahearn said that she gained access to ranching communities through “currency in the form of knowledge,” an asset she wholly attributes to her Methow Valley ranching contacts.
Learning the language
“A couple years ago I started volunteering to help move cows with Craig Boesel, Moccasin Lake, and Deed and Carrie Fink,” Ahearn said. “They’ve answered more stupid questions from me in the past two years than anyone should have to, but they put up with me. And they gave me the vocabulary I needed to be able to make contacts for this podcast series. This is language a city journalist just wouldn’t have, and it gave me my entry into the wider ranching community.”
Thanks to her time on horseback herding cows (on her horse that “only listens to me half the time,” Ahearn said), Ahearn knew what to ask ranchers: “when do you calve,” “how is the drought affecting you,” “where do you go for meat processing”?
She also played the long game. For “Women’s Work,” Ahearn wasn’t just seeking a quick snapshot into the lives of female ranchers, she wanted to understand the broader story, and took a full year to tell their stories.
“I start with relationship-building, deep observation, and being curious,” she said. “I wanted to know what makes them tick and how they make a living. I wanted to know what they were doing that was different and how they talked about it.”
The result is that each episode of “Women’s Work” is a portrait of a woman rancher set against the backdrop of a bigger issue or theme: flooding fields for waterfowl, food sovereignty, wolves, soil recovery post-wildfire, development pressure.
Although Ahearn chose not to feature any of our “amazing Methow Valley women ranchers,” most of the episodes speak to issues that are relevant and timely here. Ahearn will address these parallels in a Methow Conservancy First Tuesday presentation on April 5 from 7-8 p.m. via Zoom on your home computer (email firstname.lastname@example.org for Zoom link).
She also intends to address the concept of agricultural lands as open space, as well as sharing personal stories about what being a part of the Methow Valley community means to her.
Ahearn said that to some extent she has found her place in the local community through her connections with ranchers — whom she refers to as “the people who stitch a community together by helping one another” — and wants to connect other residents with local growers and meat raisers by “creating a dialogue about ranching” in her First Tuesday talk.
“The cool thing about podcasting is that it allows you to take a tiny bite of a topic,” Ahearn said. “I want to share that with other people, to make them want to ask questions and learn more.”
Before moving to the valley, Ahearn worked for seven years as an award-winning science and environmental multimedia reporter for the public radio station KUOW in Seattle. She regularly contributed to national programs including “The World,” “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Here and Now” and “Living on Earth.” She also worked as a reporter for the Methow Valley News. Recently Ahearn produced “Grouse,” an eight-part podcast series in partnership with BirdNote Presents and distributed in collaboration with Boise State Public Radio.
Listen to the “Women’s Work” podcast at: www.boisestatepublicradio.org/podcast/womens-work.