ROCKLIN, Calif. — “What does the day-to-day operation of a ranch or dairy look like?”
“What future changes could impact your livelihood?”
“What environmental and conservation practices are you doing that are sustainable?”
“How does social media impact what you do?”
When a group of dairy farmers and cattle ranchers get together, there’s always a lot to talk about. But when you put together a panel of some of California’s new generation of women in animal agriculture and get them in front of a highly engaged audience of retail and foodservice professionals, the questions, answers, and discussions are lively and eye-opening.
One of the most anticipated events at last week’s California Beef Council (CBC) Beef Leadership Summit (BLS) was the FarmHER & RancHER Panel Discussion-an opportunity for BLS attendees to hear directly from women on the front lines of animal agriculture about their challenges, philosophies, sustainability practices, and what makes farming and ranching so amazing. Moderated by Salinas-area rancher Celeste Settrini, the panel included 4th generation Sonoma County dairy farmer Jennifer Beretta, 1st generation beginner rancher Markie Hageman from Hilmar, Bay Area rancher Natalie Koopmann, and 4th generation Fresno County rancher Brooke Helsel.
When asked about daily operations, many in the audience were surprised to learn that most ranchers have a “town job” in addition to the work they do taking care of their cattle. “A lot of ranchers will go out and check cows in the morning before they head to work,” Koopmann said. “The cows do their job (during the day) on their own.” For Beretta, the day begins at 2 a.m. with 300 milking cows that have to be milked twice a day, generating 1,800 gallons of milk destined for Clover Sonoma Dairy Company in Petaluma.
Conservation practices are also part of the day-to-day operations, and were a key point of discussion for the group, along with the general public’s lack of understanding about what some of these practices mean. “I’m very involved in conservation practices,” Koopmann noted. Both her father-in-law and her husband are certified rangeland managers, and the family’s Bay Area ranch has three conservation easements in place to protect special status wildlife species including the California tiger salamander, the California red-legged frog, and the callippe silverspot butterfly. “Cattle increase breeding grounds for the salamander because of the footprints the cattle leave in the side of the pond,” she said. Grazing cattle also support native plant species, like the Johnny Jump-Up. “Those flowers come up, and that’s what brings the butterflies.” The Koopmanns even have “wildlife escape ramps” in all of their water troughs.
Sustainability was another key point of discussion. “Words like ‘sustainability’ tend to be misunderstood,” said Helsel. “What ranchers have been doing for centuries is sustainable, but responses like ‘improved genetics’ aren’t accepted as an answer (to the sustainability question). Regenerative agriculture is another term that’s used now, but that’s what we’ve already been doing. We don’t overgraze any one area.”
“I think ‘regenerative’ is a new buzzword,” Beretta added, “but it’s what we’ve been doing since 2006. (Now) it’s another label that can confuse consumers.”
That confusion among some consumers, the panel agreed, leads to other issues-much of it tied to social media. “I just finished breeding my four cows,” Hageman said, “and I posted about the AI (artificial insemination) process. The responses I got called the practice abusive, and yet the cow was safely held in a chute, she was calm, there was an expert breeder, and she got treats while the AI process was going on.”
“Social media can take things out of context very quickly,” Koopmann added, “but it has also done good things for the industry.”
Hageman agreed. “Social media can be tricky, but it’s necessary to spread the word.” She went on to say that misunderstandings can occur when someone reads a headline or sees a picture out of context, but doesn’t read the full story. “In some cases, (the person) doesn’t want to ask you questions, they just want to be right. ‘Keyboard Warriors’ chime in just to say you’re wrong.”
To cap the talk, the panelists were asked about their greatest challenges. Chief among them? Drought, public misperceptions about what production practices mean, and regulations that make it more and more difficult to stay in business. “California regulations will kill farmers and ranchers,” Beretta said. “That, and urban sprawl.”
The Beef Leadership Summit program was started as an extension of the CBC’s popular ‘Pasture to Plate Beef Tour and is now in its 5th year. “We found that a number of our Pasture to Plate retail and foodservice attendees wanted a deeper dive into beef production, innovations in beef cuts, insights into consumer concerns and questions, and other detailed aspects of the beef sector of our food supply,” said Christie Van Egmond, the California Beef Council’s Director of Retail & Foodservice Marketing.
The Beef Leadership Summit is free for attendees, requiring that they cover only the cost of their own travel to and from the host site hotel. Space for the annual event is limited, and ideally, BLS participants have already been part of a prior Pasture to Plate Beef Tour.
For more information on the Beef Leadership Summit and the Pasture to Plate Beef Tour, contact Christie Van Egmond at email@example.com.
— California Beef Council