What if I…failed?

It is hard to fail quote Theodore Roosevelt“Oh, umm, I can’t make it out this weekend. I have other plans. Maybe next weekend?”

With the dial tone ringing in my ear, I shook my head. Plans, Erica? Maybe curling up on the couch for a Grey’s Anatomy marathon. To never know if this could have been my chance? Utter silliness.

I gulped in a big breath and hit redial. “You know? I’ve canceled my plans. Saturday noon work for you?”

It was the first real possibility in a long line of empty attempts in obtaining gainful employment on a ranch, and I was scared. I never would have admitted it at the time, but now I can nod and tell it like it was.

Scared that it wouldn’t pan out.

Scared that it would.

It’s difficult to explain how terrifying a dream can be when it suddenly orbits within reach. Dreams are easy to talk about when they’re floating on a fuzzy horizon. They are infinitely harder to live when they swoop so close you can see their belt loops.

I had busted my tail in pursuit of my dream of working on a cattle ranch. And all of my best efforts lay alongside a heap of rejections. I’d started to give up. To the point that my application for this job lay on my kitchen table for days before I finally plunked it in the mailbox.

Because even though I wanted to work on a cattle ranch in the hardest way imaginable, I was equally worried about how I would handle such a seismic shift in my landscape should it become reality. I mean, what if I…failed?

Ah, there it was. Truth peeping out from the pile of excuses it’d been hiding under.

Of course there was the usual apprehension about leaving friends. Parting with a place I loved. Stepping out of the comfort of a job I knew how to do into the arms of a job filled with unknowns.

But really I was just scared I would fail, and in the moment that phone call came, it was easier to put off a potentially life-changing moment than it was to grab hold and wrestle it to the ground.

Here’s lookin’ at you

Well, I thought I could let this slide past. I was tempted to say nothing, and I still am. But just like a white cow in a black herd, you notice when someone who authors a blog doesn’t show up for a year.

Yep, didn’t even need my toes to tick off how little I’ve written. Six posts in 2013. A pre-schooler could count the minuscule molehill of words I’ve managed to sling together.

Why so little?

The excuses roll too easily. A new job, in a new place. Replacement of computer and software, camera and lenses. Less time, less internet access.

All true, but the real reason I haven’t been writing is I needed a creative interlude. An intermission of impossible length, far too long to expect the readers from Act I to be here for Act II. And that’s okay.

There are still a myriad reasons I’m hesitant to end my creative vacation, but I am often at fault for focusing on all the reasons something won’t work instead of honing in on the one reason it will. Right now, I am a camera on the one reason it will.

I think we’ll be shifting direction a smidgen here on the Rancher. If you are a young woman – or if you have a daughter, niece, wife, friend – interested in working on a cattle ranch, then you’ll want to check back in. To my two youngest sisters, Stretch and Slim? Here’s lookin’ at you, kids.

Baxter Black on the Airplane Mini Screen

The only logical explanation is the airline is using hidden cameras to spy on me. Here’s how it went down.

I get on the plane last night. I pulled the short straw with a middle seat so I got in and out of my row three times. Airlines loading planes from aisle to window is like loading a pot of cattle from the step to the nose.

It’s a fancy plane with mini televisions in the seat backs with previews and advertisements rolling. Mine is advertising stock trailers. Or some sort of horse product. I don’t know, I’m watching the silent movie version. And then this:

Baxter Black

Yes, that is Baxter Black on my screen. The remnants of my old communications life stirred inside me. How awesome that Baxter Black is in front of the eclectic audience that is the airplane crowd, I thought. Just a smidgen of ruralness to be sure, but a smidgen is more than zero.

And then I looked around. To the right, to the left. Craned my neck, awkwardly stood up in the guise of stretching so I could see down the corridors of seats. My silent movie was the only one with Baxter Black on it. The only one!

I sat back down, looking at my boots. Gingerly brushing the Carhartt logo on my coat. Furtively eyeing the flight attendants.

How did they know?

Hidden cameras. It is the only answer I am willing to entertain at this time.

Ranch Life Realities: It’s not all romance.

  1. I lost THE book. And the binoculars, but magnifying glasses for creepers can be replaced. I LOST the BOOK in the middle of a thousand acres of wheat stubble. Each calf’s color, gender and birth date are recorded in this book. Can you imagine if a hospital lost its birth records?
  2. I about tipped the ranger over. Not once. Not twice. THREE times. In a 60-second time frame. I’ll ride a horse across a canyon rock slide without flinching. Put me in one of these 4-wheelie mabobbers, and I’m a complete pansy. I was perched on the edge, ready to fling myself off if it tipped over. I swallowed my heart 18 times. It’s probably enlarged now.
  3. The ranger incident(s) is clearly why I lost the book and binocs.
  4. Returning to the scene of the crime revealed the lost treasures. I’m putting them in a steel briefcase and handcuffing it to my wrist. I’m also going to write “Actually I did not wear a pocket protector or fanny pack in high school.” in Sharpie on my forehead.
  5. I was holding an orphan calf on my lap while driving into the barn. Trying to navigate with six feet on the gas pedal? I dropped him like he was a year’s worth of recycled newspapers, and he fell under the ranger.
  6. But thanks to those years I never drove race cars, I had all my quick vehicle pedal reflexes saved up. I nearly shot through the windshield, but I didn’t run over the calf. I even had an inch and a half cushion. Plus he was stunned from his ungraceful dismount. Otherwise he might have flailed his way into a pair of broken legs.
  7. Then while I was tagging calves, I found one in Tumbleweed Draw. It’s a sandy descent, slogging through waist-high tumbleweeds. Mama started snorting and tossing her head. She’s bluffing. I moved in closer. She started pawing up dinner plate-sized chunks of dirt. Impressive. I’ll haul her over to rototill my garden. Steepest part of the descent, and she charged up the hill. Mayday! Mayday! This is not a bluff! Launch exit strategy!
  8. I’m sure I looked like an overweight marshmallow in my bibs and heavy coat, backpedaling out of that draw. I worked with an old Mexican cowboy in a corral once. “Oh she’ll stop,” he told me that day. “Just stand there, and hold your ground.” I’ll hold my ground, you betcha. From a place where that cranky old broad can’t eat my face.
  9. I really liked this philosophy from Larry Olberding on tagging calves. “Those ear tags are just something for YOU. They mean nothing to the mother cow. She knows who her kid is.”
  10. All of this happened yesterday, the day I’ve officially been living the dream for a month on an Oregon ranch.
  11. But even when you’re living the dream, you still get dumped out of bed. It’s life’s way of reminding you Madame Reality rules this side of the tracks, not some glitter-dusted wizard out of a Disney movie.
  12. It doesn’t mean the dream isn’t the dream anymore. It just means your dream is putting on some miles.

Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

They don’t make country music like they used to. That racket the new country radio stations are playing? I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t country. I’m not sure most of it is even music.

I’m grumping like an 80-year-old woman with a pipe and a rocking chair, babbling about the old days. But what happened to creative lyrics that told a real story? When did artists let go of the art of making music?

George Jones sang about it in Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

Who’s gonna fill their shoes
Who’s gonna stand that tall
Who’s gonna play the Opry
And the Wabash Cannonball
Who’s gonna give their heart and soul
To get to me and you
Lord I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes

And I got to wondering, who’s gonna fill the shoes and boots and lace-ups of the farmers and ranchers? While they may not be knocking on the blue-haired doors of nursing homes just yet, a lot of farmers and ranchers are on the downhill slide of life. Jesse Bussard touches on this topic of aging farmers and ranchers and young people wanting to get started in her Beef Producer blog “Future Ranchers Lack Keys: Land, Livestock and Money”.

Who is gonna fill their shoes? Is it you? If so, post a comment. Even if it’s just a short, “My name is Festus McGou, and I am [or hope to be] a pumpkin farmer.”

I don’t want folks saying they don’t make farmers and ranchers like they used to, because I don’t think that’s true. If your dream is production agriculture, then stand up and say so because there are those who need the camaraderie and others who need to hear their footprints won’t go unfilled.

Unfilled boots in northeast Oregon snow

5 Lessons from the Unpopular

5 Lessons from the Power of UnpopularI just finished The Power of Unpopular: A guide to building your brand for the audience who will love you (and why no one else matters) by Erika Napoletano of Redhead Writing. At first glance, this book looks like it has a fat lot of nothing to do with cattle ranching, but I’ve pulled out a few quotes we can apply to our bovine-related lives.

It’s impossible to get everything done on one’s own, and the sooner you acknowledge that you need a team to get you from point A to point Z and every point in between, the better off you’ll be. Ask for help, know what you don’t know, say thank you often, and never be afraid to admit it when you’re wrong.”

Even a small herd of cows quickly commandeers your time and resources. A ranch needs a team of people, whether they are employees, feed deliveries, veterinarian services, etc. I especially love the idea of “know what you don’t know”. It’s hard to admit sometimes, but if you don’t know something, find someone who does and learn from them. If you have the resources, let them do it. They’ll be far more effective.

Understand that there are more than a few people who will never get what it is you do or why you bother with it.

Your brand is a who. It’s never a what. People do business with people, and brands that help their audience understand that there’s a person behind the pitch have the opportunity to soar far above the rest.

I pulled these two quotes out because of their relevance to people who buy food and why it is important for cattle ranchers to share about their beef stories. You don’t have to look much past your front porch to see people who don’t understand ranching.

There are some people who will never have an appreciation for it and will do whatever they can to grind it beneath their heels. But there are a lot of people who just need the opportunity to talk to a rancher about where their beef comes from so they can make their own decisions about what food they want to buy.

Look back at the last time you shared a meal with more than one person. Did everyone around the table agree on everything in every conversation that arose during the course of that meal? If so, remind me never to come to one of your dinner parties, because they’re probably held in Wonderland, and that’s not a commute I’m willing to make.

Be open to new ideas. It’s easy to do things the way they’ve always been done, but that doesn’t mean they should be. Listen, consider, and then make a decision. Don’t skip the first two steps and head straight to the decision-making step.

It’s not hard to lose track of your audience when you’re working every hour of the day to build a new business. At some point, we’ve all lost sight of the customer in pursuit of the end goal, and as a result, we’ve probably had some completely avoidable snafus added to our track records.

Stretch your minds a bit here, because the end goal is where you want to keep your focus. What are you trying to accomplish on your ranch? Are your investments of time and money in line with those goals? Or are you getting tangled in the details?

If it all went away tomorrow, what would remain? Never forget that people and relationships are what grant us access to life’s greatest potential.

I’m closing with this quote for a simple reason: ranching sucks up time like a shop vacuum. Working dawn to dusk is the standard, not the exception. Yes, there’s a never-ending stream of things to get done, but family and friends are more important than a to-do list.

Find a way to incorporate your most valuable relationships with your work. Dedicate time to just be with those people. Make it a priority, even when you’re in the trenches during the busiest seasons of the year. Just have fractions of time to dedicate? It counts, and it matters.

That Tom Horse

paint horse TomHe was a walkin’ horse, and not of the Tennessee kind,
Barn boards for legs, bony of hip and a bit cranky in the eye.
That Tom horse was no real looker unless you like ’em raw,
But he moved out quicker than most others you’d find.

Throwin’ a leg over was like climbin’ after a cat up a pine tree.
Just as you strangled a fist-full of mane to light in the saddle,
The head of that Tom horse would come ’round to bite your rear.
With luck an’ a quick shinny up, he only got a chunk of your knee.

Gosh that Tom horse could be an ornery cuss, even on the fly.
His pair o’ paint ears would flap straight back on a whim,
And you’d feel a li’l bit a devil inching up his spine.
A hop n’ hoot n’ holler and your stirrups sayin’ good-bye.

You always had to watch him, he wasn’t a horse you trusted.
Never let the reins go slack or let him flat-out gallop.
But sooner or later you’d set a l’il loose in the saddle,
And that Tom horse same as said, “Pard, you’re busted.”

But when he wasn’t tryin’ to plant you in cow pies an’ dirt,
That Tom horse was ropin’ and slidin’, cuttin’ and holdin’.
Crossin’ canyons, duckin’ brush and trackin’ a herd of cows.
He had no quit, not a bit, even when he shoulda pulled up hurt.

For being all outta sorts with fire under his red n’ white hide,
You got to sorta liking that Tom horse in spite of all his faults.
There’s not been another who hunted country quite like him,
And each day astride that big paint was a day for quite a ride.

She’s not a great cow.

Black angus cows at sunsetIf you had an employee who did nothing for a year but drink your coffee, play your computer games and shoot the breeze with coworkers, would you keep that employee on the payroll?

Of course not. You wouldn’t support someone who wasn’t fulfilling his or her role.

So why keep a cow that didn’t get pregnant? It doesn’t matter how correct her conformation is, how solid her genetics are or how great of a cow she is supposed to be.

If she doesn’t have a calf, she’s not a great cow. She’s just an attractive lady with nice parents who is gobbling up your resources.

Ditch the Plan, Drive in the Direction

In the 3,200 miles I drove to Iowa and back this month, I did a lot of thinking. You’re hard-pressed to ignore those things you’ve been avoiding when it’s you, half a country of highway and no radio stations.

And in that half-country drive, I finally acknowledged what I want to do. A 100%, no doubt belief in what I am supposed to be doing with my time here on earth: raise cattle.

This isn’t a light switch moment. I’ve known for years – decades if you count those years growing up that I wanted nothing but ranching – that my place lies with the cow-calf ranch. But it has taken me a long time to work up the courage to face the challenge, and this trip finally has me toeing the starting line.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been focused on drawing up a plan. A set of steps that will put me in a position to tackle the challenge of cattle ranching.

Midweek, I decided to ditch the plan.

A plan is like a list. You cross off the first step of the plan and move on to the second. Nail the second, go to step three.

At this stage, a plan puts on blinders to other possible routes that could help you achieve the same goal. A plan needs to be flexible, and I’m not good with flexible plans. To be flexible, I need to not have a plan.

That sounds dumb, doesn’t it? How are you supposed to get where you want to go if you don’t have a plan?

John Deere tractor driving down dirt roadDrive in the direction you want to go. Make decisions with what you know now that will nose you in the direction you want to end up. After driving awhile, you’ll have more information and be better equipped to decide whether you want to turn left or right.

With the plan, you may not have seen the left or right turns, stuck to the original road map built on retired information and driven straight off the cliff you hadn’t seen.

If you’re flexible and can still be open-minded, use a plan. If you’re like me, drive in the direction you want to go with the destination guiding your decisions.

I wrote this before I saw this piece by Jesse Bussard. Similar topic, different viewpoint.

The Intimacy of Manual Mode in Photography

If you want to shoot your camera in manual mode, be prepared for long walks on the beach and hours of one-on-one meetings with your resident dSLR. Manual mode photography requires intimacy. If you aren’t ready for that commitment, don’t bother or you’ll just get frustrated.

In manual mode, you have control over everything: shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus points and a whole host of other intricate settings deep within that amazing machine you’re holding in your hands. Control! Taking over the photographic world!

…crud. Control. What do you set where to capture the perfect photograph?

Ranch Bronc Riding at the Palouse Empire Fair RodeoNight rodeo=challenging conditions. The photo was taken at f/2.2, shutter speed at 1/250 and ISO-800.

Because you have control over your settings in manual mode, you have to understand exposure, how light is impacting the subject you want to shoot and how that light changes from shot to shot. It’s overwhelming, and it takes a lot of practice. I sometimes still have throw-away shots where I was under- or over-exposed because I chose the wrong settings.

So why shoot in manual mode if you risk not getting the shot?

That answer won’t be the same for every photographer, but for me, photography is art. I know what I want that photo to look like, and I can’t achieve that look consistently if my camera is making the decisions. I know what depth of focus I want (aperture) and I know how I want the action stopped (shutter speed).

Shooting in either shutter priority or aperture priority allows me to control one of those settings but not both. While ISO can be manipulated in both those modes, I prefer low ISO to reduce noise.

In addition, the more familiar you are with how shutter speed, aperture and ISO play together, the better photographer you will become. Or maybe a more appropriate adjective is “consistent”. Light is what makes photography work. If you understand how to manipulate your shutter, aperture and ISO settings to make the most of available light, you are well on your way to mastering photo shoots in all types of settings.

On a final note, I don’t think shooting in manual mode makes you a better photographer. I’ve seen a few articles bordering on snobbery from people looking down their noses at those who shoot auto or semi-auto modes on a dSLR. Rubbish.

The art of photography relies on the relationship between photographer and camera. Manual mode simply deepens that relationship and helps you understand how your camera captures those once-in-a-lifetime memories.