BY: MAX LONDBERG
PHOTOS: MASON TRINCA
Female ranchers face a double struggle to keep a male-dominated and declining industry afloat
Fifty miles from Crater Lake, and thirty miles from the nearest gas station, exists a plot of Oregon history, unassumingly settled in the Klamath Basin. Address numbers aren’t needed out here. Miles, not feet, separate one property from the next. It would be impossible to miss the entrance to Yamsi Ranch, the sign on its arch announcing what lies just past the structure’s wooden arms. Beyond the entrance, several ponderosa pines tower over the rock and earth path, symbols of the ranch’s longevity and grit.
The path forks once, then twice, creating a labyrinth molded from dirt and walled by trees. After emerging from the wood, Yamsi’s size suddenly registers as thousands of acres come into view. The stretching plain is a backdrop for two model ranch homes—one sprawling, the other stoic, and both fashioned from ranchers’ hands. Cattle dot the view. Horses stare smartly, as if they can tell a visitor from a rancher.
The same family has worked this land in Chiloquin, Oregon, for more than one hundred years. Dayton Williams started the ranch in 1911, but it took nearly fifty years for the proper alpha to claim the reins. And she hasn’t let go since.
Years of hard work have slowed Gerda Hyde’s pace, but Yamsi’s longtime matriarch still has purpose to her step. Her wrists bow downward, bent after a life of physical labor. Her dangling earrings display a hint of femininity in a gruff environment.
“She’s always been my idol,” Joe Jayne says of his grandmother. “I’ve always wanted to be like her.”
North of Yamsi, in the high-desert terrain of Sisters, Oregon, is another woman, born a generation after Hyde. Vickie Herring developed a love for horses at a young age. Her father taught her to pursue everything, and the gender barriers most cowgirls faced at the time did not bar her from her passion. Her love for horses would develop from a hobby into a livelihood, and eventually to a commitment to protect them. She has been a livestock manager for more than twenty years.
For much of their lives, Hyde and Herring were minorities in a field dominated by men. But while both have fought tirelessly for their place on the ranch, they are facing an even bigger battle in the coming years–the survival of the industry itself.
As the economics of ranching have changed to favor large-scale industrial operations, small ranches have struggled–and often failed–to compete. The emotional and financial burdens prove too much for family-owned operations like those of Hyde and Herring. As a result, family-owned ranches are “largely gone as an economic entity,” according to a 2008 study by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
For ranchers, sustaining their way of life is hard enough. But there is no guarantee that their land will pass to their children when they’re gone. Many believe that Oregon’s Estate Transfer Tax—previously known as the Inheritance Tax—puts their land and lifestyle in jeopardy. Ranchers who inherit estates worth more than $1 million are taxed heavily. The tax starts at 10 percent and can run as high as 16 percent, often totaling more than a year’s income.
“Oregon has a tremendously high inheritance tax, so when my husband and I are gone, we’ll have to pay about $600,000 in Oregon taxes,” says Hyde. “It breaks up a lot of ranches. They don’t seem to realize the importance of keeping ranches in the family.”
Last November, Oregonians voted against a ballot measure that would have repealed the tax.
Yet Hyde refuses to entertain the idea that Yamsi may not be in her family once she’s gone. She has managed to steer Yamsi clear of bankruptcy for sixty-three years, a success made more remarkable because of the challenges she faced as a woman.
She was born in 1930 and raised in Woodside, California. After marrying her husband, Dayton Hyde, she moved to Yamsi ranch and was under the harsh rule of her husband’s uncle. At the time, Uncle Buck didn’t allow women to help with riding duties.
“Uncle Buck was a tyrant,” Hyde says. “We did whatever he told us to do.”
But she didn’t buckle under the pressure. Today, her resilience marks her face, the lines etched from decades of meeting the unforgiving elements with a penetrating gaze. That resilience shone on a particularly cold morning in the 1950s—a morning so cold that the men didn’t show up for the day’s labor. Hyde seized the opportunity to ride, and Uncle Buck finally let her.
“From there on out I always helped with the animals,” she says with no-nonsense candor.
Nearly a generation later, Herring faced a very different experience. Her father had always allowed her to ride horses, and she didn’t know anything about the Women’s Liberation Movement until she drove a cattle truck through California. Women on the street hailed her with shouts and saluted her with raised arms for doing a job typically handled by men in the area.
“At first I thought they were cussing us out,” she says. “I didn’t realize it was a liberation thing because I was fortunate not to grow up with that.”
But she always knew that the life of a rancher would require long, strenuous hours, resting only when the sun set, and sometimes not even then. Like Hyde, Herring chose it anyway.
“You get old really fast,” she says. “But you feel like you did something at the end of the day.”
Herring currently manages livestock on R&B Ranch in Sisters, Oregon.
Most of the animals she manages are horses, and she can describe each of their unique personalities, as if they are more family than livestock. In her youth she often entered bareback riding competitions, and she talks as fast as she rides. Her words are marked with a concern for the animals she loves, having once rescued 265 horses bound for slaughter due to a feed shortage in Canada.
“There are worse things than death for animals,” Herring says. “Deplorable conditions are worse.”
She says that arrangements such as four-wheelers have replaced the need for horses on many ranches, which can lead to the neglect that she decries.
Her own ranch initially housed more than one hundred horses. Today there are just forty.
“When the economy went down, the horse market went ‘poof,’” she says. “I’m not sure if it will ever come back.”
Herring has been managing livestock since the early ‘90s. At the time, she kept her horses in a stable owned by David Herman, who began buying ranches around Oregon in hopes of continuing a successful career in real estate. He had no experience with ranching, so he turned to Herring to drive his cattle. Her skills quickly earned her a vital role.
Herman sold R&B Ranch to its current owners, Rick and Barbara Morrill, in 2006. Family and friends ride the forty horses now, and Herring says the ranch no longer yields profit. It is funded by the owner’s income from a crane business in Salem.
Hyde and her husband bought Yamsi ranch in 1959. For the last fifty years, one thousand head of cattle have roamed Yamsi’s five thousand acres during the summers, but even that sizeable herd wasn’t enough to sustain it during the late ‘80s.
In the summer of 1987, Hyde made a decision that saved her ranch. She opened her doors to people interested in fishing the eight miles of river that snake through Yamsi. People come to the ranch for the tranquility and to enjoy the close proximity to the land, something that Hyde experiences every day.
“I don’t think there’s much romance in it,” she says, “but people love to get out of the city. That made the difference of making a living and not.”
Every summer, Hyde hosts hundreds of guests, each paying $300 a night to stay in her home. But even with the supplementary income, Yamsi can only support three families at a time.
Jeffrey Ostler, a professor at the University of Oregon specializing in the history of the American West, understands the hardships of the contemporary rancher, but he believes the industry must fend for itself.
“The cowboy has been mythologized in the west more than other occupations,” Ostler says. “I don’t know if that mythologizing tendency means that particular economic lifestyle should be granted any more protection than any other. Why should we subsidize a non-viable economy?”
The USDA offers a Beginning Rancher loan, and last year gave $1.1 billion to first-time farmers and ranchers. Hyde’s grandson, Joe Jayne, applied for the loan this year, and he used it to buy one hundred cows. He has worked on Yamsi all of his adult life, and although owning livestock for the first time is an important milestone for him, he knows it won’t necessarily spur sudden wealth.
“95 percent of the time you’re broke,” Jayne says. “You work your butt off, and your reward is that land.”
But for large-scale industrial ranches, the reward is monetary–seemingly at the cost of the local community and the environment. According to the Pew study, family-owned ranches and farms buy mostly local supplies and services, supporting rural businesses. Industrial facilities, however, typically buy cheaper feed from distant bulk suppliers. The study also stated that industrial facilities produce more manure than the land can absorb. The resulting surface and groundwater contamination becomes the responsibility of the community. Pesticides and fertilizers present a similar social burden.
“I think a lot of the small ranches are dedicated to good environmental practices. If you don’t take care of your land, you’re going to lose it,” Hyde says. “We look at our place as a whole: the bugs and the land and the birds and the trees. You get rid of one thing, pretty soon the chain breaks.”
Family ranchers go against the grain to be stewards of the land like the generations before them. But barring drastic systemic changes, they will continue to struggle. Hyde has combined hard work and timely decisions to keep Yamsi in her family. She is confident that it will remain that way after she’s gone, something she contemplates as the oldest member of her family.
“I think about that when I wake up some mornings,” she says softly. “I know I’m next.”
She can only hope family-owned ranches don’t follow her.