ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A world without coffee shops and crowds isn’t new for the Women in Ranching group, a Western Landowners Alliance initiative that connects rural ranchers.
The women usually host regional meetups, but their relationships via technology have taken on new life in light of COVID-19.
The group started a weekly Zoom call to check in with each other. The women also email updates and photos of life on their land.
Kayla Deresin manages Forked Lightning Ranch between Santa Fe and Las Vegas, New Mexico. She is part of the regional group that met at Troustalker Ranch in Chama in September.
“It’s great to meet women in this industry, to see that I’m not alone,” Deresin said. “I only work with men, and I’m their boss, so I learn how to communicate and make things better.”
The women share work opportunities and resources during the pandemic. They even helped a rancher who was traveling abroad figure out a way home.
Deresin’s trips to Albuquerque to see family stopped after coronavirus came to New Mexico, but the ranch work remained.
“You have to think, what am I going to do with myself 24/7? It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she said. “I am blessed with a job where I have the space to stay safe and keep others safe.”
Stocking up at the grocery store was Deresin’s way of life before the pandemic as rural residents never know when they will be able to make the trek into town.
“You learn to be happy at home,” Deresin said. “Don’t put pressure on yourself. Just slow down and be what you can be each day.”
Sarah Gleason ranches on 800 acres outside of Durango, Colorado, toward the New Mexico state line. Gleason spent much of the last decade working in public relations and marketing for Whole Foods and the Savory Institute.
She acquired the property in March, and now she and her husband are busy irrigating and fixing corrals and fences before the bison she has owned for several years arrive on the ranch.
“It’s been interesting making the transition at this time,” Gleason said. “I’m definitely not bored, as there is plenty of work to do. I do find myself preparing and planning more for trips into town, a situation I think a lot of people are finding themselves in now. I don’t think much about social isolation, because that’s just life out here.”
For Gleason, the weekly check-in calls mean taking a step back to appreciate small victories.
“Everything feels hard now. It feels like it takes more effort than it should,” she said. “It’s easy to fixate on our to-do list when we’re constantly inside our own heads. Sharing struggles, strength, hope and positivity with others helps us gain perspective.”
The women are given homework assignments before each call. They were challenged to share a recent moment that made them feel wonder or awe. Another time the women attended with a favor to ask or a resource to offer their community.
Amber Smith, director of the Women in Ranching program, said there is power in bringing together women in agriculture, whether in-person or virtually. Smith ranches in Cohagen, Montana, and is balancing ranch work with home schooling her two children.
“We are running businesses, raising families, wearing a lot of hats,” Smith said. “Most of these women don’t ever step away from their operations, so this is a chance for them to connect.”
One participant joined the weekly call while filling food delivery boxes with produce from her farm. Another rancher was nursing her baby and bouncing a toddler on her leg.
The women set goals: writing books, starting new businesses, buying more livestock and learning new skills are endeavors born from the program.
Smith, who didn’t grow up in a rural area, said what she learned in making the shift to rural life is helpful for those just now adjusting to a new normal.
“Suddenly it’s just you, so you have to get to know yourself well enough to know what you need to thrive,” Smith said. “All of us need a sense of purpose every single day. Gratitude, especially in these hard times, is a game changer.”
Smith walks or works with her horses to stay mentally healthy. She is taking on small projects around the house and video chatting with her dad and siblings.
“Humans are meant to take care of each other,” Smith said. “If you need help right now, you should ask. We need a sense of community, and we have opportunities now to connect in new ways.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.