I wasn’t always a rancher. Or an entrepreneur. Or an Arizonan. Actually, my life was on a completely different path. From Air Force officer to D.C.-based policy analyst to PhD candidate to professor, I achieved things that in my youth, I could only dream of. Yet my life still seemed somehow empty. I longed for something different: for freedom from the constraints of the modern world… for ownership of my own life… to be more autonomous and self-reliant… to work for something that belonged to me… to take back my life, decide how to spend my own time… to have the space to breathe… to be surrounded by nature rather than by buildings and busy people… to be at peace in the world. I guess I have my Dad to thank (or blame) for that. He grew up around farming and still talks about the homestead-style farm he spent many childhood days on; the lifestyle is deeply rooted in my family… and though I grew up in the suburbs of a major city dreaming of a more conventional brand of career success, the yearning for this life somehow still passed from his heart to mine.
There were two major events that set me on this journey. The first was leaving my old life and the second, starting the new. Before I could get here, though, I had to make peace with the abandonment of an old dream. My early months in Washington D.C. were experienced with more wonder than reality. I distinctly remember this feeling when I joined a softball league that included members of congress and their staff, executive branch officials, and lobbyists. When we played under the Washington Monument, with Capitol Hill in full view, it felt like I was playing in the center of the world. I took a job at the U.S. Treasury, and later, at the U.S. State Department. When the shine wore off, though, it didn’t leave anything real to hold on to.
Every day, I rode the metro 3 stops, got off at Foggy Bottom and trudged to work in either swamp-like humidity that left a layer of sweat between myself and my suit or in frigid wind that left me with a permanent slump from ducking my head down and shrugging my shoulders forward to shield myself from the cold. The section of the orange line I lived next to was not-so-affectionately dubbed the “orange crush” by its frequent riders because of the way you had to pack in like sardines to get on a train during the morning rush hour. Office life was characterized by constant competition for who could put in the most hours, but I can’t say I was ever really sure what I was accomplishing. That’s not to say nothing was ever done… just that you’re a small cog in a big machine, and I needed to be grounded in something that felt real. I’d been racing to nowhere. I hadn’t been truly challenged or done anything that felt worthwhile in a long time, and every day, I became increasingly untethered from a life with meaning & purpose.
So one day, I left. I picked up some hiking shoes, a backpack, and a buttload of MREs, flew to Atlanta, got a ride to the start of the Appalachian Trail, and started hiking. I hiked through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, finally emerging when I got near to D.C. This blog isn’t about the AT; I could write a book on that experience. But the day I started, full of fear as I was… it was the first time I’d felt challenged, authentic, and whole in a long time. By the time I got off the trail, I knew I wasn’t going back to the Capital. I was going out west. Arizona, with its abundant sunshine, rugged landscape, and tough desert folk was beckoning me home.
I mentioned a second event that was critical to finding my new path… and that was meeting my husband. If the farm life was in my blood, it was in his bones. Settled in Arizona since the 19th century, his ancestors had been farming and ranching this desert before it was even a state. Tall and sturdy, with a perpetual tan, he sits a horse and wears a cowboy hat so naturally he looks as though that desert ranch I dreamt of was created just for him to have a backdrop that suits him. I had the drive and the desire and he had the know-how; together, we would make our dreams a reality. And so we are.
We aren’t there yet, it’s a work in progress. Some days it seems like we’ll never get there. We don’t have the expansive desert ranch we want to build our lives on, not yet. We have a suburban home in south Gilbert, in a tract neighborhood built on what was once miles of farmland. We rent a feed yard for our cows and drive to it every day to see them fed, watered, and cared for. It’s suburban ranching all right; there’s enough space that you can clearly see the San Tan mountain range and there’s a little elbow room for the animals, but new housing developments surround the land and every day we wonder just how long we have left before it’s gone too. Can we build our dream and take the cows with us before the clock runs out? It’s a gamble. Our operation is scattered; the site where green waste is turned into a bio-rich soil amendment is a 20-minute drive from the feed yard, which is another 20 minutes from our home. We rent cold storage space in Phoenix for the finished beef and make that 45-minute trek back and forth every time we harvest an animal or a new round of orders comes in. The operation we’re building is a vertically integrated, closed-loop system that can change desert farming for the better. We make it more sustainable, more financially viable. We revitalize old ways of caring for the land that have been forgotten since the advent of the factory farm; we leave the soil better than we found it, with improved water retention and livelier crops. More on that on our about us page. But we can’t bring it all together until we own the land we’re on. Every box of beef we sell, every green waste contract we bring in, is another small step closer. But every day we get to wake up and work on our own dream. We get to build our own life.
Sometimes it’s really hard. Sometimes we question our own sanity, the amount of (literally) blood, sweat, and –yes—tears that we put in. There was the time I fell off a haystack and I swear, my skeleton hurt for a week. There was the time I stabbed myself in the side with a hay hook. The time I clambered up the fence to get out of the way of a running cow only to remember my job was supposed to be to stop it. We had to start the sorting all over. Everyone was really pleased with me… But here are the things I knew nothing about when I started and have since learned: business accounting, marketing, sales, web design, social media, managing staff, cold supply chains, butchering beef, working with restaurants, managing inventory, animal nutrition, safe handling of perishable foods, state & federal labeling laws, handling & raising cows, and the beef industry. Some of these I would even call myself expert on now. And I’m still learning new things. This week, I learned to drive a tractor. It started with some swearing and yes, even crying, and ended with me standing up off the seat shouting at my husband over the diesel engine “I AM A TRACTOR DRIVER NOW!”
It’s actually a pretty great way to start the day. And as I chugged along at 3 1/2 mph taking in the mountains and the cows and the sunshine all around me, from 1,642 miles away, I felt close to my Dad.
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Alicia Perry, PhD, Owner/Operator and all around Hay Maven (see my blog post on the time I fell off a haystack...). I share industry insights, tips & tricks on grilling great beef, and my personal journey into the ranching world.