As women ranchers form alliances around the state and the West and gain influence, two are also serving in the Colorado General Assembly, and one is now leading the Senate's Agriculture Committee. Here's a look:
Rep. Kimmi Lewis
Lewis, a Republican, is in her second term representing House District 64. She lives in Kim, in Las Animas County.
She owns the Muddy Valley Ranch, with 400 mother cows, including 100 from her son.
The ranch has been in Lewis’ family since 1958. Lewis didn’t inherit the ranch; she and her late husband bought it from her father, and with life insurance proceeds from her late husband, Lewis bought more land. Today, the Muddy Valley is up to 18,500 acres.
It’s a big deal, Lewis said.
“Where I’m from in rural cow country, there are a lot of women ranchers," she said. "I grew up here and was a peer to some of the young men around here. It is a male-dominated world, but in southeast Colorado there are probably more women ranchers who make their living from cattle and livestock. I’m a very competitive person; I was the first state farmer in the Kim FFA (Future Farmers of America) chapter. It doesn’t bother me to be in a male-dominated industry.”
Lewis came from a family of daughters. “We didn’t know anything different” than ranching, she said. “We worked like men.”
When Lewis is at the Capitol, two of her six children help at the ranch, including a son who lives nearby. They also hire someone to help during the legislative session on a part-time basis.
“It takes all of us," she said. "We run this ranch like a business. I’m not a hobby farmer, I’m the real deal.”
Running a ranch impacts how she Lewis operates in the legislature, she said. “As a business owner, it prepares you for the Capitol. It’s amazing to me; I’ve learned how bills are formed, and then you wonder about the red tape. Now I know where it comes from,” she said.
One of Lewis’ passions at the Capitol is a bill on “country of origin” labeling, a measure that she’s run for the last two years without success. She’d like to see beef identified in the grocery stores with a label that identifies the country it came from.
“We’re proud of what we produce,” no different from the cantaloupe farmer in the Arkansas Valley, the potato farmer in the San Luis or the sweet corn grower in Olathe, she said.
“We would like to have the consumer know where that meat is from, ... but can’t figure out why we can’t get passed the big meat packers” who have worked to see the bill defeated, she said.
There’s more money made off of beef in the United States than any other commodity, Lewis said.
“I’ve had cattle ever since I was 8 [years old]. When I get done at the state Capitol, I’m that same old ranch girl and will come back here and it doesn’t change.”
Sen. Kerry Donovan
Donovan, a Democrat, is in her second term representing Senate District 5. She lives in Vail.
She has 25 head of cattle on her Copper Bar Ranch. The ranch’s name is something of a play on words, Donovan said; her family used to have a bar in Vail called the Copper Bar, so the ranch now carries on that name.
Donovan raises Scottish Highland cattle, one of the oldest breeds of cattle in the world but one that didn’t make it to the United States until about a century ago. It’s a breed well-suited to Colorado’s tough weather conditions.
Donovan is one of about 30 Colorado members of the American Highland Cattle Association.
Donovan has been raising Highland cattle for about 10 years. Before that, “we raised salers,” a type of red Angus that also does well at high altitude. Her dad sold the salers and Donovan decided she would step in and run the Copper Bar Ranch.
“It’s a small operation; none of us live off the ranch," she said.
Highlands have a high “drop” rate, which means easy calving. “Since I would be on my own, it seemed like a very practical way to pick an animal. They’re also good foragers; they climb hills and eat everything. That’s a good fit for my property.”
When she’s at the Capitol, the cattle live in a smaller pasture and are easier to take care of; her parents toss hay to the cattle, the ranch’s horses and mules. “I have to beg and plead my family” to help in the winter, she said.
One thing Donovan doesn’t have to deal with is spring calving. Although she is growing her herd -- she has a couple of bulls -- she adjusted the calving season so that the mothers wouldn’t give birth during the session.
Donovan said the first calf is due a week after the 2019 session ends. “That’s the theory” at least, she said, in hopes of no special sessions.
“We really wanted to keep the ranch and it was facing development pressure,” Donovan said of her decision to get into ranching. “It was our commitment to keep it” the way it’s always been, a modest ranch.
“We needed to keep it running cattle” that would make money, she said.
Donovan became the ranch manager after a family meeting; at the end of that meeting she was running the ranch.
One of the bigger challenges is being a first-generation rancher, especially in an area where few neighbors have ranches. “When I’m running beginning-farmer legislation [as she did in the 2018 session], it’s very authentic because I’ve been experiencing it for the past 10 years. How do you learn this stuff?”
The challenges of being a woman rancher are similar to the challenges women face in other professions, Donovan said, such as how to negotiate. In ranching, that means cattle prices, hay, seed, and sellers don’t always expect a woman to push back on prices, she said.
Another challenge, she said: a cultural expectation that women can’t do things by themselves.
“When I’m running that ranch, I’m doing everything, there is no help,” she said, and that means fixing the tractor, build the fences, brand the cattle, pull the horse out of the much. “You just do it.”
In the 2019 session, Donovan is the new chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. She will be the first Democratic senator and woman who is also a producer to chair the committee, and Donovan is the only member of the Senate Democratic caucus who is in the agriculture and livestock industry.
“You don’t have to be in the profession to run a committee, but where it does help is in agriculture," she said.
"There isn’t an analogous profession to being a rancher and the challenges, where you have to go in the red to buy the seed, to plant the crop, to hopefully make money, to go into black after you sell the crop. But if commodity prices drop [between buying the seed and harvest], you’re in a challenging place. You don’t take holidays off or close your door at 5 p.m.”
It’s also a more conservative industry, Donovan said. As a Democrat, being able to visit people and talk about bulls and cows and silage, opens the doors to having political conversations that might not happen otherwise, she said.
“I walk in wearing a cowboy hat and walk into a club where a Democrat might not be let in.”
Her ranch isn’t on the scale of some of her friends on the Eastern Plains, but being a rancher “allows us to share the same dialogue and have tougher conversations than if we started from different places.”