We’d like to share the story of Jeannie McCormack, Niman Ranch’s first ever lamb producer. Her family ranch was originally founded in the hills of California in 1896 by Jeannie’s grandfather, Dan McCormack, and had been run by her father, Wallace, since 1934. This makes her the third generation to care for the land.
Jeannie and her husband, Al Medvitz, returned home to raise sheep after living for 15 years in Boston and Africa. When they arrived at the McCormack Family Cattle Ranch in October of 1987, Jeannie started working in the sheep barn learning about lambing from her father’s Peruvian sheepherder. Al started driving tractor under the tutelage of John Lopez, a man in his 70’s who had worked for her father since he was a boy.
They knew nothing about ranching, so the challenges were enormous at first. Her husband was a city boy who truly wanted to farm, and Jeannie just wanted to come home. She had grown up in the small town near their ranch and even though she spent every weekend with her father riding horseback, following him around on his ranch tasks, she didn’t completely comprehend its complexities. She hadn’t worked the land to its fullest capacity until now.
In the fall of 1989, only two years after they started ranching, her father and Al both got cancer. Jeannie was left to run the place by herself, barely knowing what to do: “Without the help of friends, I would have sunk. In June of 1990, Earl Jordan, an itinerant mechanic and pal of Al’s, said to me, ‘Jeannie, I don’t want to interfere, but when do you plan to put the bucks in?’ I had forgotten to put the rams in with the ewes in May and therefore forgotten to breed next year’s crop of lambs! Mortifying.” They also experienced a six-year drought shortly after, long lasting depression in the lamb market and other financial obstacles. Her father and Al’s illnesses took their toll – Wallace experienced serious lasting effects, causing the couple to take over the family operation in 1993.
Despite the initial and enduring hardships, ranching is incredibly rewarding for Jeannie. They currently raise around 2,000 lambs for Niman Ranch annually and grow crops integral to their operation. Wheat, barley, safflower, alfalfa hay and grapes are planted in some of their fields, and native grasses were seeded into permanent pastures in 2004 to sustainably control invasive weeds. The couple worked hard to preserve farmland in their county by securing a permanent agricultural easement, which means their 3,400 acres will never be developed for commercial or residential use.
As a woman in agriculture, Jeannie feels we’ve progressed in making a place for women in the fields. For years she was the only woman at local meetings. She felt she could sense condescension on the part of older men, but she knew they were flattered, in a way, that she – and educated woman who had traveled and worked all over the world – chose to come home and work on this hard ground. She mostly noticed a difference because the men in her community grew up working on the land, while she didn’t.
When she was in high school, there was no Future Farmers of America for girls, just Future Homemakers of America, where girls could learned to sew and cook. When looking back on her progression, she realizes, “I’m artistic and literary but a failure as an engineer. I have been so dependent over these years and unable to know if someone is repairing something properly or not.” She feels that this learning curve has its drawback at times, but ultimately, she’s doing the right thing. “I love to farm because every day of my life I think of my father, my grandfather and my grandmother,” Jeannie proclaims. “I imagine what they did as I go about my daily tasks. I love this land.”
Jeannie is no longer the only woman at her local meetings, and she takes pride in all she’s accomplished since returning to her family ranch almost 30 years ago. When asked what message she would like to share with other women who either are looking to farm or have just started out farming, Jeannie responded:
“I would tell other women to learn as much as you can from books, courses, and people about what you are doing, but mostly spend a lot of time observing. Value your own observations, of plants, animals and the like, more than what your neighbors say you should be doing. Try small experiments, and if they work, enlarge them. Figure out your finances and keep on top of them. Be prepared for the permanent loss of weekends and holidays, but always appreciate what the land and the livestock are giving back to you.”