Sierra Cattlewomen Work Off-Ranch to Help Family Stay in the Business
There are plenty of people who -- in order to pursue their passions -- have jobs on the side to support themselves. It’s pretty common to hear about a novelist who does PR, an actor waiting tables. But a rancher?
Up in the Sierra Valley, just 30 miles from the Nevada border, I meet such a person. Twenty-nine-year-old Annie Tipton is a new mom and an elementary school teacher, but this morning she’s on the back of a pickup truck with a couple dozen cows and calves following closely behind. She’s tossing hay onto the snowy ground below, feeding the cows her family raises for beef.
“It’s always been one of my favorite things since I was a little kid,” she says. “You’re just giving them something they need, and you get to see the calves so happy, bouncing around.”
Her mom, Cindy Maddalena, is driving the truck, and Tipton's 5-month-old son is bundled up in a car seat in the cab.
“He’s interested in it,” Tipton says with a laugh. “He loves staring at the cows while we're driving. He’s going to be involved.”
That’s how she was raised.
“We would always sit on the bales and help my dad push them off,” she remembers. “And then we were on horses. I can't even remember when I didn't ride horses.”
While cows munch on hay around us, mother and daughter look out over the valley, explaining that this cooing baby makes five generations of the Maddalena family living in this place rimmed by the Sierra Nevada.
“It’s peaceful. Very wide-open,” says Tipton.
“We’re only an hour from Tahoe, so we’ve got a lot of the same climate,” explains Maddalena. “But there are no ski resorts over here.”
That’s because this is cattle country, and has been since Swiss-Italian immigrants built dairies here to sell milk and cheese to Gold Rush miners. Lots of their descendants still live and work here.
Rattling off a list of neighbors, Maddalena jokes, “Most of the names end with ‘i’ and ‘e.' ”
She says that instead of dairy cows, now they raise all-natural Black Angus cows, which they sell at auction.
“I’ve always worked on ranch,” Maddalena says. “We gather cows, I fix fence, we pull calves. I do everything.”
And everything includes working jobs referred to as “off-ranch.”
“When our kids were smaller the cow prices were not good,” Maddalena remembers. “I started cleaning houses and I worked in the local dentist office for five years.”
The family really needed the extra income, she says.
“I worked for some great people, but I’m not an inside worker. I felt like I was in prison and I wanted to come home and work on the ranch.”
She says that when they could afford it, the family made further cutbacks in their budget, and she did return to the ranch.
The Maddalenas are typical: In nearly half of all farming and ranching families in California, at least one person who works on the ranch also has a separate full-time job. Nationally, the numbers are even higher.
“I think a lot of us are willing to not make a lot of money to keep our lifestyle and to keep families on the ranch. We all work together,” Maddalena says.
One thing they all do is roping. The whole family has competed in team roping as a sport, but Annie Tipton says they practice on dummy cows -- basically, pieces of wood with heads and horns attached -- in the back yard for work around the ranch, too.
But she says only the last couple generations of women have been so hands-on with the outside work.
“When I think back, my grandmas never roped or did that kind of stuff on the ranch. Now we all love to,” says Tipton. “When I was little, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be on the ranch.”
Tipton never wanted to do anything else. After college and a desk job in the cattle industry, now she and her husband live on the ranch her parents own. Her husband is the muscle of the operation and Tipton works on the ranch every day, but her full-time job is across the valley, teaching elementary school.
“I do love teaching. I think I would miss it, but ideally -- if money were no object and benefits were no object -- I would be working on the ranch,” Tipton says.
But teaching provides some stability in an unpredictable business.
“I mean the market can fluctuate a week at a time or days at a time even," she says.
The drought has impacted water supply and the very grass the cows graze on. Consumer desires, even overseas trade agreements, can alter cattle prices.
“You have to be prepared,” Tipton says.
Early the next morning, mother and daughter and their husbands are working at their corral, along with neighbors who run a business transporting livestock in specially equipped trucks. Tipton’s mother and husband are on horseback, pushing select cows toward a chute, where her father guides them up a ramp into the truck.
The cows are moving to warmer pastures near Oroville for winter. Most of them belong to her parents, but Tipton and her husband are slowly buying their own, in part because of her teaching income.
“My husband and I right now are working towards eventually, hopefully, owning the cattle when my parents are ready to retire,” Tipton says, taking over what they and generations before them built, and keeping this family ranch going.