Virginia Sutherland sits in her orderly ranch kitchen in Moffat, Colo. She’s drinking a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette, and fiddling with a box of recipe cards. But we are not about to discuss the finer points of angel food cake — the recipe cards describe each of her 250 cows that she runs with her daughter, Lynn.
“They describe everything,” says Virginia, drawing hard on her cigarette. “If one of them had a calf and went off and left it four times in a row. Oh, here’s one! Gelvie cross — that’s a breed. Lunatic!” She laughs and looks out the window, where the wind is whipping up the San Luis valley in front of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
Virginia is a tall, straight 73-year-old. She had major surgery two weeks ago. Still, she’s going to do the evening check of the corrals and fields that surround her house. “She’s so tough, her blood pressure didn’t even waver or anything,” says Lynn, 45. Virginia adds, “People came to visit me in the hospital, but I was already gone.”
The women have been operating the ranch since Virginia’s husband died in 1990. Lynn spends her summers running the cattle on the family’s public land allotments in the mountains. “I go clear up to 11,000 feet,” says Lynn. “I’m on jeep, and horseback. No electricity. Rattlesnakes. My little dog.” During calving season this spring, they got some help from Peggy Godfrey, a neighbor and cowboy poet whom they hired to check on the cows at night.
After her husband died, Virginia worked with the local soil conservation service officials to irrigate her hayfields more efficiently. And Peggy raises a string of cattle without pesticides or hormones to feed to “recovering vegetarians” from nearby Crestone, Colo.
But despite their own environmental tendencies, the women have a shared disdain for those Peggy has dubbed “lawnmower environmentalists,” who drive in from California or Colorado’s populous Front Range and judge the ranches of Moffat too harshly. “What they don’t understand,” says Peggy, her cheeks coloring, “is this is a desert here. What they see is due to seven inches of precipitation annually, not to ranching.”
Virginia has had plenty of experience ranching on this land. She grew up down the road. “Dad went into the sheep business,” she says. “They all bought sheep. So our outfit was for a long time 1,000 to 1,200 range sheep. Cattle were just a sideline at first. They were all thin, peaky-reared cows that put out to about starve someplace, running through the brush with some little bitty calf after him.”
Times were tough then, but they’re even tougher now. Lynn estimates she makes about $4.50 an hour; Virginia doesn’t take any money at all out of the operation. “We’re just maintaining, just keeping it patched up,” she says.
“We’re getting about the same price now as we were 20 years ago,” Virginia says. “We were making 70 cents [per pound] in the late 70s, and in the 80s it went up to 90 cents and a dollar, and we thought we were going to make a pretty good living. But then it went down in the last nine or 10 years to 60 and 70 cents a pound for a 550-pound steer, while I hear the economy in this country is great. Just great. Meanwhile, the cost of gasoline and machines and every single thing we buy is up up up.”
Other than hiring occasional help, the women run the place themselves. Much to the surprise of implement salesmen and mechanics they encounter. “They don’t believe me when I tell them,” says Lynn. “‘Surely there must be a man out there,’ they say. And I say, ‘We had a young man who was trying to help us, but he left weeks ago. It was too tough for him.’
“Or when I go to the implement place, you know they’re going to think you’re retarded, and you certainly won’t know that it’s a left-hand nut you want. And they look on their little microfiche and say, ‘Lady, you want this,’ and I say, ‘No, I know what I want. It rotates, and it does this little gizmo.’ ‘No, lady, you don’t.’” She laughs: “It gets to be quite a battle.”