Elizabeth Zach's story opens in a bar in Highwood, Montana, where the 76-year-old rancher Donna Schroeder points out two cattle brands carved into a wooden block. The first she shared with her husband, she says, the other she adopted after his death more than four decades ago – over which time she continued to run herds of 350-odd cattle on her own.
Zach, writing under a Western Journalism and Media Fellowship from the Bill Lane Center for the American West, continues,
Donna is a striking example of an intriguing and expansive demographic in America today. According to the Economic Research Service, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency, in the past three decades the number of women-operated farms has increased substantially in the nation. Between 1978 and 2007, when the last agriculture census was completed, the number of women-operated farms in the U.S. grew from 306,200 to nearly a million. Women run 13 percent of all the nation’s farms and are 30 percent of all farmers in the U.S.
Since this past January, Zach has been traveling throughout the rural West interviewing women farmers and ranchers about their lives and livelihoods, compiling a moving portrait of a changing field though interviews with more than 50 subjects. Zach writes that the women she encountered ranged widely in age, background, and agricultural products, ranging from cattle ranchers to wine and artisinal cheese makers, from sheep herders to lavender growers.
One of Zach's most memorable subjects, a Colorado convent where nuns rise at dawn to tend cattle, gather eggs, make cheese and run a working farm, was just featured in the October 26 issue of High Country News. Zach, a prolific freelance journalist with bylines in The New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications, is also a staff writer for the Rural Community Assistance Corporation in Sacramento. The RCAC has published a long-form version of Zach's reporting on its newly relaunched website, and Zach is working with the Center to develop more outlets for her continuing reporting on the topic, including the Spence and Cleone Eccles Rural West Conference taking place next March in Missoula, Montana.