Find your common purpose in an uncommon career
Lora Soderquist lives outside Bozeman, Montana. Driven to provide community and environmental impact, she is grounded in her connection to the land and people around her. Her choices revolve around the best life she can provide for her son, Jack.
When Lora became a single parent, she stood at a crossroads with which many of us are familiar. Her life had just taken an unexpected turn. She had one critical mission: How could she provide financially for her son and still spend quality time with him?
Lora had a choice — take a traditional job that would give her financial stability but most certainly place her son in daycare, or somehow realize her true vocation combining her education and passion for holistic land management.
While a student at Montana State University (MSU), someone introduced her to using animals as a tool for land management. Through a contact in the herding business, she spent two summers in Wyoming as a herder learning the ropes. She continued her shepherding journey with two summers in Mongolia, working with semi-nomadic herding families as part of an MSU collaboration with the non-profit BioRegions. When she told me she was going to Mongolia to herd, I thought she intended to learn about their herding practices. Instead, the trip’s mission was to help Mongolians return to their ancient herding traditions that had been lost through the ages.
Good land management is the balance of social, ecological, and financial elements. Lora was already motivated by social and ecological aspects. Now, she needed to find a way to make money.
This article is her story about operating a goat enterprise.
Weeds and invasive plants
Goats are an excellent approach to holistic land management, helping to control weeds and reduce the use of herbicides. Goats can get into hard-to-reach areas, reduce human effort, and the goats’ excrement helps nourish the soil.
In Montana, weed management is regulated by law, so there is motivation from a regulation standpoint to keep them under control. There are also efforts to remove invasive plants; what seems to be a pretty wildflower can be a non-native invasive species that threaten the unique landscape’s natural ecosystem.
Besides the environmental benefits, there is an economic reason for weed control. “We were spending $20,000 a year to control yellow star, a noxious weed, and we couldn’t get ahead of it,” reports Ray Holes, recalling why he started using goats on his property in Idaho.[i]
Lora worked with the Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Cascade County, Montana, whose investment in prairie restorations led to hosting goats for three years. [ii] The goats eat the leaves of up to six varieties of weeds on the base, keeping them from seeding and spreading and helping the grass restore.
Some organizations Lora worked with, such as the US Fish and Wildlife, seek alternatives to herbicides because of water or fish research.
Rangelands provide an essential element in the larger social-ecological system, and the goats provide the critical action of returning to the natural cycle by grazing. The Western landscape, Lora points out, was grazed, not with cattle, but with bison. Although the goats cannot achieve the same mass, their targeted grazing mimics the historical actions of 30,000 pounds per acre of grazing bison.
HOW IT WORKS
Lora called Ray Holes, nicknamed “The Goat King,” a man who essentially franchises goats to use for weed control. In her arrangement, Lora made the local contacts and ran the operations; Holes supplied everything else.
A herd of goats runs around 500 head, but you need more than goats. Holes not only supplied goats, but Peruvian goat herders, their horses, their dogs, trailers and camping equipment, transport of humans, dogs, and goats, and even fencing supplies. The goat herders have an agricultural visa, so they can stay and work in the United States for three years. When they are not herding goats, Holes is still responsible for their year-round livelihood.
Lora would make the local contacts, estimate the job, and run all the operations once Holes delivered the goats. It seemed fairly straightforward at the onset, but like any venture, it was fraught with unknowns, and as Lora discovered, some discoveries about herself.
To estimate a job, Lora would start with standard inputs. She began with an average daily cost, and then from an on-site assessment, compute the complexity of the job and the area’s size. A typical influencer of a product’s price is demand and availability, and this enterprise had some unusual elements to assess. Lora needed to take growing seasons into account, along with the number of goats required for the area and the speed they need to graze to keep the underlying grasses healthy. Timing is an essential element. When the growing season in one region is complete, the goats are picked up and transported to another area or state.
Lora’s pricing strategy evolved with experience. She started with a cost-plus model; she tracked her hours and expenses and negotiated with Ray for a profit percentage. Some contracts, such as the one with the Air Force Base, meant she couldn’t use the Peruvian herders. She had to find local citizens to herd for the summer. The labor price was elevated, which, in turn, affected her pricing model.
Once Lora got some experience under her belt, her pricing evolved to a value-proposition model, establishing a monthly fee that equated loosely to around a 60/40 profit share but without day-to-day labor tracking and costs.
Operations for the goat enterprise included grocery shopping for the herders and the dogs, delivering goods to the mountainside camps, checking on the projects, and moving the herds to the next location. While the Peruvian herders were familiar with treating the goats, Lora would acquire the medicines needed. If any goats became sick or hurt, she helped to vaccinate and doctor the goats.
Not everyone is a fan of the goats. Old-school ranch managers often prefer more efficient, familiar ways of operating. Spraying the weeds would be faster. Some ranchers worry that the goats will consume forage intended for livestock. Targeted grazing, however, increases forage by keeping the herds on the move. [i] In addition, conflict with the goats and predators in that valley is a story of its own.
Like anything with animals involved, there were some unforeseen experiences. One memorable day in the picturesque Tom Miner Basin, a lone wolf attacked one of the herds. The wolf waited until the goats were drinking at a stream, hemmed in a low area. He started a fight with a guard dog, grabbed a goat, and ran off with it. This shocking behavior was witnessed by people, watching the wolf drag a goat across the road. If a car approached, the wary wolf would wait until it passed to continue. And again, and again. Lora recalls the herder calling her with news of the attack; she thought he was reporting a single event, something that had happened the day before, perhaps.
“We are still under attack,” the desperate Peruvian revealed. Ten goats, from yearlings to young goats, were killed and dragged off in just a few hours. It was Lora’s responsibility to find and dump the dead goats, a physically challenging and emotionally draining task that still haunts her. While livestock mortality is a normal part of ranching, the extensive carnage was harrowing.
Products marketed as “predator-friendly” are rare in mainstream markets since this is more about public perception than a source of income.[iii] The B-Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin is one of those ranches, owned by MaryAnn Motts, heiress to the Motts applesauce empire. The organic ranch practices extensive efforts to balance human activities with its conservation efforts. Just north of Yellowstone National Park, the ranch people share the habitat with wildlife — including wolves, bears, and elk. “Let us be known by our deeds,” the Motts family motto, is reflected in the dedication to the ranch’s extensive conservation efforts.
An article in Montana living states, “The ranch uses horses for most of its operations, relies on its greenhouse to supplement the kitchen’s needs for organic vegetables, and feeds its guests and workers its own organic beef. A windmill assists in the ranch’s electrical needs, and wood heat keeps the greenhouse operating even in winter.” [iv]
Using goats for weed control was one of those conservation efforts. It was this scenic ranch that was the scene of the horrific wolf attack. On a predator-friendly farm, anything that disrupts the balance has to go. In this instance, it was the goats that had to go. Luckily, one of the high-profile celebrities who have made the picturesque valley their home had acreage nearby that needed weed management. The goats had new pastures to graze.
Women in Agriculture
While female goat herders might be a common site in Mongolia, it’s not a career that springs to mind even when considering women in agriculture. As Lora and I talk through this fascinating enterprise’s various aspects, I am struck by the number of women she mentions in what might seem unusual vocations for women.
Notable women in this area include a local wolf biologist, Abby Blake, and the B-Bar ranch owner, Maryanne Motts. Malou Anderson-Ramirez and Hilary Zaranek-Anderson manage the Anderson-Pope ranch, another predator-friendly, progressive enterprise near the B-Bar. Lora noted that “women in agriculture cannot take a well-traveled path; otherwise, they would just be following in the footsteps of men.”
The female influence in agriculture is strong and growing. The 2019 census revealed that well over half of all farms have at least one female decision-maker.[v]
If you find this surprising, Lora describes how she surprised even herself in some aspects of the enterprise. “I’d never driven a double-sided 5th wheel trailer before,” she recounts with a chuckle.
An essential aspect of land management, and one that resonates with Lora, is the community aspect. When people asked why there were goats around, she had an opportunity to teach them more about their landscape, the grazing history of the area, and different approaches to land management. She is a compelling storyteller, with experiences from the bucolic pastures of Montana to the arid geography of Mongolia, where she told me once, “even the water tastes like mutton.”
Coming from an agricultural background, Lora wants Jack to experience the connection to the land that she had, growing up on a farm in Idaho. Her son, now 7, still talks about the summers with the goats. Many people, like my husband and myself, are overcome with the beauty and tranquility of the aptly named Paradise Valley. The valleys she tended to are thriving ecosystems with daily sightings of bears, wolves, and elks living in a unique balance with each other and humans in this spectacular landscape.
The Japanese have a word for Lora’s experience, this union of passion, vocation, profession, and mission. They profess it to be the secret of a long and happy life. The word is “ikigia” (pronounced ick-ee-guy.) There isn’t really an English word that translates well, but essentially, ikigia is about feeling that your work is making a difference.
With the issues that the pandemic has caused this year with the loss of jobs and the shuttering of doors of organizations that couldn’t survive the shut-down, many people find themselves at the same crossroads Lora did.
For those standing at the crossroads, may you also find your ikigia. Perhaps the path will lead you down the road less traveled. May you not be distracted with the lone wolf of adversity; may you find your Paradise Valley.
Are you searching for your purpose? I’d love to hear if this inspires you to take the plunge into entrepreneurship, or you could write to say hi.
Hone your craft, speak your truth, show your thanks