How many of us have a desire to get more involved in organizations and make a difference? Or perhaps you’ve been contemplating how to tell your farm or ranch’s story to consumers, but don’t know how to get started. I think many of us can relate to having those feelings from time to time, and that’s why I’m so excited for you to hear from today’s guest.
Robbie LeValley is a rancher, businesswoman and past president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. She also has many years of experience talking with consumers about where their food comes from and dispelling common agriculture myths. In this episode of the Trailblazing in Agriculture podcast, Robbie shares about her family’s cow-calf operation and their commitment to land stewardship, discusses her journey to becoming the second female president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, encourages us all to get more involved in organizations, and gives us insight into her family’s involvement in a USDA beef processing facility and retail store and how that jumpstarted her passion for talking to consumers.
I can’t wait for you to hear Robbie’s story, and I hope you are inspired by Robbie’s passion for dispelling myths and telling agriculture’s story.
Episode 2 Transcript
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Jessie Topp-Becker: Hey, Trailblazers! It’s Jessie, and I’m so glad you’re joining me for Episode 2 of Trailblazing in Agriculture – a podcast for anyone interested in hearing the stories of the agriculture industry’s pioneers and innovators.
How many of us have a desire to get more involved in organizations and make a difference? Or perhaps you’ve been contemplating how to tell your farm or ranch’s story to consumers, but don’t know how to get started. I think many of us can relate to having those feelings from time to time, and that’s why I’m so excited for you to hear from today’s guest. Robbie LeValley is a rancher, businesswoman and past president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. She also has many years of experience talking with consumers about where their food comes from and dispelling common agriculture myths. In today’s episode, Robbie shares about her family’s cow-calf operation and their commitment to land stewardship, discusses her journey to becoming the second female president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, encourages us all to get more involved in organizations, and gives us insight into her family’s involvement in a USDA beef processing facility and retail store and how that jumpstarted her passion for talking to consumers.
Robbie, I want to first welcome you to the podcast. I’m so glad that you’re able to join me today.
Robbie LeValley: Thanks, Jessie. I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you today. It’s an incredible opportunity to speak to all of the ag industry and specifically to those that perhaps are just getting started.
Jessie: You’ve been involved in the agriculture industry for your whole life. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Robbie: I grew up in northern Wyoming on a cow-calf ranch. And from there, went to junior college and then on to Colorado State University where I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. And then went back to Wyoming and worked for the University of Wyoming for a year and then came to Colorado to work for Colorado State University. We have a cow-calf operation here in western Colorado as well, where we have a diversified cow-calf, direct meat marketing, as well as big game and small game hunting enterprises.
Jessie: You mentioned that you and your family are currently on a ranch in Colorado. That ranch that you and your husband manage has been in your family – your husband’s family – for many generations, I believe. Can you give us some more insight into that operation?
Robbie: My husband’s family has been here in the Central West Colorado, between Gunnison and Crawford and Grant and Hotchkiss, since the early 1900s. His family started the cow-calf business there, and each generation has added to the land base and the cattle base and the different enterprises. Now, our son has come back; he received his bachelor’s from West Texas A&M two years ago. Now he’s back on the ranch with us, so now he’s the fourth generation on the LeValley Ranch.
Jessie: It’s always fun to hear about stories where families are able to transition and keep the operation in their family, and I’m sure that’s something really special for your family as well.
Robbie: Absolutely. When we’re, you know, looking around and we’re looking at the land and making the management decisions, the fact that we have the fourth generation there, it changes the conversation, it adds to the management and it certainly makes all of this worthwhile.
Jessie: One of the unique things to your operation, or what I think is unique, because it’s different from what I grew up in, is that the land around your ranch is both private and federal land; and it’s home to the Gunnison Sage Grouse, which is a protected animal as an endangered species. How has having your cattle graze that land help the sage grouse?
Robbie: Thanks for that question. We work hard and in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management and with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Gunnison Sage Grouse is a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and its nesting habitat is not only on our private ground, but our Bureau of Land Management ground as well. And so we have been in a deferred rotation since the mid-90s, specifically for the nesting habitat. We do not graze the same piece of ground continuously; we are always moving the cattle around and we’re not in the same place at the same time in consecutive years either. And what that does is add to the root mass, which adds to the top growth and certainly provides for additional cover. We know through the collaring of birds in partnership with USGS [U.S. Geological Survey], that those birds like areas where the cattle provide that additional protection for them as well as the symbiotic relationship of healthy lands and healthy grouse and healthy cows.
Jessie: Given your background with range science and some of the work experience that you’ve had – and obviously this work that your family has done – land management is something that you’ve dealt with a lot, and obviously an area that your family prioritizes on your operation. Where did that focus on prioritizing land stewardship come from, Robbie?
Robbie: When we were growing up in in Wyoming, we always had the large landscapes of sagebrush and grass, and so my granddad and my dad would always talk about, you know, let’s make sure that we’ve left the grass and we’ve got that focus on the grass, and it continued here in Colorado. There is nothing more satisfying than to watch a piece of ground over consecutive years respond to not only the management changes, but you can see the resiliency. We are experiencing a severe drought right now, and yet when I dig up the roots of our grass plants, our rangeland plants, they’re still healthy. A grass plant is an incredible species that has the ability to shut completely down when there is no water, no precipitation, and yet the roots are still alive and the roots are still there waiting for that precipitation to come. We have that ability to watch a piece of landscape change, and that’s too often what somebody who just comes by once or twice every other year or only sees it once doesn’t have that ability to see – that long-term response that a landscape will, and it will respond to management changes.
Jessie: Since you and your husband have managed the ranch, and now that your son’s coming on, what specific management changes have you implemented over the years, Robbie?
Robbie: Our grazing plan is the is the No. 1 management change we’ve made since the early 90s. We’ve added enterprises and certainly that adds to the management focus for us. But as far as management of the range land and the cattle, the most significant thing we have done since the early ‘90s is our grazing plan. And it’s not only for the Gunnison Sage Grouse, but it certainly is for that resiliency as well in our rangeland.
Jessie: So obviously, the name of the podcast is Trailblazing in Agriculture. And we’re just kind of getting started, but it’s been fun to tell the stories of people who have made an impact in the agriculture industry, and that includes yourself. One of the times that you had the opportunity to be a trailblazer was when you were elected president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association in 2010. At that time, you were only the second woman to lead the association. Can you share with us a little bit about what that experience was like, Robbie?
Robbie: It was an honor to serve in that capacity for the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. It was definitely an incredible experience to travel around the state and visit with all sorts of producers and just hear from them and then take that message to the Colorado state legislative body and directly to our decision makers in Washington, D.C., and then really carry that voice forward. The great thing about agriculture is it has always been very much an equal opportunity place. When you think about the individuals that are on the ranch or the individuals that are on the farm, very few times is that gender based. It is definitely that we need everyone with the ability to work, the ability to add to the conversation, and the ability to really be part of the decision making. And that’s always been where ag was the leader in the trailblazing section. When we think about the cross section of the of the United States, ag was in the leadership. It doesn’t matter if it’s now or you even think about the pioneer days, you definitely had the younger women that were just as out there doing the physical work as the men were. And so to me, ag has always been that kind of equal opportunity employer.
Jessie: I think it’s neat that you talk about that. In some of my earlier work experiences as well, I felt the same way. As a female in the industry, I never felt looked down upon. I felt like I could share my ideas and voice some of those and that I had a seat at the table. And like you said, I think that’s something that really is unique to the ag industry and something that makes it a fun place to be whether you’re a young man or woman, because you can share your experience and your expertise in all those areas.
Robbie: Absolutely. And again, we know that based on what we learned from your earlier work that isn’t across the board, but at the same time, it is the majority.
Jessie: Robbie, as president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, what were some of the big issues that you faced a decade ago when you led that association?
Robbie: At that time, it was somewhat similar to what we’re seeing now. But the majority of the emphasis during that time was there was a real push to not have ownership of cattle from the packing industry. And certainly we see some of that same conversation now. And similar to what some still like to do now, there was a one-size-fits-all response from Washington, D.C.. And Colorado Cattleman’s, as well as other affiliates around the nation, stepped up and said, No, it cannot be one size fits all, it cannot be let’s take a whole segment out of the market. If we’re going to talk about cash value and that, let’s do it from the standpoint that there’ll be full discovery of the cash price, and that we really work hard instead of just one size fits all, take it or leave it. So we worked hard on language that was being proposed out of D.C., to change that language, and to really make it so that there was additional market access for numerous entities. At the same time, some of the very similar conversations that we’re having now as far as over-regulation with the Endangered Species Act, with the definition of critical habitat, with the management of the public lands was front and center. As with every president, the similar themes carry on and that’s why the industry works very hard to be at the table and have that logical voice and not just a knee jerk reaction to an individual item or concern.
Jessie: As you served as president, that wasn’t obviously your first experience serving in a leadership role with the association. I believe you said your involvement actually started in 1989. Can you tell us about why you first got involved with Colorado Cattleman’s Association?
Robbie: As I moved to Colorado and we were continuing the ranch, my husband was already involved with Colorado Cattlemen’s. And he had been serving on the Game and Fish Committee, the Colorado Wildlife Commission, as well as other entities for Colorado Cattlemen. And it just was a logical step for me, based on my experience with range management, with public lands, with public policy, to step into that role and work hard, especially on the Federal Lands Committee, especially on threatened and endangered species work, as well as just providing that science base that I had the background with, with my training from Colorado State University.
Jessie: So certainly when you first got involved you worked your way up to that role of president, so you had been well connected with that association for many years.
Robbie: Absolutely. And then what Colorado Cattlemen’s does very well is when you are elected to the board as a quarter representative, then you literally have six to eight years on the board before you start to move up the chairs, and then it’s a four-year process as you move up the chairs. You gain invaluable experience being on the board representing producers from your area, and then as you move up, you gain that experience from those that are ahead of you, and certainly those that are continuing to be and serve on the board. It’s a well-thought-out process that, when an individual becomes president, they’re ready.
Jessie: You’re a good example of someone who was well connected and involved in the association and making a difference in some of the leadership roles that you’ve had over the years. For someone who’s maybe looking to be more involved in an industry organization, or to make a difference like that, how could they go about doing that, Robbie? Or what advice would you have for them to get started?
Robbie: I’m very much involved still at the national level with the Public Lands Council and with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and so that work continues. And with that, what I do see is, you know, an individual, no matter what gender, needs to take the time to really build the relationships at all levels. Too often, what I see right now is everyone wants to jump to be on the board, but they don’t want to take the time to do the grunt work in the committees or to do the real legwork that’s needed on the task force, or to take the time to learn all of the ropes with maybe some of the special projects. They want to jump straight to the board and move up in leadership. If I could encourage anyone, you know, take that time. From 1989 to 2003 is a period of years that I did incredible amounts of committee work and project work and taskforce work before I ever was elected to serve on the board. I think that’s something that too often right now, too many people just want to step up, and say “I’ll be on the board.” Take that time, because not only do you learn a ton, but the key to success, it doesn’t matter if it’s you know, your ranch or an association or your workplace, is that ability to build those relationships. And let individuals know that you’re willing to take that hard step and you’re willing to do the hard work, and you’ll be there for them when the criticism comes. So I would encourage people to take the time and not just think that the board is the only place where you can provide service because it’s certainly not.
The other thing I would say is get involved with organizations that you may not feel as comfortable with and spread the word about what actually occurs in agriculture. Numerous of our producers now are involved in Rotary, they’re involved in the chambers, they’re involved in service organizations, they’re involved in the Wildlife Society. That’s where that really good conversation occurs. And so there’s that understanding that active management of a landscape is so important for the success of our wildlife, the success of our ecosystem. So be involved with those organizations that you may not think of traditionally as well.
Jessie: I think that’s a very good point, Robbie, especially as we think about the desire of consumers to want to know more about agriculture, but also some of the misinformation out there. And as you mentioned, getting involved in some of those maybe non-traditional organizations that we maybe think of that always come to mind right away, is actually a really great way to be able to make some of those connections and develop those relationships, which are really important as we tell our story.
Robbie: Absolutely. And again, you know, engage in that relationship building, take that time to build that common understanding.
Jessie: You’ve mentioned the Public Lands Council a couple of times, Robbie. Can you tell me a little bit about your work there and maybe what that has looked like?
Robbie: The Public Lands Council is the voice for public land allotment owners in both the state and national levels, and they represent their ability to utilize the grass for not only the pounds of gain for livestock, but also for the continuation of the wildlife habitat, as well as the range infrastructure such as water that is so important for our wildlife and our endangered species. And so we represent them at the state and national levels, especially with our federal land partners, the Forest Service and BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service and those agencies that manage the federal lands. We work hard on policy, we work hard on mitigation when it comes to what can be done, what is possible, how can we treat the cheatgrass with livestock instead of using mechanical means when we’re talking about fire? And just the real impacts we’re seeing with fire this year. You know, How can the herbivory of livestock assist with some of the forage base we’re seeing out there that, if let go too often, becomes fuel for a source of fire, not fuel for herbivory for livestock and wildlife.
Jessie: In addition to your work that you do as the Delta County Administrator as well as working with your family on LeValley Ranch, you and your family also have ties to a meat processing facility and retail store, which you mentioned briefly in the introduction. Can you tell us about that?
Robbie: Colorado Homestead Meats was started in 1995 here. There are six ranchers that are involved and they’ve been selling meat directly to the consumers since the mid-90s. Currently, we own and operate a USDA meatpacking facility that provides not only the ability to market our own animals from the ranches direct to consumer, we have a retail store that’s located in downtown Delta that we sell the product direct to the consumers. [We also provide] that ability to provide custom processing for individuals that want to raise their own animals and harvest that for their own family’s use. It’s dual purpose, not only do we market direct, but provide that processing for the area businesses, the area ranchers, area individuals that just want to purchase from a local source.
Jessie: You mentioned that the business launched in the mid-90s. How has it grown or evolved over the years, Robbie?
Robbie: It’s grown incredibly. We laugh because when we started we had a freezer that you would use at home that was strapped to a trailer that we went around and delivered meat direct. Then we went to selling at farmer’s markets and then purchased a small USDA processing facility and soon outgrew that facility and purchased a larger USDA facility, which we’re currently at now. [We] have opened the offsite retail store that’s downtown that’s separate from the plant. We’re always evolving, we’re always looking, we’re always trying to expand that direct marketing.
Jessie: As part of your involvement with Homestead Natural Meats, I imagine that you have the opportunity to interact with a lot of consumers and are able to talk to them about how your cattle are raised and maybe dispel myths that that they may believe. Is that a correct assumption?
Robbie: Yes. It started when we were doing the farmer’s markets, and you definitely have the opportunity to interact there and then as we continued with the store. There are misconceptions; I can understand why there’s misconceptions. We have to continually work on providing the clear information, the correct information. Those that are putting out the wrong information are backed by significant dollars and significant influence.
Right now, meat is the reason we have climate change seems to be the mantra and that’s currently the fad. Everyone is saying that. Unfortunately, too often, when it’s said over and over, individuals start thinking that’s the truth. And yet we know that the ability to have large landscapes in grasslands provides a significant carbon sink that can address and can help with storing that carbon and not allowing it to be released, and that comes from active management of large acres of grassland. In addition, I am very proud of our industry. We have reduced the amount of greenhouse gas that is provided by the ag industry, and we’ve addressed it, we’ve hit it head on. If you look on a percentage basis, we’ve made a real impact on a percentage basis, even though we’re the smallest contributor of all when you look at all the other contributors, but we have to keep saying that message over and over and over. And then there’s too many people that still have bought into the idea that an animal spends its whole life in a pen. And we show the pictures that 90 percent of the animals that that we have, and that the majority of cattle in the whole United States, they’re on grass; it’s only the last portion that they’re not on grass. We have to keep saying the message as well as the high nutrition. It’s exciting that the protein is found to be so critical for infant mental health. I mean, I just think that’s incredible news that really, you know, we have just been able to prove some of those direct correlations with the higher protein diet, the nutrient dense diet with infant mental health, and that’s encouraging. We certainly know that everyone has an individual choice, but we just want to get the correct information out there and have it based on science.
Jessie: Where did that desire to dispel these myths and tell your story come from Robbie?
Robbie: I think when you’re in ag, you are so used to being attacked. Not literally, but certainly we see that, whether it’s social media or just talking to individuals that don’t have that understanding, they don’t have that connection. The more we’re there with science to say here is how we actually raise the animals, here’s how we actually provide you with nutrition, here’s how we’re actually addressing climate change before it became the mantra then, then that’s just that continual explanation that individuals when you sit them down will listen. You will never be able to get the activist group to sit down and listen, that’s not how they raise money. But individuals, we can make a difference.
Jessie: You talked a little bit about some of the common myths that you hear and some of those common ones that we probably all hear. How can those of us involved in agriculture work to make sure we are getting credible information to consumers?
Robbie: When you look at how individuals learn, they learn different ways. And we know that. Some learn better by hearing it, some learn better by reading it, some learn better by being involved in the actual decision making. But what is common is it has to be short and distinct. And short and distinct goes against everything we know from ag, because we’re used to seeing large landscapes that are complex and we’re used to seeing it take years for there to be a difference. And because there’s so many variables we can’t control, it doesn’t fit into a nice, neat statistical package that we can say there is a direct correlation. And so that means that it’s not easy to fully explain our story in a short, distinct amount of time. Now, where we’ve gotten better is through some of the associations – the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the work that’s done by all of our beef councils – they basically become the elevator speech that we can use, whether it be on the social or whether it be on the direct conversation, and keep that attention for consumer short, that they will continue to listen to us. And then keep continuing to address the issues that are out there and be proactive with that.
Jessie: Certainly beyond just sharing some of that statistical information and some of that data, which is really important, I think it’s also important for producers to just tell their story about their operation and the things that they’re doing on their operation, how their family is involved and how they care for their land and livestock. What advice do you have for someone who may want to tell their story and connect with consumers, but doesn’t really know where to start or how to do that?
Robbie: Practice. Practice saying that story. You know there’s no better teacher than getting out there, and unfortunately, that is scary. We all hesitate to put ourselves out there and yet, I read incredible blogs and posts from people who do put themselves out there, learn from them, but practice. Get with those short distinct statements and when someone says something, be willing to say, “Let’s look at the science” and “That’s not my experience as a producer” or “Let me tell you how I actually raise my animals.” It does take that first step to start or to respond or to initiate that conversation. Practice while you’re on your horse or practice while you’re out there on the tractor. Play through that scenario in your head of what that conversation will look like, and then have those resources. The best things out there are those little cards right now that some of the industry associations are putting out and you don’t have to carry them, but put them to memory so that you’re ready.
Jessie: In light of all that we’ve experienced as part of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, it’s obviously a little bit more apparent that consumers want to know where their food comes from. And also that consumers enjoy meeting farmers and learning about where their food comes from. How has Homestead Natural Meats been impacted by COVID?
Robbie: We’ve actually experienced record growth in individuals that have come to the store. When the larger chains did not have product on the shelf, we did, and so consumers came to the store and we couldn’t have bought that advertising. Those customers have stayed loyal to us now that there’s still product on the shelves in other stores as well. Our business has significantly increased as well as individuals are wanting that food security. They want to know that they will have a product in their freezer, and so more and more individuals are using the custom side of the business as well. It’s been a growth area for us during this time. It’s also been a time where we’ve taken that advantage to say, “Here’s a product that was raised locally for you and here’s a product that is raised just like the rest of the traditional beef industry.” And we really try to use this to dispel some of those national myths as well.
Jessie: Many producers have also started selling beef directly to consumers during the COVID pandemic. I saw lots of Facebook posts and people looking for meat and producers stepping up and saying, here’s what I have and things like that. Do you have any tips or things that you’ve learned along the way that might help someone who’s working to get their product into consumers’ hands?
Robbie: I’ve received that question from South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Oregon and California. It’s been interesting. We’ve been at it for a long time, and we always joke that we could write the book of what not to do.
There’s lots of interest in building additional capacity and certainly that will be part of the conversation. It’s important to be providing quality product. Do not just run out and either purchase something or harvest an animal that may not be quality because that consumer still has that expectation of high quality. And so make sure that what you’re providing is that high quality. Use that opportunity to build the connection, to really broaden the understanding and then follow up. I send texts on a weekly basis to previous customers saying, “Is there anything you need assistance with?” I’ve sent recipes, I’ve sent grilling tips; it’s that follow up – you’re providing that additional consumer touch that is so important.
And then really engage with not cutting down the rest of the industry or the rest of the producers. We need a critical mass of all ag, all types of ag to not only feed this country, but to increase the food security for all involved. There are times I cringe when I hear certain segments of ag basically criticize other segments of ag for how they produce and, you know, the individual that goes to the local grocery store or Walmart needs that food security just as much as the individual that may go to a high-end grocery market. So we need all to provide that critical mass so that our John Deere tractor dealership stays in place and our vet supply stays in place. We need all of ag to succeed in order to have that critical mass.
Jessie: Is there anything else, Robbie, that you would like to talk about or that we haven’t touched on at all today?
Robbie: I just appreciate this approach. And I appreciate that it is such an opportunity for not only women in ag, but young people in ag. I mean it is an incredible opportunity. Yes, there are obstacles, but there have always been obstacles. And there are incredible partnerships that are occurring now. I just think it’s a really unique time that if someone is willing to work, and I don’t just mean work hard on the land, but really put that information and partnership ability and the broader understanding, there’s incredible opportunity. We’ve got to continue to push back on this mantra that ag is evil. We have got to keep pushing back on that and just continue to show all the good work, all of the incredible benefit we provide to not only the ecosystems, but the wildlife. And we just need to keep saying that over and over to push back on the highly funded individuals that just want to really jeopardize our food security.
Jessie: Absolutely. I really appreciate you sharing your story, Robbie. You’ve obviously given us all something to think about – how we can get involved in the industry and make a difference and also just telling our story and the importance of doing that. So I really appreciate your time and just sharing some of your expertise and advice with us.
Robbie: Jessie, I appreciate the time you put into all of this. I’ve learned a ton, and I’ve taken that to heart, so I want to commend you for everything you’ve done as well.
Jessie: I think we can learn so much from Robbie about how to get involved and tell our story. I hope Robbie’s story encourages you, and maybe challenges you a little, to find an organization you can get involved in. Like Robbie said, start somewhere and realize that no matter what position or committee you find yourself in, you can make an impact. Beyond that, I hope you are inspired by Robbie’s passion for dispelling myths and telling agriculture’s story. We all need to work together to spread the truth about agriculture, and telling the story of our farms and ranches is just one place to start.
Thanks again for joining me as we chronicle the stories of trailblazing women in agriculture as part of the Trailblazing in Agriculture podcast. I hope you’re enjoying this series as much as I am.