This sixth-generation rancher is learning what it takes to run her family’s cattle operation in the rugged mountains overlooking California’s San Joaquin Valley.
There’s not much to see in Granite Station, California, except an abandoned building from the late 1800s, when the town was a freight hub and stagecoach stop. Nicole Courtney Smith, however, sees not only the history of the area, but also the future on her family’s sixth-generation cattle operation.
The Glenn Record Ranch, homesteaded in the 1890s and later named after Smith’s grandfather, runs up to 1,000 head of commercial cattle in the mountains of Kern County, northeast of Bakersfield. Smith, 23, lives and works on the ranch alongside her parents, Sarah and Jack; 18-year-old brother, Jared; grandparents, Karl and Glenda Johnson; and aunt and uncle, Roselle and Matthew Wreden. Her mother is a silversmith, her father is a saddlemaker, and the family owns and operates
Granite Station Saddlery and Feed, Inc., in Bakersfield.
Smith grew up showing livestock in 4-H and Charolais cattle in the California Junior Livestock Association. Those cattle and some Black Angus laid the foundation for her herd, stamped with the Bar NS brand. She stays connected by helping young people fit animals for 4-H and stock shows. The next in line to manage the ranch, Smith recognizes the challenges ahead of her, but she can’t imagine a more fulfilling lifestyle.
OUR RANCH has been passed down and operated by the women on my mother’s side of the family. It means a lot to me that I’ll one day be in charge, because my ancestors have worked so hard to give us what we have now. Most of our land is deeded, and I take pride in being able to pass it along to my children someday.
I FEEL AT HOME in the mountains and would rather ride up and down steep slopes to get a cow than chase one on the flatland. That is boring to me.
MY PARENTS never made me work on the ranch. I decided at a young age I wanted to do it and keep the ranch going.
HOMESCHOOLING was the best thing my parents did for me. I think it gave me a better perspective on life and work than if I’d gone to school in town. I wouldn’t have appreciated being on the ranch as much as I do now.
I SPENT COUNTLESS DAYS in the saddle and silver shop with my mom and dad, and I still help out at the store when they need me. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit the artistic gene, because I can’t even draw a stick figure.
MY FAMILY helps brand and gather cattle on ranches all over Kern County. Around here, women are just as accepted as men doing ranch work. I think it has a lot to do with my family; everyone knows us.
LIVING WAY OUT has some disadvantages. I don’t come to town often, so it makes it hard to date. And if I do find a boyfriend, he’s usually a cowboy or in agriculture and working somewhere else, and we end up breaking up because we’re both too busy. I’m sure my mom and dad think, “Oh gosh, she’s never going to get married.”
MY FAMILY is close-knit, but once in a while we have some pretty hellacious fights. We resolve them and get back to work the next day without holding any grudges. Our rule is to say whatever needs to be said right now, because tomorrow the chance is gone.
IT’S PHYSICALLY DEMANDING to be a woman working in a man’s world. Sometimes it takes me twice as long to do something a strong man could do. That’s why my dad, grandfather and uncle help us out a lot.
I USUALLY WEAR makeup and jewelry when I’m out working. I don’t usually see many people, but I take pride in looking nice if I do.
I’M MORE OF A COWPUNCHER than a buckaroo. I ride a slick-fork saddle, but I carry a 35-foot rope. I ride with anything from a snaffle and hackamore to a spade bit. It just depends on the horse and what I need to accomplish.
WHEN I MENTION I’m from California, people think of beaches, theme parks and surfing. I hardly ever go to the coast because I’m too busy working cows.
WE HAVE TO TRUST our horses in this steep country. My dad has always made sure we have safe horses to ride. I like a short, stout horse with good genetics and that knows where to place its feet.
I DID WELL in school and was offered college scholarships, but I really just wanted to work on the ranch. I didn’t see that I needed a degree to do that.
AT THE END of the day, when I’m tired and dirty, I enjoy sitting on the porch drinking a glass of red wine, eating blue cheese and talking about the day with my family.
This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Western Horseman.