Wife, Mom, daughter. Rancher, farmer, hunter. On a daily basis, AMSG Account and Program Manager, Ashley Walker, juggles all of these roles and more. When she’s not managing our Department of Energy’s (DOE) Technical, Engineering, and Programmatic Support Services (TEPS) II contract, you may find her harvesting crops, operating farming equipment, collecting her three boys from school, or figuring out logistics for her family’s ranch and two farms.
Ashley grew up ranching, farming, and hunting. But more importantly, she grew up surrounded by love and two strong women, particularly her grandmother, who was a Marine nurse, and her mom, who also served in the military. Both her grandmother and her mom grew up working the land, and at one point, her grandmother even owned an automobile repair shop with her husband where she worked as the lead mechanic.
Ashley’s story is quite beautiful and reminiscent of historic ranching in the Old West. She discusses legacy, laying solid foundations (in family and in farming), and her biggest sources of inspiration. She also shares her first hunting memories and the work it takes to manage a ranch and a farm. Through her words, it is clear that she possesses a strong inner foundation that she says reflect her mom and grandmother. “They are everything I strive and achieve to be,” she says. Read her interview below.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
AMSG: Where did you grow up?
Ashley Walker: I grew up all over really but spent most of my childhood and teen years in Denver, San Diego, Albuquerque, and Montana.
AMSG: How old were you when you started hunting?
AW: My family has deep traditions and one of them is hunting trips while on holiday breaks. For my siblings and me, our mother had the rule that she would determine when we were mature enough to start hunting. I still remember, it was pheasant season and Thanksgiving weekend, when my mother decided I was “mature enough” to go out with my family and hunt. I was 14 years old then, but I know a lot of hunters who start out even younger.
I wish I could say I got my first pheasant on my first shot, but it was my second. I missed my first shot because I was so excited and didn’t lead my target. After my first experience, I started putting my name in for deer tags in New Mexico and Montana, hoping and crossing my fingers that I would get a tag somewhere. When I was 15, I drew a deer tag for Socorro, New Mexico, and elk that same year. I’ve learned that when it comes to getting to hunt, it’s all about the luck of the draw.
AMSG: It sounds like you were raised by strong women – can you tell me more?
AW: Absolutely. My grandmom and my mom are the strongest women I know, so to have you say that means the world to me. I very much come from a background of strong women. My mom served in the military, as well as her mother (my grandmother), father, and adoptive father. I guess it’s just something in our line of women who have that strong force.
My mom still works her farm she has, including our farm in Montana. We normally spend every harvest up there, and she is the one driving the big combine or the collector truck. She’s usually the first one out and is always ready to pick up a pitchfork or do whatever needs to be done anywhere. But then she’ll go back inside and spend the rest of the night making a baby quilt for someone.
My grandmother grew up farming and ranching. She was also a Marine nurse. But before she went into the Marines as a nurse, she worked as a lead mechanic. She and my grandfather had their own mechanic shop. It was a small town, so they were the only ones who had a shop, so everyone would bring over their vehicles and tractors. When my grandfather was drafted, they moved to California where he was stationed, and my grandmother decided that she wanted to be a Marine nurse. So, she joined the Marines right alongside him.
I am so proud of them, and it is such an honor to come from them and to have been raised by them.
AMSG: That is so progressive of your grandmother, because during that time, many women stayed home.
AW: Oh yes, absolutely. And that was not my grandmom at all.
AMSG: Would you say your grandmom and mom are your biggest inspirations?
AW: A hundred percent. They are my inspirations and they are everything I strive and achieve to be.
AMSG: In hearing about the impact your mom and grandmom had on your life, what legacy do you hope to leave your children?
AW: I would say that I want to pass that strength down to my daughter, but I didn’t have any girls – I had all boys (laughs). But my legacy to my boys is instilling in them that hard work builds the character and type of person you should be in this world. My job as a parent is to make them productive members of society. And the only way I know how to do that is to guide them and show them what they need to do to be those types of people by putting out that hard work, by showing they have integrity, by being honest, and putting in that full effort.
AMSG: Tell me about your ranch and farms.
AW: Collectively as a family, we have a small alfalfa farm in New Mexico, a cattle ranch in Canada, and a wheat farm in Montana that borders our cattle ranch. Our cattle ranch is very small and averages about 100 bulls and about 1,000 Black Baldy Cows. Yearling heifers are kept as replacements for the cow herd, and the others are sold. But unfortunately, because of the pandemic and new restrictions for entering and working in Canada, it is becoming harder to staff and run, so as a family we are considering selling this operation and land.
AMSG: How long have the ranch and farms been in your family?
AW: According to my great-great grandma’s Bible records, the land was settled in the 1880s by my grandfather who took a mail route in the area. Using a horse and a buggy, he delivered mail to the surrounding homesteaders. He was paid just $78 a year, and used his first check to purchase just over 4,000 acres of land. Part of the acreage has been sold off, so it is now down to just under 3,000 acres, and that has and will stay in the family.
In 2005, when my Mom and Dad finally both decided New Mexico would be home base, they purchased our second farm. At just over seven acres, it is MUCH smaller and is purely alfalfa. With a bit of outside help, this is run by parents and me, and is in a trust for all of the siblings to take over.
The Montana ranch/farm is in the family and is currently managed full-time by my uncle. When he decides to retire, my cousin will take over the daily operations. Since my family is spread out across the country now, the rest of the family comes up in the spring to seed, in the fall to help harvest, or when they want to get away from whichever city they are in.
AMSG: What do you enjoy most about hunting and being on your ranch/farm?
AW: As it pertains to hunting, I love knowing we eat what we hunt and I love being in nature, but hate being cold!
As for being on our ranch or farms, other than watching a baseball game, my favorite thing to do is a tie between driving the combine and jumping on a tractor, even if it’s just to move some soil. I love working on the equipment and driving the combines – a combine is a large farm machine that cuts and removes the seeds from the stalks and or husks crops during harvest.
For me, working and cultivating the land is meditative. It’s therapeutic to work the land and be surrounded by nature. But it is hard, physical work. Tractors and combines help, but it takes know-how and an understanding of the equipment to make it all work and end up with a finished product that gets distributed to the masses.
AMSG: What is it like owning a ranch and two farms?
AW: It is A LOT of work. Hard work. It takes patience, knowledge, foresight, teamwork, financial planning, and a little bit of luck.
It can be incredibly isolating at times, but I find that can also be good for your mental health. Being on a ranch and a farm is nourishing to the soul. It’s a beautiful combination of the past and the present. It’s also refreshingly distant from others and a lot of modern technology.
Cell phones do not work. There is not a cell phone tower near us, so you’re not getting calls or texts. It is a huge break from the over saturation of internet and technology. It takes you back to good ol’ fashioned back-breaking work.
What’s beautiful is you get incredible views that are uninterrupted by development. You see nature at its best and at its worst.
AMSG: What’s the difference between a ranch and a farm?
AW: This is a debated question, but the way I was told is it comes down to how certain questions are answered:
- Is the land referred to a field or pasture?
- Field = Farm
- Pasture = Ranch
- What’s in the barn?
- Equipment = Farm
- Livestock = Ranch
- Crops growing and commodity prices = Farm
- Winter feed and market prices = Ranch
- Happiness – you’re happy when you have?
- Straight rows and good crops = Farm
- Fat cattle and plentiful grass = Ranch
- Are you an expert at counting?
- Bushels and bales = Farm
- Heads and tails = Ranch
AMSG: What are some of the challenges of being a ranch and farm owner?
AW: Crop growth. Climate plays a big role in agriculture. Droughts can lead to smaller crop growths and having a smaller crop growth usually means you have less to sell to the grain mills. Fires can wipe out an entire field of crops, leaving you relying on insurance to help cover costs.
Prices are also a factor. Production costs are rising faster than the commodity price, which negatively impacts the profit margin. Because of this, sometimes it can be hard to break even.
AMSG: What advice do you have for someone wanting to purchase either a ranch and/or a farm?
AW: Make good use of your land. Test your soil, improve it, and make good choices on what’s maintainable and profitable when deciding what to do with your land. Make do with older tractors and equipment by learning how to fix them yourself. Buying all new equipment costs a lot of money and can be an expenditure you don’t really need to make if you can maintain and fix your own equipment.
Also, don’t plan on traveling much. There is always work to be done, and unless you have hired ranch or farm hands that you trust, it is hard to be away. Always be ready for upturns in cattle prices. It’s like watching the stock market for buying and selling at the right times.
Have a supportive partner. A partner who understands how much time ranching and farming is going to take is important. They need to know the pressures and stress it can bring and that your days will start early and end late, so time together can be limited.
Have or get a great banker. Your banker can help you navigate market prices and land deals and cultivate and maintain good friendships in the community. This is key because farmers and ranchers share knowledge and help each other when needed. You just never know when that helping hand is going to come save the day.
AMSG: Is there anything else you would like to share?
AW: It’s that owning a farm or ranch is not Yellowstone!
Interview and Editing By: Juania Owens, Investment Analyst Lead