Brian and Mary Heffernan Owners of Five Marys Farm in Fort Jones, California
To get to Five Mary’s Farm, you have to drive through damp Northern California forests and wind alongside deep river ravines, until you clear the mountain pass and arrive in the expansive prairie river valley of Fort Jones, California. Mary and Brian Heffernan’s Sharps Gulch Ranch spans the country road, river pastureland and barn on one side and the family’s modest home, historic bunkhouse, high pastureland and mountaintop on the other.
This couple and their four daughters named Mary - MaryFrances (Francie), MaryMarjorie (Maisie), Mary Jane (JJ) and MaryTeresa (Tessa or Tiny for short), have never been a family to shy away from surmounting challenges and hard work. Before leaving city life, they lived in the Silicon Valley center of Menlo Park. Brian worked as an attorney for many years but left practicing law to work alongside his wife. Together, Mary and Brian opened eleven family-focused businesses in Menlo Park; a learning center, a maker’s space, a plant/floral shop and a play space for toddlers, just to name a few. Each business they created thrived as they listened closely to what people in their community wanted and needed.
In 2010, they opened a farm-to-table restaurant called Bumble. The seed was planted to start a livestock operation while trying to source ethically raised meat for Bumble. They struggled to find suppliers that delivered on their promise of animals that lived good lives before ending up on someone’s plate. Mary and Brian had always dreamed of eventually leaving city life behind and raising happy, dirty, and independent free-range kids.
They decided to explore a new venture, building a livestock ranch somewhere in California so they could supply their own meat products to their restaurant and many others in the Bay Area that were also looking for ethically raised meat. In 2013, their search came to an end when they toured the Sharps Gulch Ranch. Up in the river prairie land of Siskiyou County, it sat a short drive away from the Oregon border and close to California’s main thoroughfare of I-5. By California standards, a quick 6-hour drive back to Menlo Park, but without the insane sticker price of land closer to the Bay Area.
The property had two houses, one a historic Victorian in desperate need of repair and one a cozy two-bedroom cabin that the previous owners had made their primary residence. Originally, they planned to hire ranchers to run their operation for them, and they would drive up on weekends with their girls so the family could get much desired time running free in the great outdoors. That plan only lasted a few months, as they instantly noticed a positive change in their children and themselves the more time they spent on the farm. They loved repairing fences, learning about animal husbandry, and the daily rhythms of feeding, watering and caring for their animals. They also loved how the ranch brought their family together, working each day alongside their girls and one another.
Brian and Mary were ready to take a huge leap of faith. They sold their businesses and put their house on the market. Originally they planned to renovate the Victorian house to allow everyone their own space when they moved, but the insane start-up costs to get their livestock operation off the ground put that project at the end of their list. They opted to move full-time into the tiny cabin, Mary and Brian in one room and their four girls in the other.
However, after only three years of running Five Marys Farm, it is amazing what this family has accomplished. They raise cattle, sheep, pigs, turkeys and chickens. They run a mail-order meat business, sell their ethically raised products and eggs locally in their new community and also make the 6-hour trek every month and set up farm stands at the homes of friends and family - inviting customers and the public to come learn more about what they do, try their products, buy their meat and eggs and enjoy a ranch style beverage or two. They call it a "farmers market meets a cocktail party."
They have recently received an unprecedented level of recognition for their efforts to produce an ethical and sustainable source of meat. In 2018 they were voted Paleo Magazine’s favorite farm. They have become brand ambassadors for Carhartt and were featured in Oprah Magazine’s October 2018 issue highlighting “women leading interesting lives.”
There are no holidays or weekends, but getting to work together as a family, for Mary and Brian, feels like hard but incredibly rewarding work. At the end of a long day, Mary and Brian love to mix a cocktail, put a Five Marys roast in the oven, and sit on their front porch to watch their daughters run free in the yard. This new life required a lot of sacrifice, hard work and risk, but for them, the payoff is seeing their girls grow into fearless, independent and hardworking free-range women.
Q & A
What inspired you to leave Silicon Valley and start Five Marys Farm?
We have always had a desire to raise our kids in wide open spaces in a more rural community, Brian grew up on a farm and hoped we’d get back to the land someday. In our "old lives" we were working in the heart of Silicon Valley as a lawyer and business owners. We bought this ranch to raise our own meat for our restaurants, but after coming up here every weekend (a 6 hour drive each way) for a couple of months and finding a gem of a community here we, quickly decided this was where we wanted to raise our children. We sold our businesses and moved up the day our oldest daughter finished Kindergarten and have been "all-in" ever since.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
The idea of jumping in with both feet, selling our businesses and our house and really being full time ranchers was scary - but it was just the idea of the unknown that was hard to imagine before it actually happened. Once we were living here full time it was clear we’d made the right choice and that we were just where we were supposed to be. Challenges arise everyday when things break, animals get sick or we have new obstacles to figure out how to navigate our way through - and I’m sure it will continue to be a steep learning curve for a long time to come, ranching is not easy!
What suprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
The wonderful, kind, very smart people around us who have been so willing to lend their time and expertise to help us at every corner. I am also surprised that the things I worried about (cold winters, living in a much smaller house, only having a wood stove for heat) are some of the things I love most about living here!
How have your four daughters adapted to this change in their environment and rountine?
They couldn’t be happier on the ranch and officially declare themselves “country kids” which I’d say is true if you saw them on an average day carting around a baby lamb in a doll carrier, dissecting snakes, shooting ground squirrels and always, always covered in mud and running around with dirty bare feet. I am proud of how strong and independent they've become since we moved here. My three year old was still sleeping in the house one day when we were all working, my husband went to check on her and found her dressed (albeit in a bumble bee costume and moccasins), with her helmet strapped on and riding her scoot bike the 1/4 mile down the driveway to the shop by herself. He asked her how she was doing and she said "I woke up and no one was there so I got dressed and went to find people!" obviously :)
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
In the city I could get anything done at the drop of a hat with lots of people you could hire or find to help - in the country I’ve had to adjust my expectations that everything moves a little more slowly BUT living on a ranch with tractors, welders, scrap wood piles and stuff to repurpose also means you can build anything you can imagine yourself, which is even more satisfying than having to hire someone to do it! I've learned to weld (not very well) and build things out of repurposed materials and make do with what you've got on hand to make it work.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
I don’t think it would be possible for either my husband or I to ever go back to an urban or even suburban existence! We always hoped to retire rurally and feel lucky we got to make the change earlier in life - it’s lots of hard work but we love the lifestyle. Grabbing a couple of cold beers at 5:30 and feeding the cows and finishing chores as the sunsets, eating dinner at 10pm and having our children all piled in like puppies sleeping in the same bed in our tiny little house - I wouldn't change any of that for the world!
What do you appreciate the most about your life now?
I am so appreciative that I get to live this life everyday with my husband by my side and our four girls working right along with us. I love that we get so much time together as a family. We don't have activities or sports or birthday parties - our girls are a necessary part of making this ranch work and their activities revolve around things we are doing on the ranch so our work IS our life, but I am so appreciative for all the time we spend working together raising our animals and running this ranch.
Walk advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Just do it :) It’s a decision you won’t regret! Make sure you have some savings because the start up phase is no joke, but with thoughtful planning it will hopefully set you up for success. Try staying on a farm for a short time to make sure you are up for it, but there is really nothing like setting up a life on your own land.
Are there any books, conferences, videos, etc. that you would recommend to people thinking about leaving the city to farm?
I find a lot of inspiration from other folks that have done the same thing we have done and have made “friends” on social media who share their trials and tribulations together. Instagram has been an unexpected way to feel connected and learn from other people! We also use YouTube for “lessons” on all kinds of ranch chores like castrating pigs and docking tails. Not exactly professional or published material but it’s the real deal!
Where do you draw inspiration and passion from for your work?
The process of breeding, birthing, raising, feeding and caring for animals their whole lives until their “one bad day” and then having our family and our customers so thoroughly enjoy our meats is very rewarding and satisfying. Hearing glowing reviews on our 28-day dry aged beef or our heritage lamb makes and hearing people say they appreciate their meat more when they feel like they really know where it comes from makes it all worth it!
Have you noticed a change in yourself since moving away from the city?
I'm way stronger :) My girls favorite motto is "where there is a will, there is a way" and we all have to push hard to make it all happen!
Walk us through a typical day at Five Marys Farm?
Brian wakes up before dawn to catch up on some of the paper/computer work then loads up the feed truck at first light. We have a ranch hand now who helps out so they make the rounds feeding animals and checking waters int he morning while I get the big girls up for school. He comes back to take them to school at 7:45am (just 5 miles down the road, we are lucky we have great public schools so close by!) and I make my rounds feeding the bottle babies, collecting and washing eggs, checking on the sick pens if we have any animals needing a little more attention. Then we meet up to figure out what the day might bring and what needs to be addressed first. If we had a new animal born overnight we tag them and record, if we have animals that got out or broke through fence we have some fence fixing to do (always!) or planning for the change in seasons, moving animals, assisting in births, doctoring the sick, moving water or fixing anything that is broken. Every day brings something new! I usually try to find a little time to work on my laptop updating our inventory or or website, marketing our meats, answering customer inquiries and planning for our Ship Days which happen every Tuesday. We ship our beef, pork and lamb directly from our ranch to customers doorsteps all over the US so there is lots of prep for ship day and the FedEx man. We also trek down to the Bay Area, Southern Ca or Portland about every other month for a "Farm Stand" where we set up a little cocktail party type event for people to try our meats and shop - so there is lots of preparing for those trips too! We take our animals to the butcher ourselves every round of "harvesting" so some days we are loading up animals and taking them to the USDA slaughterhouse or picking up the cuts of meat to bring back to our walk in freezer on the ranch to sell. We pick up the big girls at school at 2:15 and they have some chores to do when they get home too - then before we know it, it's time to feed again! We start 2 hours before dark and eat dinner after that - even if that means we eat at 9/10pm our rule is we feed the animals before we feed ourselves. We finish the day with our feet up on the front porch looking out on the animals and the ranch, ready to do it all over the next day.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn't have dared to try before moving from the city?
Oh wow, so many things! Skinning sheep, castrating animals, performing a “rumen transplant” on a cow but siphoning (yes with your mouth) the rumen fluid from a healthy cow to transplant it in the second stomach of a sick cow, having to put animals down, helping deliver babies with my arms shoulder deep inside, giving IV’s and life saving CPR to premature infants, having baby animals sleeping by the fire in my living room or in my bathtub, killing rattlesnakes (ok watching my husband kill rattlesnakes) and working so hard physically everyday.
Do you have a specific place or space that helps you feel inspired?
The top of our mountain, we call "The Saddle", at the end of a long week with a bonfire, our girls running around building forts, cold beers and reviewing the week with my husband always inspires us to enjoy our land and keep on going.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
People think country life is “simple” compared to city life but in reality it is the exact opposite! It is extremely complicated to figure out how to keep everything running on a farm, especially raising multiple species and farming hay. We have so much respect for farmers and ranchers who have been doing this for generations and the wealth of knowledge they have. Small town living is pretty special - everyone you pass on the road waves and you know all of your neighbors. When there is a wedding in the community - you can't find a babysitter because everyone is going to the wedding! So you bring your camp trailer and put the kids to bed in the field-turned-parking-lot when they get too tired to keep dancing ;)
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
We always have a few big ideas in the pipeline! Our first priority is to keep taking the best care of our animals as possible and to continue to get our premium meats to our customers, but we have a few fun ideas we are working on around the ranch too.