There is a real, live, actual ranching person in central Idaho called Heather Smith Thomas. I’ve met her.
Thomas’ columns and features stories have been appearing in Grainews, Canadian Cattlemen and numerous U.S. publications for more than 30 years. But it wasn’t until a Friday morning in late March that she and a Grainews editor had ever met. I am a pioneer.
Pulling into the driveway at the Thomas ranch near Salmon, Idaho was a bit like Columbus discovering America. Of course I knew I was in the right spot some distance before I reached the house because I could see from the approaching road, Veggie, the 28-year-old grey horse in the corral. And I have read lots about Veggie over the years.
If you are a regular reader of Rancher’s Diary you know a lot about the Thomas family. There is Heather and her husband Lynn; their daughter Andrea and her four kids, Emily, Charlie, Sammy and Dani. And then son, Michael and his wife Carolyn and their children Heather (nicknamed Roo) and, son Nick. All live nearby the ranch house that Heather and Lynn built when they got married.
For most of the past 30 years Heather has opened her family and farm life up to readers. I don’t know if much is held back. There were reports of good times and bad times describing all the day-to-day “life” stuff most families encounter. And there were exceptional events, too, like daughter Andrea being badly burned in a forest fire in July of 2000. The column has followed their pain and struggle and ongoing recovery of their daughter.
Heather describes daily activities in working with beef cattle and she admits being horse crazy since she was a young girl — so there are plenty of reports about the horses that have come and gone from the ranch over the years. They are practical ranching people — sure the cows and most of the calves are all named, but come fall the year’s calf crop has to go to market. They still do a lot of riding for cattle management and pleasure, so the horses have some what of a special place. They work as long as they can, and then in later years literally are turned out to pasture for as long as they are healthy and enjoying a quality of life. I may go there myself.
She reports on the health of the cattle, managing the herd over thousands of acres of lease land — high elevation desert — dominated by sagebrush and grass. Problems with predators, problems with water, problems with weather and the odd time perhaps a problem with neighbours. There are also reports about beautiful days on the ranch, great rides in the hills, the successes and achievements of their adult children, and the talent and ability of the grandchildren in school and on the sports field.
As the world turns
Pretty well anything that happens in Heather’s ranch and family life gets a mention in the diary. It’s a bit like a monthly soap opera episode without the high drama and really, really glamorous people. Fixing fence and tending to cancer eye in a horse isn’t something you’d likely see on the Bold and the Beautiful.
Heather is obviously a hard worker. She not only is actively involved with the ranch and family duties, but she’s also been a writer her whole life. She writes regularly for about 30 different publications, including Grainews — mostly U.S. farm publications but some outside North America. And she has a healthy roster of books to her credit including Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, The Cattle Handbook, Essential Guide to Calving, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Guide to Training Horses, Your Calf: Guide to Raising and Showing Beef and Dairy Calves, Stable Smarts, and Equine Hoof Care.
Her most recently published book is called Horse Tales — stories about the horses in her life, and she is working on another called Cow Tales — guess what it is about. The one non-agricultural book she says was probably the most difficult to write is called Beyond the Flames. It’s the account of the journey of her daughter Andrea and the family after Andrea was seriously burned in a forest fire 15 years ago.
If you want to track down any of these books contact Heather, or just Google “Heather Smith Thomas books” and the listing appears.
Heather and Lynn, in their early 70s, are tremendous hosts. The day of our visit she prepared a great roast beef dinner. Andrea and her family joined us as well. They all sang the Johnny Appleseed Grace before the meal where we paid tribute to a roast from a productive young steer “Opie or Hope He” — so named as young calf in the sense of “hope he makes it”… And he did — right onto to my plate.
Heather lives in a household of love and laughter. From the looks of her office she has saved every note, report and clipping since paper was invented — she says she has a chronological filing system — the newest is near the top. And every wall of the house is covered with decades of family and ranching photos and artwork that all capture some moment in their life. It is truly a Thomas gallery.
The three-hour visit flew by and then it was time to head for home. But the warm and genuine invitation was there to come back anytime. And I probably will now that I know the road.