Mary Heffernan has gone from competing in equestrian vaulting to playing polo internationally to running restaurants in Silicon Valley to now raising livestock and running a small store in Fort Jones, California.
“We weren’t really like, Let’s make a huge change and do something different,” Mary says. She was running businesses in Menlo Park, and her husband Brian was a successful lawyer at a firm for nearly 13 years. “We just were growing more disheartened with raising our kids in Silicon Valley.”
Around the same time, they had started searching for a ranch to raise livestock to supply their restaurants. “We really believed in this long, extended dry-aged meat and barley finish with the grass-fed animals and we couldn’t find a small farm doing it, so we naively thought, Well if we buy our own ranch, we can do it ourselves. Then we’ll have a place to go on the weekends that has a little more space.”
Although both had some familiarity with livestock (Mary from competing in equestrian sports; Brian from growing up on a farm), neither had extensive experience raising cattle, sheep, or pigs. They purchased the historic Sharps Gulch Farm in 2013 and within months realized that they couldn’t be both farmer and restaurateur. They packed up their four daughters, all named Mary, and headed north to Fort Jones — to Five Marys Farms.
Now, the family is fully embracing farm life and duties. Their daughters help with the daily chores, including feeding and tending to the livestock — their eldest daughter even showed a steer at the county fair this year. Brian works the livestock, and Mary sells their meats and products online and ships out weekly directly to customers across the country. The daily routine is never the same, but one thing is sure. The Heffernan family is in it together.
How has the farm changed since you’ve taken it full-time?
We can finally see [the change]. It’s a beautiful piece of property. The infrastructure needed a lot of improvement and upkeep. We’ve put in a lot of fencing so that we can do a rotational grazing program with our cattle. We’ve put up hay barns so we can grow our own hay and store it all summer until we feed it in the winter. We put in new corrals. We’ve built our retreat area with our outdoor kitchen and entertaining area. We’ve done a lot on the ranch.
The only thing we haven’t done is build a house, which is what I thought we would do immediately upon moving there. And we are still in our little 780-square-foot ranch house and somehow still loving the simplicity and the back-to-basics lifestyle that a small house gives us. When we come from a long day working, we’re all right there together. The house is easy to keep and everything is on woodstove heat in the winter when we get down to negative six degrees. It’s really just — Again the whole perspective has changed from living in the suburbs and feeling like you always need to go bigger and get a bigger house and buy nicer things. And when you are out in the country working and taking care of animals, your priorities really change.
What’s been most rewarding?
I think it’s just the lifestyle change really brings everything into — puts a different lens on life — hard work, the satisfaction of a days work. You know at the end of hard day’s work, you’ve taken care of all these animals and solved all these real problems on a ranch, and your kids are right there working with you and your husband is right beside you, and you are eating the food you’ve made yourself. There is such a raw satisfaction in that that I think we were really missing in our old life. We might have been working just as hard, but when it is your own land and your own family and your own animals, there’s really a satisfaction that comes out of that that I think is the greatest reward that you could really ever hope to work for.
How involved are your daughters with running the farm?
They are very involved. People always ask us, “How many people does it take to run your ranch?” Well it’s us and our four daughters, and Brian kind of has a right-hand guy, Johnny, and I kind of have a right-hand girl, who is also by chance named Mary, but we couldn’t do this without our kids. We love that they’re in it with us because it gives them such great experience and learning opportunities in life, but honestly they are so involved in it because it is necessary. … We are doing it together, and there is never a question of like, “Mom, this is gross” or “Do I have to do this?” We know it’s a bigger picture beside ourselves. And the kids know that — that our animals are more important than our trivial needs that we take care of them first. It’s pretty cool to experience to those things together as a family.
Now that you are doing retreats, do you hear guests say they want to leave their city lives behind?
Totally. There’s a whole movement now where they want the lifestyle, they want to have their kids outside, they want the homestead, they want the chickens and the small animals. I get so many people who ask me how they can change their lifestyle too. I do a little questionnaire before the retreat ladies come with why they are coming and little bit about themselves so I can get to know them before they show up — and half of them are just saying, “I’m coming because I want to see if this is feasible for my family. This has been our dream.” I’m just shocked at the number of people who you wouldn’t expect that have a perfectly happy, cushy existence in suburbia who just have this desire for an urban exodus and just get out there and change their lifestyle.
What’s the best advice you give them?
You’ve got to be willing to work hard, stop getting manicures and get down and dirty. We tell them you won’t regret it as long as you’re willing to work hard. It’s a total lifestyle change, but the benefits are better than anything you are giving up. So we tell them to go for it as long as they have it in them.