This Rancher Runs Her Biz Alone, In A Pandemic, While Being Hard Of Hearing

Imagine what it's like to rely on lip reading, and then everyone covers their face with a mask. Jamie Michelson shares her story.
Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost

Rancher Jamie Mickelson has been raising and caring for beef cattle since she was 9 years old. Now, as the founder of Sonoma Mountain Beef Co., Mickelson runs her family’s cattle farm on their fifth-generation Sonoma, California, ranch that produces fresh and frozen beef products. Mickelson, who is hard of hearing, successfully manages every aspect of the business — which has proved challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to an influx of virtual group meetings and widespread use of facial coverings. In the latest edition of Voices In Food, Mickelson tells reporter Kai Oliver-Kurtin all about what her life is like.

On How She Got Into The Beef Business

I graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural business. During my time there, I helped manage the cattle herd operation and taught beef husbandry to undergraduate students. It wasn’t until my last week, right before graduating, that my mom and I had a heart-to-heart conversation about my future. I knew raising beef cattle was my calling. My mom always encouraged me to follow my passions, and it was then that I knew the timing was right to expand the family’s beef business — Sonoma Mountain Herefords — and develop my own branded beef enterprise, now known as Sonoma Mountain Beef Co.

My herd is about 300 strong, and all cattle are born and raised in the local pastures of Sonoma County. They’re raised on natural grasslands with no antibiotics or growth hormones, and finished with a 90-day ration of all-vegetarian feed.

Raising cattle is a dirty job and it’s a 24/7 job, too! Right now, we’re starting the fall calving season, so I start my day at 6:30 a.m. feeding the cattle, but then sometimes check on a mama cattle into the night to make sure she’s doing OK with delivering her baby. Some calves are delivered easily, and some require assistance. It’s a lot of work to take care of cattle to ensure they’re healthy and have plenty of clean water and feed — no matter the day, hour or weather. On my ranch, I’m the team. I do everything from taking care of the cattle and managing the books, to selling at the farmers market and delivering products to customers on my own. I personally hand-deliver local orders to customers, including restaurants and chefs. During the spring and fall, I’m also calving out my cows, so there’s always several checks into the pastures looking for new babies. My family certainly steps in when a helping hand is needed, but the day-to-day work is done by me.

On The Unique Challenges Of Running A Business While Being Hard Of Hearing

I was born deaf with a profound hearing loss. Now I can hear pretty well with high-tech hearing aids. If it wasn’t for hearing aids, I would be deaf. I can hear a bit and have the ability to talk with others, too.

“Even though I’m great at reading people’s lips when they speak, with masks on it’s just not as easy to communicate. I love to socialize and talk with people, so it’s been hard.”

About 80% of the time, vendors and customers only want to communicate by phone instead of emailing. It can be frustrating when I share that I can’t communicate via phone because of my hearing loss, and instead prefer to communicate through email or meet in person, and then some folks don’t respond. While the communication piece is challenging, I’m fortunate to have longtime customers who know I’m hard of hearing and have no issue communicating with me through email and text message.

The pandemic has been very challenging — especially the masks. I do read lips when speaking, in addition to using the hearing device I wear every day, so masks have made it difficult to communicate with new customers out in public. I usually have to tell them I’m hard of hearing and need to read their lips to understand what they’re saying. Even though I’m great at reading people’s lips when they speak, with masks on it’s just not as easy to communicate. I love to socialize and talk with people, so it’s been hard.

Video calls have been a solution, but it’s easier for me to do these meetings with individuals rather than groups. With multiple people in a group video meeting, for example, it can get overwhelming because I can’t follow along with multiple people talking at one time. While they were at least a workable option for me in the thick of the pandemic, video meetings aren’t my favorite way to communicate.

Being hard of hearing doesn’t really impact my daily tasks on the ranch, since I handle all operations myself. But since I can’t hear cattle coming up behind me, this would probably be the most dangerous part of the job. Sometimes you’ll get an aggressive mama cow during calving season that you need to be careful of. Luckily, with the Hereford genetics of my cattle, they tend to be easygoing and gentle.

Being hard of hearing has never affected my passion for raising beef cattle or the trajectory of my career — I simply don’t let it. There were a few classmates who doubted my ability to develop my own business because of my hearing loss, but I never let that doubt bother me. I was very lucky to have a childhood where the people around me treated me like everyone else, hearing or not. My parents didn’t want my hearing impairment to define me, so it didn’t. I learned to sign, read lips and speak, so I could successfully communicate in a hearing world. That, combined with my love of all animals and showing cattle — my passions — brought me to where I am today.

On Getting Emotionally Attached To Her Cattle

Raising cattle and selling the meat for consumption is not for the faint of heart. Growing up, I always had a hard time selling my market steers at the county fair. But it was doing exactly that — showing steers at the fair — that got me into this business. When I was 9, I showed a steer named Oscar at the Sonoma County Fair and won Showmanship and Grand Champion Steer. At the time, I thought, “I want to do this for the rest of my life!”

I become friends with my mama cows — I have about 100 of them right now — and I spoil them rotten with extra hay and back scratches. When I drive into a pasture, they come running and jumping toward me because they know I have treats for them. It makes me feel really good about what I do and proud of my work. I have a good-looking herd of cattle that’s very happy.

Taking steers to be processed is my least favorite thing to do in this business. But I do feel better knowing I took good care of them and they lived a good life. Doing it right — by treating the land and animals well and with respect — is so important to getting nutritious protein on Americans’ plates, and I’m fulfilled by that.

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