Catherine the Great
It’s a beautiful northern Colorado morning in early September on the 750-acre grounds of Harper Feeders, and 22-year-old Catherine Harper is ready to step up. Her father Mike has unexpectedly “handed the sort” to her, thousands of sheep are headed her direction, and one of the most important jobs in the family business is now her responsibility.
“Normally I help push the lambs; I stay out of the sorting,” Catherine will explain to us later, telling the story. “But my dad got busy, so he said, ‘Here’s 2800 head, get them ready.’”
Standing at the bottom of a narrow chute, precious seconds allow Catherine to decide which sheep look good, which are undernourished, which may have injuries, and other factors. As they jump and bleat and try to sneak past, she must keep her calm, eyeballing them into different groups using tools drilled into her since before she could walk.
“I felt Devil Mike and Angel Mike sitting on my shoulders, giving me the thumbs-up or thumbs-down,” she laughs, thinking back to the almost two hours she spent laser-focused on each sheep that came down that chute.
When we first met Catherine at the Eaton, Colorado (population: 4,835) feedlot that helps supply Lazy Dog with the key ingredient for our Lamb Shank Pot Pie and Lamb Barbacoa Tacos, her parents Mike and MaryAnn Harper greeted us with two questions: “What kind of beer would you like,” and “Are you hungry?”
“I love meeting people who don’t understand what we do,” she told us over dinner. “I’ll say ‘Hey, here’s a lamb chop. Try it out. This is what I do.’”
The Harper family is in a period of transition, currently handing the reigns over to its fourth generation. Grandfather Harold Harper grew up the son of an Indiana sheep feeder. He paid his way through Purdue University via his sheep-shearing skills and then moved to Eaton and became an industry pioneer, building his business into one of the largest feedlots in the country. Harold was known and respected locally by anyone who saw his battered truck with the “LAMB 1” license plate – a precursor to the “LAMB 2” plate his son Mike (Catherine’s dad) put on his own truck as he assumed Harper Feeders duties. MaryAnn handles the family bookkeeping, manages the office, hosts visitors and likely encompasses a dozen other job titles as well.
Sadly, Harold died in 2015 at age 77, working with sheep right up to the end – and having spent countless hours checking the pens alongside granddaughter Catherine.
“My grandpa started a really great business; he was a well-known man for what he did,” she says with pride. “He really left his mark on the sheep industry.”
Catherine is one of three children, but the only one interested in making the family business her career. So, she’s up every morning at 4:30, working the feedlot alongside her father. During the height of the season, they’ll oversee 65,000 sheep and might not call it quits until 2am the next day. Take a look down by Catherine’s feet, however, and you’ll see they aren’t doing it alone.
“The big one is Phinney – that’s my dad’s dog. The little one is my dog, Millie,” she explains of the purebred border collies. “They come with us everywhere. They help move sheep up to the top of the pen, they help us move them out of the pen. Their instincts are amazing. When they’re around livestock, they think: ‘It’s go time. Here’s what I need to do.’”
Watching Catherine train Millie, it’s hard to not notice that the two have a lot in common. Both are young, eager to prove themselves, and gaining more responsibility with each passing day.
“I’m excited to come into the family business, make a change, get my dad out of some of his old ways,” explains Catherine, who graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business and animal science this past May. “Dad will be 55 this coming year; he is definitely not on social media.”
There are more than 80,000 family farmers and ranchers like the Harpers caring for over 6 million American lamb throughout the United States. But public misconception, aging farmers and imports from Australia and New Zealand have taken their toll.
“It’s a shrinking industry, unfortunately. A lot of people don’t think of lamb most days. Unless you’re looking for it, you won’t find it,” says Catherine. “American lamb is healthier for you; it’s got a lot of protein. Some people will tell us ‘Oh, I don’t like lamb,’ but if I cooked you a lamb chop or leg of lamb, sliced it up and put it next to a cut of beef, 90 percent of the time you’d choose the lamb.”
These days Catherine is hard at work giving tours, creating internships and using social media to try and reverse the tide. Her life is a unique mix of embracing technology and embracing the land.
“I love being outdoors; I love working with the animals,” she says. “But at the same time, one of the biggest things I’ve taken on is advertising and recruiting. I’ve been bringing my dad up to speed, saying ‘Hey, here is the modern world, this is what you need to do. People look at social media these days, not the newspaper.”
As a 22-year-old woman in a male-dominated industry, Catherine is also frequently reminded that a 2,800 sheep count isn’t the only challenge she'll face on any given day. “At the feedlot, people will walk in, look at me and say, ‘I need to talk to a manager,”’ she grins. “Then I’m like, ‘Well, here I am.’”
With most ranchers in their 60s and 70s – and many unable to find an heir apparent willing to take over the family business – Catherine often finds herself the lone woman in the room. “People have to get used to change, especially in this industry,” she explains. “Personally, I don’t know another woman trying to manage or own a feed lot.”
If trends continue, the domestic lamb market could be lost to importers. But much like Millie, Catherine’s instincts remind her: It’s go time. Here’s what I need to do.
“This is what I want to do,” she says. “And I will make it happen.”
Find out more about Lazy Dog’s Lamb Shank Pot Pie and Lamb Barbacoa Tacos, part of our Fall/Winter seasonal menu and only available for a limited time.
Words by Larry Carroll
Photography + Video by Rebecca Simms
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