Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Tribute to a Writing Career

Last month I was surprised and flattered when Lee Pitts, a well-known ag writer, book author, and humor columnist (whose column appears in many agriculture and livestock publications), wanted to write an article about my writing career. What he wrote about me appeared in the 2011 Fall Marketing Edition of the Livestock Market Digest. I thought he did a great job of capturing the background and evolution of my writing efforts, and the reasons I write about cattle and horses. I thought I’d share his article with my blog readers this week, in lieu of my regular stories.

Heather, today, prepares to ride range on "Rubbie,"
one of the ranch cow horses.

Heather Thomas, by Lee Pitts

I think it’s safe to say that the livestock industry has never produced a writing machine like Heather Thomas. So far the tally is 20 books and 10,000 articles and the Salmon, Idaho, rancher/writer shows no signs of letting up. And if you don’t think 10,000 magazine articles is a lot just think back to high school when you were assigned just one term paper. Do you remember the dread and downright fear of the deadline just that one term paper caused? Now multiply that by over 10,000 and you get some idea of the absolute brilliance and ability that resides in Heather Thomas.

I know the name rings a familiar bell. Pick up any publication even remotely related to livestock and there’s a good chance that there is an article by Heather in it. At last count her byline has been seen in some 255 different publications! I didn’t even know there were that many! Heather says that, sadly, many of these publications are gone, but therein lies another astonishing fact about Heather’s career: as the Internet and the economy have made the publishing industry one of the worst businesses to be in, her career seems to only gain in strength. Good editorial content is a common denominator of the publications that remain in business and “good editorial and content” and the words “Heather Thomas” should be listed in Roget’s Thesaurus as synonyms.

You can’t write 20 books and 10,000 articles without starting your career early in life, and certainly Heather did. While most of the adolescent girls were studying boys and the proper use of makeup, Heather had more of a deep abiding love for horses and cattle. And she felt a need for sharing that affection with others. “When I was in grade school,” says Heather, “I wrote stories about horses and other animals, just for fun. When I was in 7th grade (1957) my dad (a Methodist minister) sent one of my stories to our church’s national Sunday School paper and it was published in November 1958—and I received a check for $10. I was hooked! I discovered that I could actually earn money doing something I enjoyed.”

After that she sold numerous horse stories to several children’s magazines like Highlights for Children, Golden Magazine, Jack and Jill—mainly informative pieces about horses, breeds of horses and horse terminology. In high school Heather decided to step it up a notch. “My first article for an ag magazine was about our 4-H horse club (the first one in Idaho), called the 5-H Wranglers. I sent it to Farm Journal in December 1959 and they bought it for $100 (an enormous sum in those days, to a 10th grader!) and it was published in May, 1961, under the title, “Like Horses? Start a 5-H Club”, with me and my yearling filly on the cover.”

This is the May 1961 Farm Journal featuring Heather's story about the 5-H horse club, with a photo of Heather and her yearling filly on the cover.

Stop the presses! We’re talking about the Farm Journal folks! Just the biggest and most respected name in journalism back then. And the teenager from Idaho not only had a feature story in the magazine but was also featured on the cover! To anyone who makes their living as a writer that’s like hitting a homerun in your first at bat with the New York Yankees! While still in high school, no less.

After that, Heather sent a few more articles to Farm Journal and started writing for other ag publications. At first it was mostly horse related articles and then as she gained in confidence she started submitting articles on cattle care, for which she is probably most well known. Her first book was written in 1964 during the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college and some of her more recent books include Cattle Health Handbook (2009), Essential Guide to Calving (2008), Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses (new edition 2009), Storey’s Guide to Training Horses (new edition 2010), Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle (new edition 2009), Stable Smarts (2005), Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle (2005), The Horse Conformation Handbook (2005), Understanding Equine Hoof Care (2006), Care and Management of Horses (2004). Grateful cattlemen and cattlewomen will remember an older book of Heather’s called Red Meat: The Original Health Food (1984).

We don’t want to give the impression that Heather never enrolled in the study of boys: in 1966 she married a local boy, Lynn Thomas, who grew up on a ranch on the other side of town. “He was a year ahead of me in school,” recalls Heather, “but it’s a small school/small town, and we sort of knew each other in high school. My dad bought a horse from him.”

Heather's husband Lynn — as a teenager he sold a mare to Heather's dad, and Heather later raised a foal from that mare, as a 4-H project (the yearling filly pictured on the Farm Journal
cover). Seven years later Heather and Lynn got married and started their ranching career.

Evidently the horse deal turned out okay because the two eventually married and then started trying to explore ways in which to make their shared dream come true: to become ranchers. “We put together 3 little ranches that by themselves were not big enough to make a living on, and made it work, running 170 to 185 cows, utilizing BLM range for summer pasture.” It’s not hugely productive country, some might call their place a “starve-out outfit,” but the pair eventually was able to put together a herd of fertile, hardy crossbred cows that could thrive on marginal land.

Heather says, "Lynn and I learned a lot about raising cattle after we
started raising cattle on our own — and we also felt strongly that a
ranch was a good place to raise kids. Our children, Michael and Andrea
(shown here at age 15 and 13, in 1983), were also a big help on the ranch.”

Like most ranchers they succeeded partly because the wife had a job in town. Only Heather didn’t have to make a long commute. She just woke up and started writing. “After I was married and my husband and I were raising cattle,” says Heather, “I started writing for more ag publications—partly because we needed the money and partly because of my passion to share our experiences and the things we were learning about raising cattle. Even though we both grew up on ranches, we learned a LOT more—often the hard way—after we started raising cattle on our own.”

Heather’s writing came at a good time for this humble reporter. Although I’d raised a few cattle and had a degree in animal science with advanced studies in Australia, that doesn’t adequately prepare you to become a real rancher. Over the years I had a lot of questions I felt too embarrassed to ask and nine times out of ten I found the answers in one of Heather’s articles. Heather is such a great writer because she’s been there, done that. “One of my goals,” she says, “has been to learn all I can about horses and cattle — to care for them as best I can and keep them healthy — and then share that knowledge with others.”

Heather typed thousands of articles on several old
typewriters and always tried to "keep it simple,"
writing about technical subjects in words
that are easy to understand.

Heather has the rare ability to take complicated diseases or procedures and make them simple. Her secret? “I think any topic can be made more palatable by simple English and fewer big words. I have a simple mind myself. I figure that if I can write something in terms that I can easily understand, then probably my readers can understand it, too. I often consider myself a ‘translator’ or intermediary between the veterinary/medical terminology/language and the average lay reader who prefers simple words. No one wants to have to use a dictionary when reading an article!”

Heather never suffers from writer’s block but if an editor assigns her to write an article that doesn’t directly apply to livestock or horses her mind rebels a little. But that doesn’t mean the editor doesn’t receive more than what he asked for.

I became a huge fan of Heather’s writing years ago. Other than the Digest, the first publication to ever carry my weekly column was a great newspaper out of Canada called Grainews. One of the reasons that I loved the paper so much was that they sent me a free subscription and once a month I got to read a diary of what was happening on Heather and her husband’s ranch, the goings-on in her life and all the animals they raised. And every one of them had a name! Even when they were having 185 calves per year every animal was named! There was Kachoozy, Clariberry, Nick Nack Paddy Whack Jack and Sophocles. The cow Jill had Jillie and Jillie had Chillie, Millie, Willie, Woolly and Wally. “Cherry Dumpling had Cherry Pie, Cupcake, Cinnamon Roll and Cookie Monster. Melody had Operetta, Mandolynne and Banjo. Bobbie had Bibbidy, Bobbidy and Boo. Flibberty had Gibbit. Big Kat had Little Kat, Kat’s Pajamas and Little Cat Panther. Star Face had Starlight, who had Orion, Twinkle, and Star Bright, who had Starsky. Buffalo Girl had Buffalo Chips, Buffalo Billy, Buffalo Jack and Buffalo Baby.

All the cattle on the Thomas ranch get named. Here's Heather in 1995 with a yearling heifer named "Norman" — for the orphan calf in the movie City Slickers.

You get the picture. And readers related to her stories. As I recall, Grainnews conducted a survey and found that the most favorite thing in their paper was Heather’s diary. And keep in mind this was a huge paper with countless columnists. During the course of writing her diary an event occurred that deeply impacted Heather and everyone who read about it. I know it still sticks in my mind.

Heather, Lynn, Norman, and a few of the other
30 yearling heifers on the ranch in 1995

There was a fire. It occurred on the night of July 5, 2000, and was started by fireworks on a friend’s place. “The friend’s dog grabbed a rocket as it was lit, and it went the wrong direction and ignited dry grass and sagebrush on a mountainside,” says Heather. In an attempt to put out the fire Heather’s daughter, Andrea, and a friend took a crawler tractor up the steep mountain to try to create a fire line. The wind changed and trapped them and the only way out was back through the blaze. Andrea was severely burned and ended up with very serious impairments, such as the thickening, contracting scar tissue from the skin grafts. “She also has serious lung damage from the pneumonia that nearly killed her in the burn ICU,” says Heather, “along with circulatory problems; the burns were so deep that they destroyed flesh (and blood vessels) as well as skin, and some blood vessels eventually rerouted [the body is amazing!! Some veins became arteries] so she has a few arteries right under the grafted skin, that are easily nicked. She endures constant pain and continues to have surgery to this day.”

Andrea was finally able to hold and hug her 2-1/2-year-old
daughter Emily after spending nearly a month in the burn ICU.

Recalls Heather, “A whole bunch of miracles lined up just right or she would not have survived long enough to be flown to Salt Lake. Andrea has endured it all with a very strong spirit and she continues on with her life with cheerful enthusiasm, taking care of her kids and helping other people. Very few people realize what she endures.”

Andrea and her daughter Emily a few years later —
Andrea is unashamed of her burn scars and impairments.

Perhaps for her own therapy Heather wrote a book about the entire experience. “I felt compelled to share our story, in hopes that it might encourage and inspire other people who are suddenly facing a traumatic detour in life.” The book is titled Beyond the Flames: A Family Touched by Fire. It was published by Oak Tree Press in 2004 and in many ways is her best work as a writer.

Andrea continues on with her life and rarely lets her "bad" days
and impairments keep her from doing what she wants to do.

These past 10 years Heather says that she and Lynn have slowed down a bit. “We no longer lease the extra ground, and we’re letting our son and his wife use part of our ranch and the range; we cut down our cattle numbers to allow them to build up their herd.” Her passion is still horses and cattle and what makes THEM tick and despite her claim to “slowing down,” Heather is actually writing more now than ever.

Readers who want to get a taste of what Heather calls her “critter stories” can check out “Notes from Sky Range Ranch,” which appears every other Tuesday on one of her publishers’ websites: http://insidestorey.blogspot.com. Or you can read a blog she does twice a month on another website that another publisher (Oak Tree Press) set up for her, to tell why she wrote Beyond the Flames, and to bring the reader up to date since then, regarding her family and experiences on the ranch: www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com.

Whew! It all makes this hack tired just thinking of all that writing. I don’t know how she does it all, but I know one thing, those of us in the cattle business are darn sure glad she does!

Heather and Lynn have slowed down a bit with the ranching
and have fewer cattle today but still enjoy them as much as ever.
Andrea took this photo of Heather having a chat with "Buffalo Girl,"
a pet cow belonging to young Emily.

From Heather: “Thanks, Lee. I have always admired and appreciated your columns, too, and I’m flattered and grateful that you wanted to write this tribute about me!”

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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