Heart of Agriculture awards recognize women ranchers

Wyoming women ranchers are the state’s fastest growing demographic, and 11 were recognized last week in Gillette with Heart of Agriculture Honoree awards.

Whether native born, beguiled as a youth in the Netherlands by Wyoming’s mystique, or living in Boston and hearing the state’s siren call, they’re either managing their own ranches or in equal partnerships with spouses.

Five women in a row
First Lady Jennie Gordon, center, with Heart of Agriculture honorees attending the Gillette event, from left, Carolina Noya of Crook County, Judy Raymond of Carbon County, Brandi Forgey of Natrona County, and Cat Urbigkit of Sublette County. Honorees receive a Wyoming Heart of Agriculture Honoree works here metal sign to post on their property.

The ranchers received the honors Wednesday, May 1, at a University of Wyoming Extension event in Gillette, nominated from their counties for the honors. First Lady Jennie Gordon, who operates a cow-calf operation in Johnson County with husband Gov. Mark Gordon, provided the keynote address.

Women producers is the fastest growing demographic in the state, said Scott Cotton, a UW Extension educator in Natrona County. He cited the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“Wyoming has an amazing number of professional influential and productive women producers,”  he said. “We want the active women agricultural producers in Wyoming to be recognized for the work they are doing. We think that’s important.”

Jim Magagna said he sees an increasing number of women ranchers in the state. Executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, Magagna said there are ranches being solely operated by women and there are true partnerships between spouses.

“They each have distinct roles but that includes both of them out there moving cattle, and they are both sitting in the office making financial decisions,” said Magagna at the Gillette event. The 147-year-old association had its first woman president in 2007.

Picture of woman
Brandi Forgey

“I think probably there are still a few places in Wyoming where women face the challenge of just being fully recognized for what they do, but this is changing,” he said.

He did not know all 11 women producers recognized but knows many of them. “The diversity to me is what’s impressive,” Magagna said. “Each in their unique way is making important contributions to Wyoming agriculture.”

Extension collaborated with several producer groups, ranch industry representatives and a committee of women producers to receive and verify nominations from each county and the Wind River Indian Reservation. Extension plans to recognize women producers each year.

The timing of the honors the same year as the 150th anniversary of women suffrage in Wyoming  is appropriate, said Cat Urbigkit, one of the award recipients. She and her family manage a sheep operation in Sublette County, and she writes, is a photographer, and publishes Shepherd magazine.

Picture of woman
Judy Raymond

“I’m so happy to be associated with these women, and a lot of them are my friends,” she said. “They are strong women leaders and are respected in their communities and in the field in agriculture.”

She’s involved in the day-to-day decisions on their ranch and is in the traditional family role, with everyone involved.

“But I also have the pleasure of working with herders who are here from other countries and not used to women having a physical role in managing livestock as well as the decision-making role,” she said. “So, it’s been an interesting dynamic to be involved in. It’s never been a problem, but it’s kind of humorous to me to kind of shove a man aside when working sheep in a pen.”

Carolina Noya of Crook County grew up in the Netherlands.

“As a kid I looked at a map and looked at Wyoming and I said there is where I’m going,” said Noya. “Silly, right? I was 6 years old.”

Picture of woman
Carolina Noya

Yet at age 22 she came to the U.S. by herself and lived in New York City, getting a job riding thoroughbreds. She was also a sky jockey, flying and attending to horses or other animals. She then decided to work as a ranch hand near Douglas and eventually came to own her own goat herd.

“I love working with a herd,” she said. “Not working them in a chute but going places with them. I love that type of spending time with your herd. As a herder, that’s all you do, day and night because of the predators, but I really appreciate seeing how these animals interact.”

The Heart of Agriculture Honoree Award can be an encouragement to younger women, she said, and showing women’s involvement in agriculture may help change negative images.

Agriculture has been portrayed badly at times, especially in public lands ranching, Noya said.

“Maybe with showing that women are part of agriculture, too, you can show the other side, that kind side, the loving side,” she said. “Maybe you can show with something like this it’s not just ranchers or cowboys, it’s much more involved. That real care is involved in producing animals or crops. I think women take pride in being a part of that whole cycle of growing and producing.”

Picture of woman
Cat Urbigkit

Tennessee girl Judy Raymond didn’t know it, but she was part of a plan put in motion, she said, by her husband to be – with divine help. He had more or less asked God to drop a wife from a helicopter onto his ranch – or he was leaving.

“He has a very strong faith,” she said. Ten days after the prayer, she arrived.

Raymond had lived in Boston many years teaching and had bicycled in Wyoming and loved the state. She later moved to Wyoming to help manage a bed and breakfast near Rawlins and owned by a woman she had met while biking in the state. Her friend took Raymond to look at a homestead cabin on the ranch, but Raymond says she was really taking her to be introduced to the rancher. Her friend thought they might be a match.

That was 23 years and two children ago.

“When God has brought you to a place, that makes a huge difference,” she said. “Everything works out.”

The cow-calf ranch is a family operation, but the hardest part for Raymond was getting used to work never-ending, as opposed to teaching school for nine months and then ending.

“That was very difficult psychologically for me to accept, that there is always a very long list of things to be done,” said Raymond. “You can choose how much it weighs on you. I’ve chosen to do it a day at a time.”

There was also that imposter thing. A city girl, she didn’t know ranch terminology, and when introduced to a sheep ranch neighbor, she asked when he planned to start calving.

“My husband was embarrassed, this city girl asking a sheep rancher about calving. That was embarrassing and humbling, to be on a steep learning curve,” she said. “I didn’t know the terminology. When I heard that someone’s outfit had different needs, I thought it was the clothes you were wearing.”

She’s finally past all that. “That feeling of being an imposter was a long time getting over,” said Raymond. “Maybe within the last couple years I finally realized ‘You are a rancher, not a teacher or anything else. A rancher.’ And I’m comfortable with it. It’s been difficult, but I love the life. I love being a food producer with my family.”

The UW Extension agriculture/horticulture initiative team initiated the Excellence in Agriculture Symposium and Heart of Agriculture luncheon as a new addition to their regular statewide programs.


Eleven receive Heart of Agriculture Honoree awards


Eleven Heart of Agriculture Honoree awards were presented during the recognition program Wednesday, May 1, in Gillette by the University of  Wyoming Extension.

In addition to Brandi Forgey, Carolina Noya, Judy Raymond and Cat Urbigkit:

Campbell County – Gwen Geis

Converse County – Elaine Moore

Fremont/Natrona counties – Gwen Shepperson

Goshen County – Linda Scheer Nichol

Johnson County –­ Karen Hostetler

Park County – Shirley Bales

Sheridan County – Gayle Symons