Mary and Brian Heffernan had no experience running a livestock farm when they left Silicon Valley behind and moved their four daughters to an 1,800-acre ranch. 

By Alissa Hessler
Updated April 02, 2019
Credit: Christa Renee

THE SUMMER BEFORE eighth grade, when her peers were spending the lazy days of break riding bikes and going to the mall, 14-year-old Mary Heffernan was starting her first business. After an aunt enlisted her to babysit a few of her cousins, Mary decided to scale up—way up—launching Mary’s Summer Fun Camp in her parents’ backyard in Menlo Park, California. “I figured I might as well watch some other neighborhood kids and make it worth my while,” she says of her two dozen or so charges. “That gave me the entrepreneurial bug.”

By her early 30s, Mary, now 40, had successfully opened 10 small businesses with her husband, Brian, now 47. These included a tutoring center, a floral shop, a drop-in daycare facility, and two farm-to-table restaurants. When the couple had trouble sourcing ethically farmed meat, Mary recast the obstacle as an opportunity. “We knew exactly how we wanted the animals raised,” she says. She thought, “Why can’t we just do this ourselves?” Mary and Brian had long dreamed of buying property outside the city. A livestock business could potentially serve a dual purpose—supply meat for their restaurants and be a pastoral weekend escape for their family.

The Heffernans bought Sharps Gulch Ranch, a 160-year-old livestock farm in Fort Jones, California, on December 27, 2013, about six weeks after first touring its 1,800 acres. Initially, the couple hired a ranch manager, intending to commute back and forth on the weekends—a 12-hour round trip—so they could run their other businesses. It only took a few weekends on the ranch for the couple to realize how much happier their family was in this new environment. They loved the daily rhythm of caring for their animals, the fresh air and room to roam, the tight-knit community of Fort Jones. Silicon Valley had changed significantly since Mary was a child. Although they attribute much of their business success to the astronomical growth and affluence of the region, the Heffernans were tired of trying to keep pace. They worried their girls would grow up with a skewed view of the world.

In April, while driving back to the Bay Area from their eighth weekend trip to the ranch, the pair discussed their options. Living in Fort Jones full-time would make it difficult to run their other businesses, which they’d have to do remotely. If they sold their businesses, they could go all in on this new venture, but they’d need to build a viable ranching business that didn’t already have the existing customer base from their two restaurants, as they originally planned. Ultimately the decision came down to the lifestyle they wanted for the four girls sleeping in the back of the car. This move was for them, for their future. The Heffernans were all in.

Credit: Christa Renee

TWO MONTHS LATER, they had sold all but one of their enterprises (Mary kept running her first business, a tutoring center, but sold it recently) and decamped with their daughters from their recently purchased 5,000-square-foot Craftsman dream home in Los Altos to a rustic, 780-square-foot caretaker’s cabin at Sharps Gulch. “It was a far cry from our comfortable suburban existence,” Mary says now. The Heffernans had filled two large storage containers with their belongings (they later repurposed their furniture and other items around the property), packed up their car, and made their final long drive the day their eldest finished kindergarten.

They thought their move, which Brian describes as a switch from “a big house with a small backyard to a small house with a big backyard,” might be difficult—so much so that they held on to their Los Altos home as a plan B for six months before selling. “But we learned we didn’t need as much stuff to live a very happy and satisfying life,” says Mary. The four Heffernan sisters shared a bed for two years before moving into bunks in the attic. Most nights, though, you can still find them in the living room together, sleeping by the woodstove.

After moving, Mary and Brian threw themselves into learning. They named their new home Five Marys Farms—for Mary and their girls, MaryFrances (Francie, 11), MaryMarjorie (Maisie, 9), MaryJane (Janie, 8), and MaryTeresa (Tessa, 6). While neither had ranching experience, Brian was raised on a hay-and-alfalfa farm, so he at least knew how to grow feed. Brian’s brother-in-law, a fifth-generation cattle rancher from Oregon, became an invaluable mentor. Neighbors helped, and the couple read dozens of books and watched tutorials online—a YouTube video in Swahili guided Mary through her first piglet castration. For the first four months, Brian worked double as a rancher and a lawyer, but soon he decided to focus solely on the farm.

The Heffernan sisters have been an integral part of Five Marys Farms since its inception: gathering eggs, bottle-feeding lambs and calves, and helping with feeding rounds. “There was no choice but to make them step up,” says Mary. “They’ve become so much more capable and responsible.” Mary and Brian say the girls—all under age 6 when they moved—were able to smoothly transition to ranch life, without tearful goodbyes to schoolmates and friends. The girls are the first to tell you the country is where they were destined to grow up; they revel in running through the grass and snuggling lambs. Francie appreciates the autonomy: “I couldn’t go back to the city now. We love being outside all day, working and riding horses on the ranch. We have a lot more independence.” The youngest, Tessa, has a more specific preference: “In the city you have to wear shoes. I’d rather be barefoot in the mud.”

The family has pushed through numerous hurdles. By far the biggest was figuring out how to offer their meat. In the beginning, the Heffernans tried to sell the harvest from their first 30 lambs directly to consumers by emailing friends and acquaintances in the Bay Area and providing front-door delivery. “I’m trying to fulfill 27 orders, stuck in traffic for 13 hours with coolers of meat and four crying kids,” Mary says of the debacle. “Halfway through, I called Brian in tears and said, ‘We cannot do this. This is not sustainable.’”

Mary began researching online sales. Without a big advertising budget, she marketed on social media, posting images and videos from their daily lives—from coyote attacks to quiet feeding rounds—on Instagram and amassing a following. Her efforts paid off: Five Marys Farms’ customers have quadrupled since 2016. They now ship more than 800 boxes a month nationwide. They also offer women’s retreats and run a farm store, a guesthouse, and a restaurant, Five Marys M5 Burgerhouse, in downtown Fort Jones.

Mary says it’s important that she reach out to her new community and other farmers. “There are a few skeptics,” she says. “But if you’re opening your ranch to people, inviting them to enjoy your food, you’re helping to tell the story of agriculture. That story is getting harder to tell.” She has tried to share what she’s learned—about building the farm and diversifying the business—through a small business workshop in Fort Jones and an e-course.

Credit: Christa Renee

WAKING IN THE MORNING before daybreak, seven days a week, Brian is the first one out to the barns. He loads the feed wagon with 85 120-pound bales of hay. The whole family then piles into the truck to make their way up to the mountains, where they feed the cattle from the late fall to the early spring. Their daughters throw flakes to the congregating cows. Once the cows are fed, the family reloads the truck with feed for the sheep, then the pigs, and finally the fowl. It takes two to three hours—once in the morning and once at night—to feed all their animals. Even though he works more now, Brian says, “my hardest day ranching is still better than my best day lawyering.”

After morning feedings, Mary drops off her daughters at the local elementary school and then typically goes to their store to work. As Five Marys Farms has expanded, the Heffernans have been able to hire employees. Five days a week, Brian works with a young ranch hand, who assists him with a never-ending to-do list: repairing fences, moving water lines, finding escaped animals. Mary has a right-hand woman who helps her fulfill orders and run the store, among other tasks, and they bring on a seasonal intern for the busy summer months.

Ranch life isn’t all dreamy lamb snuggling and gorgeous sunsets. Consider the day Mary arrived home, all four girls in tow, to find an older ewe in labor, her uterus prolapsed: “We all ran out to help her. She was suffering, and we were losing her. I went and got the gun and loaded it. I saw that the girls had already walked away to a safe place up the hill. Afterward they worked with me to C-section the mama and try to save the two little lambs.” Sadly, neither made it. “Those experiences stick with you.”

Although heartache is a normal part of daily life on the ranch, the Heffernans have learned to navigate these hardships together. “We don’t have a huge savings account or a big fancy house now, but it still feels like a date when Brian and I are out feeding our animals,” she says. “I spend every day with my husband and children doing something I’m incredibly passionate about. That—not money in the bank—is where happiness lies.”