Califonia Bountiful

High five!

May/June 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Family starts a new chapter on rural ranch with Five Marys Farms

Mary Heffernan and her four daughters, also all named Mary, are the namesakes for the Heffernan family's Five Marys Farms in Siskiyou County. Here, the group collects eggs from their pasture-raised chickens.

As the sun begins to make its descent in the Siskiyou County sky, Brian Heffernan stacks bales of hay onto the back of his flatbed truck.

Hurrying to beat the impending sunset, Heffernan builds a tower of sweet-smelling bales for the cows mooing in anticipation. He checks the sun over his shoulder, noting it has dipped below the snow-dusted mountains. But just as he starts his truck, a young girl clad in pink pants and a purple jacket bursts out of the ranch's cabin and heads his way.

Heffernan pauses and waits for daughter Maisie to run the 100 or so yards from the house and jump in the seat next to him. Then the two set off to make the dinner drops—together.

Such is life for Heffernan and his five Marys: his wife, Mary, and his four daughters, also all named Mary. MaryFrances, 9, goes by Francie; MaryMarjorie, or Maisie, is 8; MaryJane, nicknamed JJ, is 6; and MaryTeresa, a preschooler, is lovingly referred to as Tiny or Tessa.

The family makes their home on the historic Sharps Gulch Ranch in the Scott Valley. Their livelihood is ranching: The Heffernans raise Angus beef cattle, heritage hogs, Navajo-Churro sheep and egg-laying chickens.

From sunup to sundown, Brian cares for the animals and the ranch. His wife oversees sales and marketing of their meat under the family's Five Marys Farms brand, which they sell online, and his daughters bottle-feed lambs, collect eggs, throw hay for cows and help corral wayward hogs that break through fences.

"We're a really strong unit of teamwork," Mary said. "It's all six of us working together to take care of each other and take care of our animals."

And though this bucolic lifestyle seems like second nature for the Heffernans, it's more like a second chapter for the family.

Mary and Brian Heffernan and their daughters all work together on their ranch, raising beef cattle, lambs, chickens for eggs, hogs and turkeys.

From hustle to home

When Brian and Mary first met, he worked as an attorney for a large law firm and she ran a successful tutoring business. They made a home in the Bay Area, starting their family of Marys.

Seeing a gap in family-focused dining options, the couple ventured into the restaurant business, opening two eateries in Los Altos. One featured American fare and the unique concept of a family playroom: Parents could drop off their children in a supervised space and still have quiet table service. The other was a juice and espresso bar, just down the street.

As restaurateurs, the Heffernans logged many hours in the kitchens of their restaurants, fostering a curiosity and passion for California-grown food.

"We always looked for local farms where we could source from," Mary said. "We had some pretty fantastic chefs working for and with us, and we began to learn about different meats and what makes great meat. We found what we loved was beef raised with a barley finish that was dry-aged 28 days. But when we sought out beef from small farms to buy, we couldn't find enough of it in a scale to support the restaurant."

So the Heffernans decided to raise the beef themselves. For many, the leap from suburban to farm life may seem unlikely. But for both Brian and Mary, ranching was a return to their roots. Brian's great-great-grandfather emigrated from Germany and began farming sugar beets in Ventura County in the late 1800s. His dad farmed in the Imperial Valley and Tehama County. Mary's family farmed in the Watsonville area for five generations.

In late 2013, the Heffernans found and bought their land, hoping to be both restaurant owners and ranchers, driving north to the cows on the weekends. The wide-open spaces, the slower pace of life and the opportunity to live and work closely as a family pulled the Heffernans to the ranch more and more. They sold their restaurants and, by mid-2014, had made Fort Jones their full-time home.

Whether checking on the cattle with their father, above, bottle-feeding a lamb or tending to newly hatched chicks, the Heffernan girls don't hesitate to get hands-on.

Sharing their story

Settling into a rural town of about 800 people brought plenty of changes.

Mary stopped using a hair dryer, she acknowledged with a laugh. The girls traded matching dresses and bows in their hair for mud-caked boots. Their days start earlier and end later—they fix frozen water pipes, help lambs give birth at 5 a.m. and bottle-feed calves that need extra attention.

Though their tasks are routine, and likely no different than those on most California ranches, the Heffernans accomplish them all together: Mom, Dad and four little Marys.

Mary began documenting this new life on social media for family and friends to see. Soon her followers on Instagram grew to 30,000, with some as far as Great Britain. She now posts a half-dozen photos or videos a day, telling the Five Marys story—everything from bath time for the girls to helping an animal give birth. They say they've connected more strongly as a family, and in turn are connecting the rest of the world to their family.

It's this peek behind the scenes into daily ranch life through social media that the Heffernans believe has helped them build such a strong customer base.

"A big part of why people want our meat is that we are telling them our story, the day-to-day of what we are doing," Brian said. "We have total transparency and share everything—all the ups and downs of farming. What people see is, there may be downs, but we're always focused on taking care of our animals."

Mary said customers ask her questions in real time on the live feeds and have even sent hand-me-down rubber boots to the girls.

Social media has been an avenue for the Heffernans to give customers and fans a glimpse into their daily lives. The ranch has more than 30,000 followers on Instagram and Mary Heffernan often shares live videos of the family completing evening chores.

"With social media, I feel so connected to what we're doing and see so many opportunities to reach new people and tell our story and connect with them," she said. "They see an inside view of our lives and we get to know them too."

When Brian recently found a newborn lamb struggling to survive at 5:45 a.m. while making his routine feeding rounds, he scooped up the animal and brought it inside to be tended by Francie, who jumped out of bed and into action. The family documented Francie warming the lamb by the fire and bottle-feeding it to bring it strength. It didn't make it, but stories like these resonate with customers such as Bay Area resident Jeannette Ring.

Ring orders about 30 pounds of meat once a month from Five Marys and fills her refrigerator with the Heffernans' ground beef, lamb and turkey.

The convenience of having a box of high-quality meat on her doorstep every month is ideal, Ring said, but the story behind the meat—the handwritten thank-you notes and drawings from the girls in every package, the burning of the Five Marys brand on every box packed by Mary herself, the connection to the farm—is what keeps her supporting the family business.

"Knowing that the girls are out there and out helping, it's wonderful to see. Knowing the hard work that they all put into it makes me appreciate what we buy from them even more," Ring said. "It helps me to slow down in the kitchen and become more mindful with how I cook and prepare food. They've done the best on their end. I want to make sure I'm doing the best on mine."

Though the daily ranching routine has linked the first-time farmers to their customers and social media followers, farming has forged the deepest bond among members of their own family.

"It's not easy. It's really hard work," Brian said. "But we get to do it together. The good and bad, we're tackling them head-on as a family. It's not as romantic as a lot of people envision, but ranching is also the greatest life experience we can have for our family."

Toni Scott

A focus on the whole

Fans swear by the taste of pasture-raised beef, pork and lamb from Five Marys Farms. But the family is committed to more than producing popular cuts with great flavor. Their whole-animal approach to butchery means wasting as little as possible.

"We love our animals and care for them so much," Mary Heffernan said. "We want to make sure we're continuing to take care in finding ways that we're best utilizing all that they provide."

The family sells sheepskin pelts from their Navajo-Churro sheep, which have long, soft wool. After the sheep are harvested, the couple collect the pelts, clean them on the ranch and then have them cleaned further and salted to preserve the hide before the journey to a Quakertown, Pa., tannery. The pelts spend six months at the tannery and then travel back to the ranch, where Mary photographs them and puts them on the Five Marys website to sell as rugs or throws.

The Heffernans also sell bones for customers to make bone broth, as well as offal, or nutrient-dense beef and lamb organs such as kidneys and liver, for use in inventive dishes to broaden their customers' culinary skills.

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest