Mary Heffernan, Five Marys Farm, California (USA)
About a decade ago, Mary Heffernan left her life in the city behind to go back to her farming roots and start a ranch. Named after her and her daughters, Five Marys Farm raises beef, pork and lamb. An entrepreneur before becoming a rancher, Mary quickly decided to design an on-ranch slaughtering floor in order to be able to sell the ranch’s meat directly to customers through Five Marys Meats and to share her business expertise with other farmers with the M5 Academy.
Originally a (sixth generation) Californian from the Bay Area, Mary Heffernan grew up in a suburban household. The oldest of four children, her family has agricultural roots in the Watsonville area but chose a different path. Daughter of a lawyer and a stay at home mom, Mary had a pretty traditional upbringing. Still, she has always had the entrepreneurial spirit. One day, she and her husband decided to leave their careers and businesses in the city behind to go back to agriculture and start a ranch. Even so, the entrepreneurial spirit never left Mary and there is a lot more to Five Marys Farm than just raising cattle.
Entrepreneur first, rancher later
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur, ever since I was about seven years old and didn’t know what ‘entrepreneur’ meant”, Mary says. “I love starting businesses, I love being industrious: finding a niche and filling it with the business concept. I love doing all sides of business as much as I can myself, from building the website to branding and marketing and I just really love the interaction with customers and seeing when there’s an opportunity to fill a niche in a way that creates a viable, profitable business that also really meets the needs of the customer.”
In the following years, Mary would start up business after business, starting from a need she detected and building from there. A few years into this, she met Brian. “Like me, he has a California legacy of agricultural backgrounds in his family but grew up in it more than I did, his dad being a farmer. Brian wanted to follow in his footsteps, but his dad said he should really go find a job where he could make money first and then come back to agriculture. So Brian went to law school and was working at a big firm in the Bay Area when I met him.” After Brian and Mary were married and expected their first child, Brian decided the big firm life was not for him. Mary’s entrepreneurial life, however, seemed a lot more appealing. “So he left a big law firm, hung up his own shingle and started his own boutique law firm doing real estate law. And then we kind of started opening businesses together…”
It started with an accidental restaurant
Another few years and several businesses later, one particular business idea would lead up to Mary and Brian moving up to the ranch and deciding to produce their own beef. “We had seven different brick and mortar businesses and we accidentally opened up a restaurant. We had kids, we loved good food, we loved going out to eat but with three small children then – now we have four – it was hard to find a place where we could feel comfortable going out to eat and bringing kids, no matter how well behaved they were. So we started a restaurant concept with really good quality food: great sourcing on the ingredients, a great kids menu with Bento boxes and edamame instead of chicken strips and pizza, and we opened a family friendly restaurant and then several other businesses after that. And that’s what led us down the path of sourcing really great quality meat.”
Mary and Brian wanted to provide quality food to their customers, especially good beef that started with great genetics, was finished well, dry aged and packaged with care. The only problem was that they couldn’t find a farm producing the quality they wanted on the scale they wanted. “You need someone who can produce year round to supply a restaurant and no farmer from the area could do that. So that’s when, on a wing and a prayer, we bought some land up in Siskiyou County which is the northernmost part of California, almost to the Oregon border, said ‘we’re just going to do this ourselves. And moved six hours away from where we lived to start this new adventure.”
Five Marys Farm
As first generation cattle ranchers, Mary and Brian were lucky to have an Oregon cattle rancher for a brother(-in-law) who helped them get started, answering questions almost daily. Just 6 weeks after they started, they realised they couldn’t keep up with being Bay Area restaurant owners during the week and cattle ranchers during weekends. “It was an easy decision. We knew we were all in on cattle ranching. We wanted to be the ones taking care of our animals and doing this every day so we sold our businesses, sold our house, closed up shop, moved six hours north into a 720 square foot tiny cabin with only a wood stove for heat and from there we really dove in head first into ranching.”
The farm was named after Mary and her four girls, all carrying the name “Mary” as a first name after their grandmothers and aunts, who were very little when the family relocated to Fort Jones. “They were one, three, five and six. We spent most of our time outside in the dirt and living in this tiny cabin for what we thought would be a year turned into seven years. The girls matured, became so much more capable and are integral in helping out on the ranch, they have been since the day we started.”
Mary and Brian had fallen in love with the lifestyle but also knew they needed to make their endeavour work financially, being first generation ranchers on a pretty dilapidated piece of property.
For Mary and her family, it was clear that for their new enterprise to work, they needed a direct to consumer model in order to find the most margins, to build a customer base and ship their meats directly from the nearby little rural town to customers all over 50 states. “It took us a while to figure that out and there was a lot of trial and error in a year and a half of finding out how to ship meat.”
Five Marys Meats
Back when the idea of shipping their meat was born, the concept of shipping meat directly from the farm was not very common for small farms, meaning Mary and her family had to reinvent the process of shipping boxes. “We needed to find out how to work with dry ice, how much dry ice is needed for shipping meat and how to get better rates. We spent a lot of time looking into it and invested a lot into it until we really got it. Since then we have had over 60,000 customers buy Five Marys Meats from our website that we’ve shipped out from our little farm store in town to all fifty states.”
With Five Marys Meats, the ranch sells beef, pork and lamb all over the country and year round. The problem with raising animals for meat year round was, as they would quickly discover, USDA (United States Department of Agriculture, red.) processing. “Finding a USDA butcher with availability for processing is the Achilles heel of ranching”, Mary explains. “It was hard to get into processors and it was hard to get them to cut our meat right. You work so hard to create this great quality product and then you give it to a butcher who might not cut it as beautifully as it could be. Another problem was that butchers did not find value in added products such as sausages, jerkies and burger patties. Those are important to us but they take a lot of time to prepare. Unfortunately, most butcher shops don’t want to take that time or it simply doesn’t work in their model.”
Never one to sit around and do nothing, Mary and her husband Brian had a solution. “The next step for the ranch was to organize our own USDA approved butcher plant facility in order to be able to slaughter and harvest on ranch. The plant took us about five years to design and now we have our own on ranch kill facility. Our steers walk about 100 yards (+/- 91 meters, red.) from their pens to this beautiful facility we worked with Temple Grandin on. It’s one of the smallest that she’s worked on because it’s just for our ranch and a few neighbours who we process for, but it’s really amazing.”
Next to their USDA approved mobile kill trailer, Five Marys Farm also have a full service USDA butchery called Five Marys Custom Meat Co where all the cut, wrap and dry-aging is done. “Dry aging is really important to us. We hang all of our carcasses for an extended time for optimal flavour and tenderness. The packaging is also really important: every steak has to be cut beautifully, the packages can’t break or leak. We have to use really high quality millimetre bags to make sure of that. From there, it goes to the Five Marys Farm Store which is just a block away right in town, five miles from our ranch. We have a great team of gals there who ship out our meats every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday all over the country.”
The meats from Five Marys’ is sold to everyone, but Mary feels her customers are mostly people who are less connected to farming but got to know the ranch through the stories on social media. “They feel that connection to what we’re doing and then they feel really good about trusting the source. I’m an open book on Instagram sharing our life and the ups and the downs of raising animals, and I think that’s what makes the difference. Our customers feel really good about knowing who we are, what we do, that transparency and buying meat directly from us, because I think it’s harder and harder to trust labels these days.”
The direct sales branch on the farm and learning to ship their meats inspired Mary, who wanted to help other people develop this side of their farms. “We saw how beneficial it was for our ranch to be able to meet a direct to consumer need and not to have to travel to farmers markets or deliveries, rely on wholesale or selling to restaurants. So I created the M5 Entrepreneurs small business course to really share what we learned”, she explains, stressing that she finds open communication and sharing knowledge crucial for the betterment of agriculture. “There’s no secrets in agriculture that are that are worth keeping, it’s really about community and fostering. We’re all in this together and there’s plenty of miles to feed in this country, so we wanted to do what we could to help others meet those same goals.”
Mary’s goal was to empower her fellow farmers and ranchers to build their businesses and showing them that, just like her, they could do most of it themselves by sharing everything she and her family learned building Five Marys Meats as well as all of their previous businesses before getting into agriculture.
“You can build your own business overnight, you can start selling your product tomorrow. Things like shipping take a little bit more time figuring out, but we’ve included all we have learned along the years and years of building businesses in this course. It’s also been helpful that Brian is still technically an attorney so he has so much knowledge on insurance, permits, taxes and entity formation.”
Mary and Brian were new to agriculture but very accomplished and experienced in starting up and running businesses. Thanks to the support of their community, they learned their jobs on the go and discovered how to do things and how to make improvements. Everything they have learned, including their mistakes, they share in the course along with their extensive business experience.
“We’re really able of share the mistakes we’ve made, what we’ve learned on everything from hosting events to starting a podcast to experimenting with different platforms and social media to grow e-commerce websites, even hiring and managing employees. There’s so many parts of business that are really make or break, and we were fortunate because we came with a lot of business experience. I’d started 19 different businesses by the time we started Five Marys.”
With the M5 Academy, Mary built an entrepreneurs community where people can ask their questions to either her or Brian. “I’m on there every day. People might have questions for me or Brian on anything really, so we’ve put all that information in the M5 entrepreneurs course and then have this community as well.” The M5 community has also proven to be a great place for the ranching community to help each other out, sharing discount codes or sharing orders to get better prices.
For the past four to five years, the M5 Entrepreneurs course has been one course including everything but recently, Mary relaunched it in a different format. “These days I know people want their dollars to go farther and some people are experts already in one avenue or another, but they just need help in a certain area. So we’ve spent about six months redesigning, recording, writing and getting experts to break the course into 40 different topics on everything from starting out in agriculture to hiring and managing employees to taxes and permits, insurance and trademarks. Raising beef, raising sheep, raising hogs. How to start a USDA butcher shop. It has everything in there broken down by workshop at an affordable price point so that it’s more accessible and people can jump into what they need right when they need it without the huge investment of the bigger course.”
The on-ranch business course is attended mostly by people in agriculture, even though Mary’s nineteen businesses before this one were not at all based in it. “The knowledge is for any business, but we have created this beautiful community of people who are in agriculture and who have all those skills, knowing how to care for their animals and the land and produce a great quality product, but who might not be as savvy on the business side. That’s what I love: bringing all that together, giving people the tools and say hey, you can do this!”
“That’s our motto in the course: you can do this. You can build your own website. You don’t need to hire somebody to build your own website that you can’t go and edit or change when you need to. You know you can figure out how to trademark your business yourself. You can figure out how to sell X,Y,Z, whatever it might be. I can help you sell it. And that’s really kind of what my passion is in life, but it’s neat to be able to do that for such an agricultural heavy community.”
“I love seeing women empowered to put their face on their business and really saying ‘I’m part of this ranch. I’m a rancher. I’m a farmer. You’re buying from me, not just my husband but from my whole family. We raise these cattle together.”
Ranch women stepping up
If, in her opinion, more and more women are respected in agriculture, it still has been a hill to climb for Mary. Still, she notices how the perception towards women on the ranch is evolving and how those women are stepping up to bring much needed change to their family ranches during her courses. “I think what I love so much about the course is seeing these women who might be the daughter-in-law or the daughter of a 6th generation, 8th generation, 9th generation, even 10th generation ranch saying ‘you know what, I’ve got two boys, I want them to be able to take over this ranch and I don’t see that happening with the way the market is, the way the future is going.’ We have to change something and change is scary in any industry, but it is really scary in agriculture and so when we can give them the tools and show them an example of how this worked for us, talk about all these other people we’ve had in the M5 Entrepreneurs course, the success stories of how it’s worked for them, and then help them come up with a plan… I love that”, Mary says.
“Women have always been a huge part of the ranching operation. They’re the ones in the back doing QuickBooks and payroll and getting the accounts right, sending those invoices. They’re the ones in the kitchen cooking for all these brandings, taking care of all these employees, managing the day-to-day. Women have always been involved in the business, they might just not be at the forefront, seen as really doing the business, or feel like they’re an integral part of it because it’s just, you know, what they do.”
“So I love seeing women empowered to put their face on their business and really saying ‘I’m part of this ranch. I’m a rancher. I’m a farmer. You’re buying from me, not just my husband but from my whole family. We raise these cattle together.’ And really stepping up to make those changes, which we know is not easy. Meeting with their fathers or fathers-in-law to say they need to change things in order to continue and that they want to be a part of it. It is a really amazing thing when that works and what’s even better is when I talk to these fathers (-in-law) and they go ‘Wow, this is pretty cool. You gave my daughter these tools and this confidence and this is totally changing our business for the better. Now I could see my grandsons carry on this business that I was worried we would have to sell.’ There is really nothing more rewarding than seeing that when it happens!”
A serial entrepreneur, Mary Heffernan left her city life behind to start a ranch in Fort Jones, northern California. The ranch, named Five Marys Farm after Mary and her four daughters MaryFrances “Francie”; MaryMarjorie, “Maisie”; MaryJane “Janie or JJ”; and MaryTeresa, “Tessa”, raises beef, pork and lamb for direct sale year round and ships its meats, sold under “Five Marys Meats”, to all 50 States.
Passionate about small business, Mary wanted to share her years of knowledge, experience and insight with other farmers and ranchers in her area, believing that educating her colleagues in running a business is the key to moving their ranches and farms forward. A firm believer in minimizing outsourcing, she aims to empower the people from her community through the M5 Academy.
The ranch also proposes ranch camps and has opened a burger restaurant in the nearby town, offering a community gathering spot and attracting customers from far and wide.
You can follow Mary:
Via the website
This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2022-004. Click here to read the full article.