The backroads out to the San Rafael Valley are the kind just lonely enough to be dotted with altars. In Patagonia you take a left on Third Street, another left on Harshaw Road, and then you’re on the last stretch of pavement for miles. Heartbreaking bunches of bright flowers punctuate the curves to honor loved ones lost. Past a break of trees, the Santa Cruz carves a shadow of the wide swath where water used to run, now down to a rivulet that still feeds beautiful sweeping grasslands and the thick old sycamores, white like vibrant skeletons. Tucked back here, in the yellow grassland ringed by jagged cinnamon hills, is the property that called Sidney Spencer back home.
“You’re really close to creation and source out here,” she says. Her voice is slow, soft-spoken, befitting of the kind of silent cowboys she grew up around. The land she holds now once belonged to her grandparents; she was raised just on the other side of the Canelo Hills, to the north of the Huachucas that now cut a purple skyline on her horizon. She lives by herself out here, making little documentaries of her horses and raising grass-fed cattle. Along with Forest Service allotments, her 6,000 acres support 200 head of cattle that are born, raised, and harvested in the San Rafael Valley.
“That’s enough for one girl,” she says, though with the sweeping vista it’s tempting to think you could watch them all from her front porch, wherever they wandered. The story of how Spencer made it back here as the lone proprietor of Lazy J2 Ranch travels from Chicago’s Union Stock Yard to the newborn trading networks in New York City, weaving in characters as illustrious as William Randolph Hearst and Jacques Cousteau. Sidney Spencer is at heart a storyteller—perhaps every cowboy is—and she speaks in spirals; any question about her life and work ultimately loops back to bigger things: her ethics, her vision for the future, and her sense of duty to the present, all of which we cover over coffee at her kitchen table.
The modest ranch house Spencer now calls home.
But, to begin at the beginning: As Spencer tells it, her great-grandfather was one of the originators of the Chicago stockyards. When hoof-and-mouth disease broke out, he became an advocate for animals in quarantine, helping to preserve bloodlines of cattle that had antibodies against the infection. But when his own son fell sick with osteomyelitis, a kind of bone inflammation, doctors urged the family to take him to milder climes. It was from an airplane ride with William Randolph Hearst that Spencer’s great-grandfather had spotted the San Rafael Valley, and told his wife, “I’ve seen the place.” They pieced together six ranches around the site where Spencer lives now, and they moved west. “So that legacy of the San Rafael Valley is in my blood, too,” Spencer says.
In 1953, the ranch was sold by one of Spencer’s uncles, but her grandmother had a small ranch near the mountains, where Spencer remembers that during the monsoon season, “you had to be where you were going to be by 11 o’clock, because the wash became a river and you couldn’t cross.” Spencer split her childhood as a ranch hand in Arizona and a beach bunny in California, where she lived with her mother. In adulthood she made a career with MGM and Warner Bros. She worked with Jacques Cousteau and was influenced by his environmentalism. And then she shipped off to New York, where she was involved in building the first Internet trading systems.
But in 1992 she was in a severe automobile accident. “I wanted to go back to work, but I couldn’t get from A to B; C was impossible,” she says. “Anything that was complex I had to do it at night and unplug the phones. It was a struggle, and it was a struggle for a long time.”
It was then that she decided to buy back her grandparents’ ranch. “It was always a dream in the back of my mind—and I was saving money for it, too—but it wasn’t in the forefront. With the confusion and the difficulty in brain function that I was experiencing, it became forefront.”
And so, in 1995, she came back. “You make the transition easily,” she explains of going from the high-pressure urban life of New York to the waving expanse of grass she sits among now. “You knew it when you were a child; it’s in there.”
The grass rustling in this valley is the true heart of her operation. “It’s not, ‘Where’s the beef?’” Spencer says. “It’s, ‘Where’s the grass?’” Today, the standards by which cows are fed are as variable as the ranchers who raise them; many supplement their herd’s diet with grain. Spencer’s definition is simple to explain and difficult to achieve: her animals live year-round on the ranch and eat only native Arizona grass. This kind of operation is a rarity in Arizona, where ranchers often supplement their animals’ diets with purchased grass or grain.
“It’s not, ‘Where’s the beef?’ It’s, ‘Where’s the grass?'”
“There’s an attitude difference, and that’s really in the heart of the rancher. I don’t know ranchers who aren’t conservationists. I don’t know ranchers who aren’t kind, and caring,” she says. But the economics are stacked against them: Spencer calculates that it takes 30 acres per head to raise cattle on grass. Given the economics of ranching, she says, it takes 300 head of cattle to make a business of it, which suddenly makes those wide swaths of amber look small. She works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation District to identify the methods that support the grass and the land. They study each species of grass to determine when a section should lie fallow, and when it’s the right time to let the cows clip it back.
“How you graze helps certain species get a foothold. They’re here naturally, but sometimes for some reason there wasn’t enough rain or there wasn’t rain at the right time, or the cattle ate it when it was seed; once you see there are certain spots you would like to encourage, then you do your rotation for that encouragement. There are certain soil makeups that will never have a particular grass on them because the grass doesn’t like it there, and you have to acknowledge that. It’s education and intelligence that we don’t sweep things with broad brushes,” she says. Though she admits this broader truth: “Grass was made to be grazed, whether it’s a deer or buffalo or wooly mammoth—that’s how this earth works. The grass is a living thing too; and we grow when we’re agitated.”
It’s here that Spencer pulls the conversation back to look at the clash between the broad needs of such a system and the economic pressure felt by anyone who has ever tried to manage it. “I’m a steward of this land; I’m a steward of these animals; I’m a steward to the taxpayer—because my personal private money and time goes into taking care of the public land that I rent and care for.” And beyond that, her personal holdings and those of other ranchers keep large deeds of land together. Increasingly ranchers find that their livelihoods are not lucrative, or they age with no one interested in taking on such backbreaking labor in their stead. Large heritage tracts are splintered off and sold to developers. It happens slowly, but it’s still clear to Spencer that “there is a very clear, very logical, very apparent series of events that are disassembling our western open spaces.”
She hopes that this friction in the industry will foster growth on the issue. “There has to be a growing up, and an intellectual honesty about the reality,” she says. “People in places of power are beginning to recognize that the rancher is their greatest supporter.”
“You don’t grow rich doing this, and it’s very difficult work. The only way you grow rich is to sell it to a developer. But you look at this valley and you do a full 360, and you realize that what you’re looking at is love. You’re looking at love of the life, love of the land, love of the animals; because nobody is doing this because it’s easy.”
Spencer has spent the last 20 years watching bulls sit under the sycamores with babies; she has seen pregnant cows wandering into the desert alone at their time, and then come back to babysit their calf among the others in the shaky first steps of motherhood. Spencer has help from a pair of brothers who come up from Mexico two days a week. When she broke her shoulder a few months back, one of the Valenzuela brothers built her a rig on a pulley system so she can saddle her horse with one hand. They built a solar water tower, pushed a prolapse back in to a suffering cow. “These are the kinds of men I grew up with,” Spencer says. “They put their hand to anything.”
Otherwise, she’s alone—if one can be alone with hundreds of animals to look after. “I have another philosophy,” she says, “and that is that each one of us comes into this world with an intellect and a temperament and unique gifts. We can be molded and shaped by what we see around us.” Taking in the full panorama of the San Rafael Valley, it is easy to see how deeply it has shaped her. Someday she will have to sell the ranch, but she plans to stay on 160 acres of it and continue to distribute grass-fed beef from trusted ranchers, while also writing, filming documentaries, and working with her horses.
Looking back across the trickle of the Santa Cruz headwaters, I envision the coming cycles that will shape this land and the people on it, imagining days when you’d have to be on the right side of this river by noon, and appreciate everything that this land produces.
Find Lazy J2 Ranch grass-fed beef at the St. Philip’s Plaza Farmers’ Market, Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park, and Trail Dust Town Farmers’ Market. ✜
Emily Gindlesparger traded forested Southern Illinois for the mountains of Tucson, where she teaches yoga and writes about adventures on bicycles, cliff sides, and wine trails.