More Than Beef at Five Marys Farms in Fort Jones
Food, Farm & Family
By Jordan Venema
Photo: Joy Prouty
It took only six short months for everything to change. At the beginning of 2013, Mary and Brian Heffernan lived in the Bay Area with their four daughters – Mary, Mary, Mary and Mary (more on that later) – where Brian practiced law for a reputable firm and Mary owned restaurants that focused on upscale, local and organic cuisine. By the year’s end, Brian and the five Marys had moved to Siskiyou County to start cattle ranching under the name Five Marys Farms.
“We call it our old life and our new life,” laughs Mary.
The decision to raise cattle was spur of the moment, and they never exactly planned to relocate. The ranch was really only ever supposed to be a means to another end.
“We were always looking for a good product,” says Mary, referring to their restaurants. “We wanted a ground beef for our burgers that was a barley finish, dry-aged 28 days with a really good flavor profile, and something ethically raised, but we just couldn’t find it. So we just decided to do it ourselves, which was probably a little naïve.”
The Heffernans purchased historic Sharps Gulch Ranch, and every weekend made the nearly seven-hour commute between Siskiyou County and the Bay Area with four kids in tow, until about the eighth week, when they realized they didn’t want to go back. They sold their restaurants, Brian left the firm to his partner, “and we never looked back,” says Mary. From the courtroom and kitchen to 1,800 acres, the Heffernans shifted their focus to raising more than 250 head of cattle, plus their “free-range kids.”
The transition wasn’t easy, but it’s been rewarding. “I didn’t grow up around it at all,” Mary says of the ranching lifestyle. Her husband grew up in Red Bluff and had experience with 4H, and even as a child he “told his dad that he wanted to be a farmer, but his dad talked him out of it.”
With the help of their brother-in-law, a fifth-generation cattle rancher, Brian and Mary learned the ranching ropes. “I somehow earned the castrating job,” Mary says with a chuckle, which she taught herself by watching YouTube videos in Swahili. Other than a single ranch hand, it’s just Brian and the five Marys taking care of the ranch – birthing cattle, giving shots, while the daughters help with laundry and cleaning around the house.
“They’re really blossoming,” says Mary. “They’re so independent and confident. We tend not to set expectations very high for children thinking they can’t do it, but in reality, they can.”
Both the name and story behind Five Marys Farms almost – almost – overshadow what they do, which is no less unique: the shipment of choice cuts of meat from their farm directly to their customers.
It’s almost like a community-supported agriculture program, except instead of filling a custom box with vegetables and fruit, Five Marys will ship and stock boxes with anything from ground beef to choice cuts of steak, lamb or pork – whatever the customer wants.
So for those who want to stock up for a season or order just a pound of ground beef, Five Marys will ship to their front door. For the seven western states, they charge a flat rate of $25, though they do not charge shipping for orders over $199.
Interestingly enough, as restaurateurs, the Heffernans were looking for a farm just like theirs to stock their restaurant’s kitchen, but now the majority of their customers, Mary says, are families looking for quality meat, ethically raised.
Speaking with Mary, one gets the impression that the farm is almost a happy byproduct of the opportunity to raise their daughters on a ranch. And the daughters are certainly earning their keep, as well as a place in the farm’s name. Five Marys Farms certainly has a ring to it, almost that it seemed planned, though Mary laughed away the suggestion.
“My husband and I actually are both from big Catholic families and there’s a lot of Marys. I didn’t really even want to name my daughter after me, but I loved the tradition,” she explains.
Their first daughter was born and named after a grandmother, Mary Frances. Then the second daughter was born, and they honored another grandmother by naming her Mary Marjorie. “Then our third, well, we were really expecting a boy,” Mary says. “But it was another girl and we were like, well, can’t stop now.” Mary Jane and Mary Teresa complete the quartet, but every Mary has a nickname to differentiate.
So Five Marys Farms made sense, but does Brian feel left out? “Actually, it was his idea,” says Mary. “He does all the grunt work, and he’s the hardest working on the farm, but he never wants any credit.”
6732 Eastside Road, Fort Jones (530) 598-6094