Long blonde hair whipping in the Fall breeze, Megan Brown’s exuberance emanates all the way up the long black gravel drive to the ranch. Nestled between the hills and the train tracks along highway 70 in Oroville, lies her compound of outbuildings, gardens, and pigpens. She could barely contain her excitement and I only just had a chance to say a quick hello before I was guided by four ranch dogs to the super-sized golf cart she uses to get from house to pigpen.
Megan is a 6th generation rancher, her father raises cattle up in Greenville. But she’s definitely a rancher for 2015, she’s wearing skinny jeans with her wellies, hot sunglasses and an attitude to match. This isn’t her father’s ranching style, that’s for sure. She’s half hipster, half rancher. She’s a ranchster, if you will. And with a complete lack of pretension, she’s combining old school knowledge with her thirst for exploring new techniques and a deep need to make her own mark. Megan is turning into an authority and a connector of new and old. Her popular blog, The Beef Jar, combined with her commitment to raising hell on Twitter, is often considered controversial, even among her own people in the Ag community. But that doesn’t stop Megan from using her voice to bring people together, and to get the word out about her real passion, heritage pork.
Graduating from Chico state with an Agriculture Business degree, and after a brief stint in law school, she sorely missed the open air of her childhood. She worked for a while in a law office, developing her writing skills and starting a blog. But the cows, plows, and sows were calling to her and she quit to join the family farm. Documenting her journey on The Beef Jar, named after one of her favorite books, The Bell Jar, she gained a following in her community. Going into and growing up with Ag, she found that many of her firmly held beliefs were changing and being challenged as she earned her education. She realized xz that she needed to leave room to learn, and maybe more importantly, she needed to learn how to learn. She keeps an open mind, knowing that her point of view will probably change multiple times with her information trajectory. As agriculture technology is growing by leaps and bounds, it’s important to her to be flexible and open to change.
As Megan’s blog began to gain popularity, she took to social media to develop her brand as a new face and voice in the Agriculture Community, and AgHag was born. It’s there that she found her people. Representing a new generation of progressive ranchers, reaching out to dispel myths, to spread information and advocate for transparency, this AgHag has made a lot of friends. But the thing about this delightfully eccentric Ranchster, is that she isn't afraid to ruffle a few feathers either. “In the beginning I got some pushback, but people are starting to realize that they need social media; it’s here to stay. It’s evolving and people are seeing that,” she says. And the more active she gets on social media, the more customers come clamoring for her pork.
We arrived at the pigpen with our ranch dog escort. Right away I was struck by the sheer size of her sow. Being a city mouse, seeing a real mama pig with her piglets was even more impressive in person. Marissa, or M-Pig for short, was about the size of a Fiat. Her big brown spots, muddy tummy, and signature long hanging chin wattles, gave way to a snout the size of a Pringles can. Her sweet brown eyes and gentle nature were instantly recognizable. She labored to move her massive pork chops out of a muddy corner to get up and greet us. She knew that seeing Megan, meant it was time for muffins and baguettes. You don’t get to be M-Pig’s size without eating a lot of pastry. I was hesitant to touch her, afraid that I’d end up like that guy in the Silence of the Lambs, but Megan encouraged me to get in the pen and pet her soft ears. I touched her slobbery snout, I scratched her back and felt her maternal vibes, one mammalian mother to another. And I’d like to think I recognized that look in her eye as piglets hopped around her ankles vying for attention and a place at the milk station. Girl. I feel you.
An only child at The Brown Ranch, the role of helping her father fell solely to her. But she knew she needed to find her own source of income, her own thing. “A farm kid on the farm needs their own enterprise to be successful—to be happy,” she surmises. Looking for a superior pork product after seeing and trying a Kentucky friend’s heritage chops, Megan knew it was the perfect niche for her. So with a modest 5 pigs, she started Table Mountain Ranch, named after the sheared bluff in her backyard. Thanks to her social media presence, it has now grown into a thriving production, with over 100 pigs going through the ranch this year. When asked about her breeds, she says she’s been hanging out with Old Spot, Red Wattle, and Mule Foot pigs these days. Her piggies are hybrids of these breeds, favored for their lineage, flavor, and often just plain availability when she needs a boar. For example, recently she bred a Blue Butt Boar which is considered a more conventional breed, but her need was immediate after losing the Mule Foot, wryly named Doug LaMalfa, she’d originally planned to breed. She’s learning as she’s going. Speaking of, LaMalfa is one of the frequent buttons she’s pushing in her social media presence. “I find it frustrating that my local leader won’t engage with this new crop of agriculture leaders like myself, especially when we’re so passionate for mentorship.”
As Megan came out of the barn bearing expired bagels, pastries, and muffins, little piglets gathered around, squeaking and trotting in the mud to get their treats. Megan calls her piglets “bacon seeds” and though it may sound morbid, once you try her bacon, you would most likely find it really appropriate. I tromped around in the mud chasing piglets and trying to get my hands on one precious little corkscrew tail, but they’re fast and I’m squeamish about mud. Megan talked about heritage pork and what it’s like to be a rancher and a woman in a business that’s primarily male-dominated. It’s not easy, but at the end of the day, she’s the girl with all the bacon.
Pushing envelopes on social issues and agriculture issues over the past 8 years, Megan’s developed a following and her credibility has grown into a place where she feels like she can start affecting change in her community, industry, and the world. She’s shown that she has staying power, and she’ll continue to push her peers to join her in her quest for transparency and consumer education. “If you’re eating, you are involved in agriculture and you should be able to know how it’s produced and that’s why I’m an open book,” she says. Megan believes that by promoting transparency, she’s able to dispel fears, and as it relates to advertising she adds that, “Fear should not be something used to sell food.”
Her live Facebook videos and open Instagram content has drawn criticism from some in the agriculture community. Showing the pigs being processed can be tough to see and watch, it’s not for the feint of heart. And there’s been no shortage of pushback from the industry, concerned that maybe she's showing too much, while also drawing some very palpable ire from vegan activists. Megan feels she’s been able to help turn around the negativity with her transparency, and she sticks it out, strategically targeting the people that are eating her product and respect her open barn doors.
She also credits some of her success to being one of the few women in this area farming and ranching nearly by herself. She doesn’t have a husband or brother. Her dad is there but slowing down and she’s picking up the slack. “Doesn’t your dad wish he had a son?” people ask her frequently. “I’m perfectly capable of running this ranch. I find it empowering. Every time somebody makes a comment, I don’t let it slide and I sass them right back.” And she says, there’s so much support and collaboration from other women in agriculture, we’re here for each other, it’s a community of support, we’re lifting each other up.” Being able to be herself is an important aspect of her success. She does have the wranglers, she wears them sometimes, but she’s the AgHag, and she’s a California girl; she feels that how she looks humanizes her more to the consumer. She’s a hipster kid, relatable, with a natural style, and she’s unapologetic about not fitting into categories or molds. She’s a chameleon, and it gives her a lot more power to speak to different groups of people. Keeping up her persona is her livelihood, and she intends to be the AgHag for a long time.
Currently, Megan is busy expanding Table Mountain Ranch Pork. If you’re interested in finding out more about heritage pork, or if you’re already in the know and have a decent sized freezer, contact Megan at MegRBrown@gmail.com, or check out her blog at thebeefjar.com. If you ask her nicely, she’ll even give you a tour of the ranch and you’ll get to chase her piglets around, hopefully you’ll have better luck catching one of the little oinkers than I did.