PENDLETON, Ore. — By her own admission, Ashley Ahearn is all hat and no cattle.
A journalist for National Public Radio, Ahearn has lived and worked in major cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C., while covering the environment and natural resources. Four years ago, she and her husband moved to rural Eastern Washington, where she now helps move cows for local ranchers in her spare time.
But Ahearn insists she is no rancher. Her passion is storytelling, and she is currently producing a podcast series about women ranchers for Idaho Public Radio.
Ranchers need to tell their stories, Ahearn told the annual Oregon Cattlemen’s Association convention, especially as more consumers veer toward vegetarian and vegan diets they see as more environmentally sustainable.
“The story that needs to get out is the other side of ranching, and the commitment to the land,” Ahearn said on Nov. 22.
Since swapping city life for sagebrush country, Ahearn said she has witnessed firsthand how ranchers care for their land and animals. Riding through pastures, they can identify by sight which areas are grazed and which aren’t, and adapt management practices on the fly.
It has influenced her own reporting, causing her to see ranching through a different lens. Yet for some reason, she said not as much of that story seems to get through to the media clearly.
Part of the issue, Ahearn said, is most journalists are based in cities — that’s where the jobs are, after all. But they don’t often venture into rural areas except during a natural disaster, or a crisis like the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon.
The practice, known as “parachute journalism,” can lead to instances where news and communities are presented out of context to millions of people.
“You show up as an outsider in a strange community, you don’t necessarily speak the language and you’re on deadline,” Ahearn said. “Now that I live in a rural community and I see journalists coming into the community — who will be the ones who talk to the journalists?”
Often, she said, the ones who talk may have extreme views that don’t reflect the broader reality. It can be harder to find other voices on the ground to challenge their claims, without knowing where to find them.
“There are so many divisions in this country right now, and I do think the media has contributed to that,” Ahearn said.
With the narrative on beef changing in the country, and startups in Silicon Valley investing in alternative meat technology, Ahearn said it is “game on” for ranchers, who need to be active telling their stories through the mainstream media and social media.
Ahearn said she sees food as an opportunity to rebuild some of the broken connections between ranchers and consumers — highlighting their commitment to stewardship.
“I think we’ve lost some of that connection,” she said. “I do think it starts with storytelling.”