Montana rancher, leader, ag advocate |

Montana rancher, leader, ag advocate

Lillian Ostendorf (left), with other American Farm Bureau Women’s Leadership members during a Food Check Out Week event in Phoenix, Ariz., benefitting Ronald McDonald House. Photo courtesy of American Farm Bureau Federation

It’s a 60-mile drive from Lillian Ostendorf’s ranch to the county seat of Miles City, Mont. – half gravel and half highway. Distance and roads aren’t the barriers they once were for the ag advocate. Even under the worst of conditions, Lillian can reach hundreds of contacts via social media.

When the Atlas blizzard struck western South Dakota in October 2013, killing thousands of head of livestock, Lillian identified a teachable moment within the tragedy. Utilizing Facebook, she explained the animals didn’t die because of neglect. She said, “I tried to help people understand what happened was a natural disaster beyond human control—like a hurricane.

“My message was that the welfare of animals is first and foremost in ranchers’ minds. Yes, cattle are our livelihoods, but we also love them. It’s painful for a farmer or rancher to lose an animal, but it happens. I liken it to what doctors and nurses in hospitals must feel when they lose a baby or a patient after doing everything in their power. True caring comes from the heart.”

As a rule, Lillian’s Facebook posts portray some daily aspect of ranch life. A few locals have suggested they hardly seem newsworthy, since everybody else is doing pretty much the same thing on their outfits.

“The posts are read by people living all across the country,” Lillian said. “They enjoy knowing what we’re doing. It’s a way to create an understanding of where food comes from and who raises it.”

Cattle are the mainstay on the Ostendorf Red Angus Ranch. Lillian and husband, Tom, maintain two herds–one registered and one commercial. Registered bulls are sold private treaty at the ranch; commercial calves are sold in the fall at weaning. They also raise hay and feed grain. The ranch is certified under the Beef Quality Assurance program, designed to promote good management practices and strengthen consumer confidence in beef as a wholesome food.

“We had implemented many of the guidelines even before the program was established,” Lillian said. “The payoff comes in assuring the public we follow a set of preferred production methods and that our cattle are well cared for. There is so much misinformation about food. We are doing a good job of producing safe, abundant food. I want to get the word out about it being humanely raised.”

As a rancher, wife, mother, and grandmother, Lillian’s days are filled with seasonal and sundry chores that go hand in hand with running the family’s 500-head cattle operation: calving, haying, riding, keeping books, managing the household, and keeping an eye on her 90-year-old mother, Helen Orestad, who lives nearby. Why accommodate ag advocacy in an already busy schedule?

“Farmers and ranchers are a minority. We need to get the word out about where food comes from,” Lillian said. “We joined Montana Farm Bureau (MFB) and American Farm Bureau (AFB) 20 years ago to protect our family’s heritage and future. I like it because it’s a bipartisan, grassroots ‘voice of agriculture’ that’s respected by state and federal lawmakers.”

AFB Women’s Leadership conducts Communications Boot Camp, a leadership training opportunity for women in Farm Bureau. After training, graduates serve agriculture and their communities. Lillian completed the training in 2012. She says there are leadership roles for everyone, from serving on a school board or local FSA committee to being a county commissioner.

Lillian’s involvement evolved along with her family. When the children were younger, she was a 4-H leader. She and Tom hosted range tours on their ranch when they were part of the Custer County Range Committee. When the children entered high school, Lillian lived in Miles City with them during the week. For nine years, she worked as an assistant in the high school ag department and served as a coach and chaperone on FFA trips.

Because of her work at the school, Lillian participated in a trade mission to Australia and New Zealand. One of the students served as an aide to U.S. Senator Max Baucus and suggested a woman rancher be included, nominating her for the position. Lillian represented Montana Farm Bureau as a woman agricultural leader.

“It was gratifying and fulfilling that the student nominated me and that the MFB board had enough confidence to sponsor me,” Lillian said. “I met the prime ministers of both countries. They wanted to know about our beef and wondered why we came there to meet them in person. I told them we like to get acquainted with those we do business with, to meet face-to-face, to shake hands. That seemed to resonate with them.”

At the time of the trade mission, Lillian was the MFB Women’s Leadership Chair, a position she held for 11 years. She is currently in her third year as one of two Western Region AFB Women’s Leadership Committee representatives, a position that requires travel and attendance at a variety of events in far off places. Having daughter Mollie, son-in-law Aaron, and grandsons Robert and Michael helping on the ranch makes it possible for her to get away. Along with Mollie’s family, Tom and Lillian can count on occasional help from son, Steven, an engineer who works in Minot, N.D., and Martha, another daughter who lives in Miles City. Still, ranch work trumps advocating.

“I missed a meeting last year,” Lillian said. “There was too much going on at the ranch. Having the kids at home makes it possible for me to do as much as I do.”

Knowing the vital role children play in family operations, Lillian made a trip to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2012. She was part of AFB Women’s Leadership group that stormed Capitol Hill over the controversial proposal by the Department of Labor to restrict the work children could do on farms. Among others, the AFB objected strenuously to the proposed rules.

“We took a unified voice to the Hill and spoke from the perspective of mothers raising our children on farms and ranches,” Lillian said. “The next day, the legislation was dropped. I’m not saying we did it by ourselves, but we certainly helped turn the tide.”

Meeting with elected officials on Capitol Hill or explaining mundane ranch chores for Facebook friends, Lillian Ostendorf finds her role as a rancher and spokesperson rewarding. She loves her way of life and representing those raising food and fiber for an ever-expanding population.

“Everyone is dependent on agriculture, now, and for generations to come,” Lillian said. “Ranchers and farmers care for their land and supply grocery stores with safe and abundant food. It’s an honor to be among the women making a difference in the conversations about farming and ranching.”