At Five Marys Farms in Fort Jones, California, the Heffernan Family Is Getting Back to Basics—and Revolutionizing Ranching

From their family to yours.

It’s an interesting time to check in with Mary Heffernan, Five Marys Farms, and its interconnected M5 enterprises. Nearly six years ago the family of six (and, yes, five of them are named Mary) left Silicon Valley after buying a livestock ranch in Fort Jones, California, some 40 miles from the Oregon border.

Today, one senses Mary is on another springboard of sorts, with an onsite professional test kitchen debuting this summer, a cookbook hitting the shelves in September, as well as Five Mary Farms’ biggest undertaking yet well into the planning stages. Off the ranch, she recently flew to Los Angeles to film a cooking segment for Hallmark’s Home & Family, which had her preparing Five Marys Tamale Pie, then traveled to New York City for a plaza-packed TODAY feature on female farmers for International Women’s Day. And sometime this year, she is planning to head to Utah to lead the new M5 Mastermind Workshop, a four-day intensive under the umbrella of M5’s entrepreneurial mentorship programs.

It’s enough—and we haven’t even covered half of it—to make one wonder how Mary and her husband Brian manage a large family, an 1,800-acre ranch, and several associated businesses with such an admirably calm focus. The Heffernans, it would seem, are dreamers who deliver.

In their relationship, something solid and essential also seems planted, the roots of which reach back home to the Bay Area. The two met in 2005 at the Dreams Happen fundraiser at Stanford Shopping Center, where Mary was helping out as a last-minute volunteer and Brian, a lawyer, attended as a board president of Rebuilding Together. “The crowds parted and I met Brian and we hit it off,” Mary says as she retells the story. They were married a year later and four daughters would follow: MaryFrances, who goes by “Francie,” MaryMarjorie, or “Maisie,” MaryJane, or “JJ,” and MaryTeresa, a.k.a. “Tessa.” As Brian shares in a video on their website, “Our daughters are all named after grandmothers and aunts on both sides, carrying on a long-standing family tradition of strong women named Mary.”

But before ranch life beckoned, Mary, a Menlo Park native, honed her passion for small businesses at the helm of several based on the Peninsula, beginning with Menlo Park tutoring center Academic Trainers and “snowballing” into enterprises for errand running, drop-in babysitting, as well as a craft store and a couple of restaurants. “There was such a need for family-based businesses in the area,” she says of what was then, largely during the aughts, a skyrocketing tech scene in Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, when the couple was expecting their first daughter, Brian had gone out on his own with a law practice focused on real estate and was beginning to work side by side with Mary as well.

“Once we had the restaurants, we were always passionate about super-quality producers,” Mary says. “As we had kids, we wanted to source meat that we felt really good about serving our kids and serving our customers. We couldn’t find truly premium quality with all the inputs we wanted from a small farm that could provide year-round for our restaurants. We were inspired and thought, there’s got to be a way to do this.”

That way ended up being their very own. “We both come from agricultural roots,” says Mary, a sixth-generation Californian whose mother’s family grew lettuce, berries, and apples in the Pajaro Valley. Meanwhile, Brian’s roots extend from his great-great grandfather, who began farming sugar beets in Ventura County in 1867, on down to his father, who also left the business world to work the land. Brian grew up in Red Bluff, south of Redding.

“We jumped in and said, let’s do this ourselves,” Mary recalls.

Enter: the purchase of the ranch in Fort Jones near the start of 2013—and a commendable learning curve. “We started operations here naively thinking we could maintain our lives in the Bay Area,” Mary says from their downtown Fort Jones shop, which ships cuts of dry-aged cuts beef, pastured pork, and grass-fed lamb all over the country. “After spending seven weekends coming back and forth—we had four kids in four car seats at the time—we just realized we couldn’t do both things well. We were passionate about this new undertaking and raising animals and truly doing it right.” They also loved the lifestyle, working hard as a family, and the small-town community (Population: 680). “We decided to change the whole path of our life and move our family to a ranch and a tiny little cabin.”

So, in 2014, the contents of their historic Los Altos Craftsman were moved into three shipping containers on the property and the Heffernans moved into 760 square feet (a 400-square-foot attic shared room was then added). “It’s easier to appreciate the smallness and realize bigger is not always better,” Mary says of the initial change and their current way of life. “We love that we finish dinner and everyone is in eyesight and earshot of what we’re doing. We say goodnight to everybody from bed. It’s a neat way to raise our girls at this age.” The girls are currently ages 12 down to 7 and love catching frogs, taking care of animals, riding their horses, and competing in rodeo events. There’s a freedom and space that comes with life on this ranch, the management of which they are also integral to. “They really rose to the challenge and became a lot more capable and independent by switching gears,” Mary says of their adjustment.

If you follow @fivemarysfarms on Instagram, as nearly 128,000 people now do, you would see the girls gather free-range eggs, feed the animals, even birth and care for baby lambs. You’d recognize the one-bathroom, wood-stove cabin as home base for their game nights and family meals. In following along, you’d also understand a key propellant of Five Marys Farms’ growth: sharing the daily details of ranch life. By day, Mary, her long brunette hair often hanging free from a baseball cap or cowgirl hat, posts the goings-on of raising “pastured everything,” as their motto goes. By evening, she might share the step-by-step of a cast-iron dinner, a well-earned five o’clock cocktail often in reach. To little surprise, this propensity too has led to its own enterprises, with Five Marys recipe booklets, a #M5FamilyDinnerChallenge currently underway on Instagram, and soon, the September 8 release of Ranch Raised Cookbook: Homegrown Recipes from Our Family to Yours (already available for pre-order). With chapters separated by the ranch-raised staples of beef, pork, and lamb, the cookbook also includes easy entertaining apps, sides, desserts, as well as those five o’clock cocktails (she’s known for her bourbon Sidecars).

“It was really due to technology and social media that we were able to create a viable business as first-generation ranchers,” Mary explains. “We knew we’d be able to get creative to make this profitable and turned to direct-to-consumer products.” They worked to nail down the best way to ship frozen meat, which includes dry ice and custom boxes with biodegradable liners—in line with their commitment to thoughtful, ethical, and sustainable farming.

And in line with Mary’s passion for small businesses, she also created M5’s Small Business from Scratch Course—an eCourse on nitty-gritty essentials, building a brand through social media, and ecommerce selling and shipping—that opens twice a year for registration, including this month. Workshops are available in person in Fort Jones or Park City, Utah, for entrepreneurs to gather and learn skills to build their brand and find camaraderie with other small-business owners in their industry. She also offers a Beginning Business Boot Camp online course, which launched in January. “It brings it back to the basics,” Mary says of helping aspiring entrepreneurs assess viability and profit margins. “A business is just a hobby unless you’re making money.”

But that’s still not all. The Heffernans run M5 experiences like the Five Marys Guesthouse in downtown Fort Jones on Airbnb, within walking distance to Five Marys Burgerhouse, a historic site they rescued from demolition and revamped two years ago and which serves Five Marys whiskey and bourbon, as well as Camp Five Marys Experiences back on the ranch. “We want people to feel a connection to where their food comes from,” Mary says. “A way for people to come experience what we do on the ranch besides Instagram.” The on-site camping area is complete with luxury wall tents, real beds, and an outdoor kitchen, constructed in partnership with Burlingame’s Sub-Zero | Wolf Showroom by Riggs. “In the summer we eat and live outside,” she says.

Mary has also been working closely with Riggs to design and build a new Five Marys test kitchen—with high-end appliances and its own dry ager—in the 1868 Victorian on the property. The aim is a weekly onsite cooking series that should also launch by September to share on social channels. “Our hope is to be able to create beautiful recipes and help people be inspired to cook,” she says of filming Five Marys recipes. “When you start with good ingredients, cooking shouldn’t be complicated.”

Meanwhile, the Heffernans are three years into designing that aforementioned biggest undertaking to date—and the ultimate extension of their commitment to ethical and humane ranching. “We work so hard to raise these animals to the highest standard, then we give them to someone else to put into packages,” Mary explains. “Our next big project is to build our own butchery.” The couple’s hope is to open a fully certified USDA butchery and harvesting facility that would bring vertical integration to every aspect of their business.

So just how do they continue to do it all? And do it all together? “I think we both have good skill sets that complement each other, but don’t necessarily overlap,” Mary says. “We both go full force and trust each other. We have navigated the waters of how to work with your spouse and not get stressed. Brian always says, ‘Nothing is easy. If it were easy, everybody would do it.’ We say that every day. I get so inspired by new ideas and new projects, it keeps me motivated to keep pushing forward.”

If 12,000 Instagram posts are any indication, it sure does look that way. On February 20, a few weeks after our interview, Mary posted this reflection beneath a black and white photo of the couple, rays of sunlight streaming across wide smiles: “Some days riding around the ranch on the back of his quad, we stop and look around. It’s pretty crazy to see how much has changed and how much we’ve built and grown here. There are a lot of hard days. Early mornings seven days a week and late nights pretty frequently. It’s physically demanding and mentally exhausting to manage everything necessary on a livestock ranch. But it’s satisfying work at the end of the day. To take your boots off knowing you gave it everything you had and fall asleep easily. To work side by side with your spouse and your kids, involving them because it’s necessary and they feel needed, proud, and a part of something bigger than them. It’s all worth it.”

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