My Name Is Tonnyre Thomas Joe
And I am a woman rancher. Here’s what my life is like.By Tonnyre Thomas Joe
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I LIVE ON THE THOMAS RANCH, which is in Kenedy and Willacy counties, just north of the Rio Grande Valley. It is a Family Land Heritage Ranch, which means it has been owned and continuously operated by the same family for more than a hundred years. For about seventy years, my family has been raising purebred Charolais cattle, a breed known for its muscle. I grew up here with my brother, Mitch, and together we’ve worked cows with my parents for as long as I can remember. My mother was pulling a calf when she went into labor with me.
I haven’t always been a full-time rancher. My grandmother, who I was close to, always wanted me to become a lawyer. So did my mother, and even when I was little, they were both fond of announcing that I would one day attend the University of Texas law school. I didn’t think much of it, and when I went to Texas A&M for college, I thought I wanted to be a vet. Then a family friend, whose father is a politician in Mexico, told me, “Tonnyre, if you’re a vet, every time you go to a client’s home, they will take you to the kennel. But if you’re a lawyer, they will take you to the library.” I rethought things and ended up with a law degree—from UT Law.
In law school I met my husband, David Joe. We got married in 1997, moved to Dallas, and both worked as attorneys until 1999, when our son, Royse, was born. Then I left the firm to be a mom. It was right about this time that my grandmother died. My parents needed help with her estate tax return, so I took care of all the legal paperwork. It was almost as if this was what I’d been training for my entire career, and I began taking on more and more of my parents’ and the ranch’s legal needs. By the time our daughter, Claudette, was born, in 2002, I knew I wanted to be back at the ranch. David loves the ranch and South Texas, and we knew it was where we wanted to raise our kids. So in June of that year, when Claudette was six months old, we moved. The ranch needed us, and we needed it.
Now I’d just as soon be in the pens every day. I still do legal work—I’ve served as acting Kenedy County attorney, I handle the ranch’s real estate transactions and my parents’ oil and gas leases, among other things, and I take on some pro bono cases—but I prefer to spend most of my time at the ranch. David drives thirty miles to Harlingen every day (his law firm in Las Colinas opened a satellite office for him there), and I bet he’s one of the only attorneys who has to watch for cows, deer, nilgai, and snakes on his commute. He does a lot here at the ranch too, though. The ranch just takes you in.
A WORKING RANCH IS LIKE A CHILD: It takes a village to care for one. At the center of the Thomas Ranch, literally, are my parents, Billy and Claudette Thomas. Their house is in the middle of the pens and the barns. They’re a perfect match—she is strong and brilliant, he is low-key and easygoing—and they hold us all together. Mitch, who oversees the ranch’s day-to-day activity, has a degree from A&M in animal sciences. He and his wife, Linda, and their three girls—Morgan, Logan, and Lauren—live in a house in one of the pastures. David, Royse, Claudette, and I live in the Longoria pasture. We have a wonderful housekeeper named Connie, who keeps us all in order and helps me with the kids. Our cowboys, Robert Salazar and Julián Flores, and their families are also an integral part of the ranch.
Together we make for a tight-knit operation, but to understand just how unique this is, you have to know the ranch’s history. It all started with Francisco Yturria, who was a prominent merchant and banker at the time of Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy. He married Felicitas Treviño, an heir to the San Martin land grant in Cameron County, and they adopted two children, a boy and a girl. The girl, Isabel Yturria, is my great-grandmother.
Francisco invested in land—the ranch I live on was bought in 1861—and at his death, he left an estimated 130,000 acres in Kenedy, Willacy, Cameron, Hidalgo, and Starr counties. When it came to dividing these landholdings, Isabel ran into problems with her brother, so she ended up hiring a lawyer by the name of Dougherty to help her. Because she had all this land but not much money, she paid him for his services in land. (To this day, our family has partnerships with the Doughertys—all dating back to my great-grandmother’s legal bills. You can see why my grandmother wanted me to get a law degree.) Isabel had four kids; my grandmother María García was the only girl. And at the end of Isabel’s life, in 1932, the land was divided again, this time five ways—you cannot forget the lawyer. So my grandmother got 7,160 acres, as well as interests in landholdings and minerals elsewhere. She then married Harl Thomas in 1936. It was Harl who, that very year, first introduced Charolais cattle to the ranch; he was one of the breed’s pioneers.
My grandmother was the perfect woman for her time. She was an artist, and she was opinionated and beautiful and very polished. But I wonder sometimes if she played her kids against each other, because the story only gets more complicated. My grandmother had four children—my father and his sisters. My dad lived on the ranch, and he loved it so much that when he went to college, he came back after only a year. His sisters, by contrast, moved away: to Dallas, Florida, and South Padre Island. My father was the one who ran all the cowboys and fixed all the fences and made all the windmills work. He knew everything about the ranch, like you would know a mole on a baby’s bottom. Eventually he purchased the cattle from my grandparents and leased the land, and it was my grandmother’s idea that he would continue to work the ranch after her death.
Or so my family was led to believe. I guess we’ll never know what she really wanted or what she communicated to her children individually, but in any case, those relationships have been strained. When my grandmother died, in 1999, she willed the ranch in three equal parts to my dad and two of his sisters. Shortly after that, my aunts started putting in fences and dividing out their land. A ranch is a very sentimental thing, so this was really hard on my family. We were the ones who lived here, who knew the ranch, who had put our lives and energies into it. My aunts had every right, of course, it was theirs, but they didn’t know the ranch.
The last fence went up about a year ago, and the ranch we live on now—2,380 acres—is a third of the land I grew up on. The fence is a reminder of this history, and it is a reminder of why I came back from Dallas. A piece of land, like a baby, can have differing claims to it, like a biological mother’s and an adoptive mother’s. But if you want to be part of its life, you have to be the one who’s there for the day-to-day. I wasn’t going to stay in Dallas running the rat race, with the ranch going on without me. I didn’t want the tension or the hurts I’d seen between my dad and his sisters to exist between me and Mitch. I wanted us to be different. So did my parents: They started buying farmland and turning it into ranchland, and by now they have practically replenished the acreage we lost. Our cattle capacity is greater than when my grandmother was alive, and Mitch and I are committed to moving forward.
RANCHES ARE FOR RAISING BEEF. At least that’s the way of life we’ve chosen. When you talk about beef—boxed beef, which is how it’s sold in the United States—the steak should be a certain size to fit in the box. And there’s this perfect steak out there, which weighs sixteen ounces when it’s an inch thick. This is what, ultimately, we’re aiming for. We breed the type of bull that, when bred to a commercial cow, will produce a calf that comes close to making that perfect steak. (It just ruins going to the grocery store for me.) What we sell, the Thomas Ranch product, is superior genetics in the form of herd bulls. Some cattle operations produce the commercial calves that get fattened and slaughtered. We produce bulls that we hope will improve the genetics of the herds in which they are introduced. The Charolais is a heavier-muscled breed, so Charolais bulls make heavier calves, which means more pounds of beef for ranchers. And more pounds equal more profit.
This year we were named Seedstock Producer of the Year by the American International Charolais Association. All our cattle are registered—we have some 1,500 mama cows and about 40 herd bulls—so we keep a detailed log of where every cow is, what bull she’s with, what calves she’s had, and which bull’s calf she’s going to have next time. We do everything to stay competitive in the modern cattle industry. You’d be amazed at what’s technologically available: embryo transfer, artificial insemination, ultrasound data collection. We like to provide our customers with more information than they know what to do with about the bulls they buy, and we guarantee our product. Not many ranches do that. It means that we have families who have been buying from us for generations.
Right now we’re branding heifers and tattooing our calves. August is when we start the push toward our annual October bull sale; this year will be our fifth one. It takes a lot of preparation. We used to sell our bulls by private treaty, but now we do it auction style, so every customer gets first choice. It seems that more and more ranches these days are held for leisure or hunting, but the cattle are important to us. We’ve dedicated years to genetic improvement, and even in the middle of the serious drought we’re in—it’s been about a year and a half now—we would never think of selling out.
I SUPPOSE I HARDLY FIT that stereotypical rancher image—a man in jeans and boots, cowboy hat, on horseback—but then, I don’t know if there’s really a stereotypical rancher anymore. Mitch, for one, wears boat shoes and shorts everywhere. I carry a Texas bar card, wear a baseball cap, and love flip-flops. About two years ago I got stepped on by a baby calf and really hurt a toe, and one of the cowboys said, “Well, see, that’s why you’re supposed to wear boots.” So I’ve switched to tennies on workdays. Still, I would imagine that, between the two of us, Mitch and I work more cows than most people in boots.
Being a mom and a lawyer and a rancher, you’re always going in different directions. When I’m in my attorney role, I can put on a suit and go into a courtroom and look the part and feel very lawyerly. And then I can come home and put on my jeans and work cows. Sometimes I’ll even negotiate an oil and gas lease while I’m riding in the Ranger moving cows. After that, I can come home, cook dinner, and be a mom. And I love it. I wouldn’t give up any aspect of my life.
I bring Royse and Claudette along with me to the pens only when I can keep a close eye on them; Connie helps watch them when I can’t. Even though the ranch is where I want to raise my children, it can be a dangerous place, what with branding irons and rattlesnakes and bucking horses. Part of the challenge in all this is that neither the kids nor the ranch will really wait for you. There are times when I have to pick Royse up from school, and I’ll have afterbirth on my shoes from a baby calf or blood on my clothes from dehorning or I’ll be the only mom in the first-grade wing who reeks of burning flesh from branding. I’ll stand there in my baseball cap and just smile at the other moms, wondering what they must be thinking.
Needless to say, I’m very lucky. I’m lucky that my parents have made a place for me here, that David was willing to leave the city behind, and that my brother and I do so well alongside each other. And our sixth-generation ranchers—all five of them—are growing up here, which is something I never wanted them to miss. Life is full of choices, and you have to decide what you want. I want the ranch to work with all of us together.