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RanchHER Feeds the Souls of U.S. Veterans & First-Responders

RanchHER June Kester and her neighbors welcome U.S. Veterans and first responders to their ranches just outside Paso Robles, California to enjoy the peace of cows, rides on horseback, and chef-prepared meals made with the best meat and produce the state’s agricultural industry has to offer. She makes sure Everybody Eats. Not just giving access to world-class California beef, but also feeding their souls with the joy and peace of life on the ranch.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

RanchHER June Kester is a beacon in the cattle industry known across Rural America for her incredible impact on the lives of so many farming and ranching families, her infectious volunteer spirit, and her deep love of ranching and California agriculture. We met her at NCBA Cattle Con and knew we needed to hear more of her story. There was no better time to shine a light on her impact than this week, the intersection of National Beef Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, and Memorial Day.

June is the owner/point person on “everything that is needed labor-wise” for Bear Valley Ranch & Vineyard, a diverse cow-calf-stocker and vineyard operation in Parkfield, California, just over the hill from the Paso Robles region of California. She’s received many distinguished accolades in recent years, including the San Luis Obispo County Cattlewoman of the Year in 2006, Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs Devotion to Service Medal Winner in 2017, and Central California Patriot of the Year in 2023.

In addition to running their family’s successful ranching operation alongside her husband, Kevin Kester, former president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in 2018, she’s raised three kids in the family’s sixth generation, and six grandchildren of their seventh generation. Oh, and did I mention she’s a trained pilot and certified scuba diver?! June seriously does it all — but her story doesn’t stop there.

Today, she’s found a renewed purpose and joy on her family’s ranch through her work with the Mighty Oaks Warriors. This faith-based group supports military and first responders by giving them a taste of life on a beautiful California ranch inviting them to unplug. Then, they follow up an amazing week on the ranch with a lifelong commitment to support them and their families on a long, hard-fought journey to healing.

“The blessing is all on me,” June says. “I’d clean toilets for our military and first responders. I don’t take my freedom lightly.”

Bear Valley Ranch

June comes from a line of cattlewomen and was taught by her grandmother from a young age how to ride and ranch. June grew up in San Miguel/Paso, Calif., on the ranch over the hill from Bear Valley, her husband Kevin’s family ranch. Her father was a cattle buyer and leased the land. She was always told she learned to ride a horse before she could walk. While she’d had a crush on Kevin since she was a young teen, and mutual friends offered to set them up from time to time, she wanted him to ask her out. So she waited.

A decade goes by, and June is 24, waiting tables at a local restaurant frequented by local law enforcement. When she finally met Kevin, she was waiting tables and taking work on ranches in the area whenever she could. She’d even worked for a few of his cousins, who shared how impressive a cattlewoman she was (and is!). When Deputy Sheriff Kevin Kester walked in and sat down to talk to her, he asked if he could come back in 30 minutes and have a drink with her. Later that evening, he offered her a job. Ten days of riding and cooking at Bear Valley. She instantly agreed.

“I did that for 10 days, just as happy as can be,” she gushes. “I love this beautiful ranch, and I love my horses, and I love cooking. It was after that, he decided he was going to ask me to marry him. He said, ‘This woman is meant for this kind of life.'”

After that 10 days, he asked for her hand in marriage. They’ve been married now for 41 years.

Photo courtesy of Beef Magazine

June Kester is a RanchHER to the core. As her husband says, she was made for the beautiful life she leads. But when asked what it means to be a RanchHER, she harkens back to what her father and cattlewoman grandmother instilled in her long before she became a ranch wife.

“My dad taught me that women could do just the same as what men could do, and really help a man — their husband, family member, or whoever– because women have a different touch — that he learned from his mom on a ranch. I’ve never forgotten that,” she recalls. ” And there were times I honestly said, when my husband went off and we had vineyards, ‘I could do cows and kids.’ And he said, ‘Now you got to do vineyards and grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon.’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t do this.’ And he’s like, ‘yes, you can.’ And I did. I did a couple of harvests when he was gone — with all the crews and machinery and everything. I will go back to say, us women can put on those hats and — I don’t ever want to be a man — but we can step up there and do a lot, RanchHERs and FarmHERs.”

‘Session Struggles

June and Kevin’s love story is sweet, but as with many farm and ranch families, they have faced tremendous hardship over their decades together — including a tumultuous 10-year struggle with estate succession that nearly resulted in the loss of Bear Creek Ranch after the passing of Kevin’s grandfather, Grandpa Claassen.

While it was Claassen’s decision alone to make, June explains thoughtfully, Kevin’s grandfather decided to leave his money to the women next in the family line but opted for a generation skip when it came to the family ranch, leaving it to Kevin and June with the charge to continue their family ranching legacy.

“His grandfather’s dying dead,” she recalls. “He says, ‘Kevin, June, I know you can do this. I want the Kester to always be on this beautiful, beautiful ranch.'” And so they did, together.

Unfortunately, finally getting the ranch they loved dearly came at a bigger price than they could have ever anticipated. The financial gift to Kevin’s other family members triggered an inheritance tax burden on the land of nearly $2 million that they could barely shoulder. They owed the IRS $100,000 per year in interest on the land — “before we even fed our cows and kids,” she said. They found a way to manage, paying off the debt over the next decade.

June says Kevin’s spearheading the California Rangeland Trust saved them from financial ruin and allowed them to keep their family land. The incident, June said, spurred Kevin to go to work and become an advocate for other farmers and ranchers in similar situations.

“People are like, ‘how could Kevin just kind of walk away from our ranch for 10 years?'” June explains. “He didn’t walk away. He came home and worked hard when he was here. But, he did that because of what we are now working on [protecting the California Land Trust] — because they’re thinking about taking that away in about a year and a half. And so we are in the middle of doing heavy family succession planning for our three kids and our six grandkids while we still can. We’re in the thick of it — trying to get that continued on. It wasn’t for corporate farms. It was just for family-owned ranches and farming, agriculture of any kind actually, to be able to be handed down without being forced to sell like we were almost forced to sell.”

During his years leading the California Cattlemen’s Association and later the NCBA, Kevin had an integral role with the Trump Administration in the creation of both the 2018 Farm Bill as well as the Tax Bill For American Families, which included a provision that increased the lifetime gift exemption amount to just under $13 million before triggering the “death tax.” (The limit today is $13.61 million per person or spouse.)

Today, the Kesters are on a succession-planning journey of their own. While they are able, they want to make sure they can pass down their family legacy to their children and grandchildren, their 6th and 7th generations on the land, without causing them financial distress. They also hope to pave the way for successful transitions for future generations of Kesters to come.

Photo courtesy of Might Oaks Warriors
Photo courtesy of June Kester

Mighty Oaks Warriors

Taking on new duties with first the California Cattlemen’s Association and later with the NCBA kept Kevin away from home for 150 to 300 days each year. June was more than secure in her role running the ranch on her own. But when her youngest daughter went off to college at Oklahoma State University, it got a little bit lonely just her and her cows (a herd she brought to the ranch herself). She needed something to fill her time and her heart.

“My husband went off to be the National Cattlemen’s President, and my youngest daughter went off to college, and I was sitting on our beautiful ranch looking at my cows, and I said, “Lord, I got a hole, and I need you to fill it,” June said.

The very next day, she received a call from another cattle RanchHER asking if she’d heard about Mighty Oaks Warriors, which had recently started working with the ranch next to Bear Valley. She called up her neighbor to learn more and enthusiastically volunteered to help in any way she could. The program offers a week-long retreat on the ranch, providing activities like horseback riding and mentorship for Post-Tramautic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

They asked her when she could start, and she said she could be there in 20 minutes. She shocked the men when she did show up 20 minutes later and found them without any instructions where on the property they might be — but she said, thanks to God, she knew exactly where to find them because she’d grown up on that very ranch.

It also wasn’t long before she became an integral force in the program, inviting veterans and guests to her home to share the joy and peace of their ranching lifestyle. After the COVID-19 pandemic, her role with both Might Oaks and Honor Flight grew significantly, expanding from a regional recruitment role to a national one. So far, Might Oaks Warrior has expanded to eight ranches across the U.S. with 13 outposts on all major bases.

“We bring them to the ranch for a week,” she explained. “We put them on the back of a horse, which is good for the soul of a man or a woman. We have all kinds of mentors for PTSD, marriage — whatever the need is.”

Guardian of the Honor Flight

In addition to her role with Mighty Oaks Warriors, June also works with Honor Flight, another amazing organization that works with veterans to bring them to Washington, D.C. where they are recognized and celebrated for their service. She has been a Guardian of the Honor Flight for many years, and doing so holds a very special place in her heart. She’s also gotten Kevin involved over the years, and he now serves as Guardian to two other former NCBA Presidents and U.S. Veterans, John Lacey and Jerry Bohn. She attributes the success of Mighty Oaks Warriors to two things:

“It’s always on a ranch where they get to come out unplug, get on the back of a horse — which is good for the soul of a man or a woman. — and every one of the instructors, including the one that started it came through this course,” June said. “So nobody comes and says anything different than what they’ve already been through or have done. No one is more broken. They all have addictions. They all have things that they tried to bury what they saw at war; what they were asked to do; what they were paid to do.”

Because instructors have first-hand perspectives on the brokenness, addiction, family struggles, and mental health issues that stem from what they saw at war or their time as first responders, they can step in and help other participants in a more personal way. They also invite every program graduate to turn around and become a mentor for a newer member.

“And when you’re broken with addictions and different things, and you can help somebody else, it just makes a difference.”

June says, when asked one huge misconception about veterans she wanted to share, is that farmers and ranchers are some of the most difficult participants to get enrolled in the programs like Honor Flight and Mighty Oaks Warriors. It comes down to their humbleness.

“They don’t have to pay for anything, and they’re like, ‘well, you know, nothing should be free. Somebody had to raise that money,'” she explains. “They’re very humble, and they don’t think they deserve to come on these flights or come to these ranches and do this. And, probably, the other thing is a lot of them don’t realize that they need this more than they know. It’s a huge healing process.”

“My husband Kevin is a former first responder, and just like the men and women in our military, they’re instructed to do what they’re told, and sometimes that includes taking lives,” she said. “These are things they can’t unsee.”

When they leave the ranch, they walk away with a support system, help for their families (including a support program for military wives struggling to cope with changes), and direct contacts for help in crises. According to June, divorce rates among this group of American heroes are around 80%, and suicide rates are approximately 22 per day. However, since the inception of the Might Oaks Warrior program, they have not lost a single participant to suicide thanks to the willingness of instructors to step in at a moment’s notice and remind their brothers of their value and importance.

“For our safety and our freedom, our military and our first responders, see things they can never unsee in their hearts in their minds,” June said. “They’re asked to do things that people just can’t undo. So they need help. They need help with post-traumatic stress syndrome. They need help with dealing with all these things, and both of these organizations have all the help they need. But probably, the biggest part of it is being back with each other, not only first responders — from ambulance drivers all the way up to our policemen, officers, and firemen — when they get together and they realize, ‘ok, you know, this thing that broke me made other people broken… but they’re ok, they can go on with their lives. They can with help.’ They can go on with their lives and then they feel like they’re kind of in a band of brothers, so to speak. I watch so much healing. It’s just unbelievable. And people ask why you give a lot of your time. it’s a drop in the bucket for my safety and my freedom.”

Photo by Adobe Stock

Feeding Souls with California Cusine

One of her proudest accomplishments in both organizations, which delight in feeding veterans and first responders, is her leadership in integrating California agriculture as much as possible into these healthy, chef-prepared meals. But work goes beyond that, every meal served across Might Oaks Warriors’ ranches across the country, and Honor Flight’s 130 hubs across all 50 states, now takes an extra effort to source the best local meat and vegetables available to serve our heroes.

“We feed them great beef; great fresh, California vegetables,” she said. “We bring in a chef, and they can just unplug.”

Of, course, when it comes to meals you can be certain there’s one staple that will be on the menu most nights: beef!

“I came back to the Cattlemen’s and I from the very beginning of Mighty Oaks. And then when I got intoHonor Flight, I made sure we provided, and ranchers around here provided the beef. I said, you know, to help heal, they need all this protein. They need beef and fresh vegetables, too. I’m a farmer as well. They always have it — all eight of these ranches — a chef that comes in, and they try to utilize the local venues and produce…not only beef, but also the others.”

When asked her favorite way to eat beef, June says there’s nothing better than Santa Maria-style Tri-Tip Steak prepared right on her ranch. Kevin and June’s favorite way to enjoy it is a steak salad. While Kevin prefers a plain iceberg wedge salad “with just lettuce,” June said she prefers a mix of greens like arugula and torn kale (“The darker the green, the better, as far as I’m concerned!”). They let the well-seasoned beef take care of most of the flavor, using it as a hot dressing. Sometimes, she adds a little vinaigrette. That’s enough, but sometimes Kevin lets her get a bit “fluffy,” adding other toppings like thinly sliced onions, toasted nuts, and dried cranberries.

June encourages people to reach out to her if they want to get involved in Mighty Oaks Warriors or Honor Flight, or to share a family member or friend who would benefit from the services of these wonderful organizations. She can be contacted at [email protected]. She also hopes people will visit or to learn more about each program.

Everybody Eats

At the heart of every meal is a story—a tale of dedication, nurture, and the enduring spirit of those who tend the land. Everybody Eats is the place where the narratives of food and agriculture converge. In partnership with FarmHer, we meet courageous women who embody not just the power of nurturing but also the strength of leading in transforming our food systems. They are the unsung heroes, educators, and compassionate souls who have relentless commitment and extraordinary care embedded in cultivating our food. Feed your curiosity, nourish your understanding, and grow your appreciation for the stewards who make sure that Everybody Eats.

Nationwide, a leading provider in farm and ranch insurance, acknowledges that more than half of all farming operations in the United States have at least one female operator. These women constitute the fastest-growing segment of farmers and are known for their innovative approaches. Given the current challenging circumstances, it is critical to assess your insurance coverages and financial services to ensure comprehensive protection and stability for your farm or ranch operations. Find a Nationwide Agent.

FarmHer is an organization that celebrates women who are a part of agriculture through their stories. Nationwide and FarmHer have shared a long-running relationship with a mutual appreciation for supporting these women. Through the Everybody Eats partnership we encourage you to explore the educational, empowering, and inspirational women and to share their stories with your community.

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