by Jessie Veeder
Vawnita Best is a woman tied to the landscape. Ask her about her passion she will tell you about the ranch on the edge of the badlands her father purchased as a young man and spent a lifetime tending and working. She’ll tell you about the yukka plants that grow in bushels in one of her favorite pastures. She’ll talk about her five-year-old son’s rooster and the chickens he tends to, the horse she’s been training and the registered angus bulls she raises with her husband Pete, who’s working on a tractor down in the barnyard, their son Kyle at his heels.
Then Vawnita will show you the view from the front window of her house that overlooks the valleys and peaks of the gentle and greenest part of the badlands of Western North Dakota and she’ll wonder out loud what it must have been like to try to make it out here in these harsh conditions nearly 100 years ago.
“All four of my grandparents were children of McKenzie County homesteaders,” Vawnita explains. “All of my ties are right here.”
Vawnita is a fourth generation rancher and the second generation to manage this land. Her son, if he chooses, will have the opportunity to carry on the legacy in McKenzie County.
And so the woman takes nothing for granted, especially when it comes to the ranch where she and her younger sister, Kim, were raised. She’s heard the story of how her father, Kurt Hovet, came home from the Veitnam war with his sights set on ranching and she understands what it takes to make a living off of the land.
“Dad always had that cowboy way,” said Vawnita of the second oldest of ten children raised on a farm too small to sustain such a large family. He bought the ranch in 1968 and owned it less than a year before losing his arm in a ranch accident. “There was no room for error and he kept working. He sacrificed a lot for this place, for our family.”
It seems Vawnita carries that story with her as she saddles up a horse, the memory of working alongside her father still fresh and honest within her, little pieces of his presence on this place found in the way a gate has been wired or in that new baler in the field, purchased after his untimely death the spring of 2013, a piece of equipment he would have appreciated in the face of this summer’s record hay crop.
“I’m glad I got the time I had with him, to learn from him,” says Vawnita as she recalls the fall of 2009 when she left her job with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and made the decision to ranch alongside her father full time. “It was the first time my time didn’t belong to someone else. We helped the neighbors ride, we moved cattle home. It was a great fall.”
Although Vawnita explains that she always planned on coming back to her community, the decision that she and her husband Pete made to work the ranch full time was a journey of education, collaboration and a vision for her community that Vawnita works and fights for every day.
Vawnita graduated from High School in 1993 at a time when outmigration was one of the biggest concerns in McKenzie County and young people weren’t coming home to work. She met her husband, Pete Best, the night he graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in Animal Science in 1995. The two were married in June of 1996, Vawnita graduated from NDSU with a degree in Animal Science in 1997 and the couple spent the next several years working in agricultural finance and food safety positions throughout the state before making the decision to move to the Hovet ranch in 2007.
“It wasn’t your traditional transition. Pete’s family wasn’t in production agriculture,” explains Vawnita about what it meant to have a daughter in a position to take over the family operation. “It’s like turning over the reigns of CEO with a 6 year job interview.”
A job interview that includes managing forest service grazing rights, putting up 1200 acres of hay, raising approximately 20 registered Quarter Horses, managing a herd of 260 registered angus cattle, working to save their calves in a spring blizzard and keeping her finger on the pulse of the oil industry that has flooded Vawnita’s home with opportunity, unprecedented growth and new challenges for landowners.
“Oil activity has a direct impact on our operation and our cattle,” explains Vawnita, who works to communicate with oil companies to obtain exploration, completion and production schedules so they can make good decisions about pasture rotation on Forest Service land and the land they lease from neighbors to run their cattle. If their cattle are grazing in a pasture close to a high traffic oil industry road, the dust kicked up from the tires can affect the cattle’s health, an issue that can be detrimental to the operation’s bottom line.
“The challenge right now is that production agriculture and the oil and gas industry do not understand each other,” explains Vawnita. “We’re used to hunkering down and getting the work done, but now is the time to stick our necks out and tell our story.”
And so Vawnita tells the story of her community with reverence and a quiet sense of urgency, believing that both oil and agriculture can co-exist with proper communication because, in her words, “This is my home and this matters, for the future of our landscape and future generations.”
This is the kind of attitude that has gained Vawnita respect and trust in her community where she puts her passion into action by serving on the McKenzie County Healthcare Foundation, supporting local livestock 4-H activities and working closely with the county to develop community quality of life programs that will help retain working families in the area.
Vawnita has also just completed an 18-month Rural Leadership North Dakota (RLND) Program through NDSU Extension, where she gained a global agricultural perspective and developed leadership skills that will be useful in continuing to advocate for a home that is changing every day.
Her experience with the program inspired Vawnita to bring the story of McKenzie County to life by organizing and producing “Cowboys and Crude- The McKenzie County Story” a documentary that will debut during Watford City’s Centennial Celebration next summer.
In addition, Vawnita’s mother, Rita, nominated her daughter for the 2013 Farm and Ranch Guide’s Ranch Woman of the Year award, but Vawnita won’t mention it, because Vawnita is not her awards, accolades or accomplishments.
Vawnita is the woman who alone carried eighty calves into the barn during a cold and wintry spring calving season in 2011. Vawnita is the girl who took her little sister to play in the stock dam when a trip to the swimming pool in town was not an option. She’s a wife and a business partner, a mother and the first to admit the place wouldn’t run without the support and help from her inlaws and mother who live down the road and her sister and her family who come from Williston to move cattle or help with the fencing on the weekends.
Vawnita is Midwestern work ethic embodied, a historian and a steward of the land, firm in her beliefs and determined to continue her family’s legacy of agriculture in a place she believes in.
Vawnita is a story waiting to be told.
Vawnita is home.