Meet Madi Hester, the maker behind Ranchlands Mercantile leather goods, as she talks about learning the craft of leather, building community on the Chico through leather work, and how she finds a sense of purpose selling ranch-made goods.
How did you learn leatherwork?
I started learning leatherwork from Duke III when I first visited the Chico almost four years ago. He’s been working leather since he was a kid and saw that it was something I was really interested in trying. We first made a headstall together, and once we worked through that, he said, “Ok, now you’re going to make eight of these.” So it was basically repetition, and I’d taken lots of notes on different methods like skiving, and by the end of making eight of them, I felt pretty confident on that. So that’s kind of how it would go: I’d make a project with him and then several by myself, and then once you’ve worked on lots of different projects, you end up with a whole repertoire of different skills and techniques, and it becomes easier and easier to learn how to do new projects. Now I can pretty much make anything he can, except for a saddle. Haven’t done that… yet!
How do you decide what products to offer through Ranchlands Mercantile?
All the products we sell are designed to serve some need, and they’re often functional items that we’ve first recognized a need for here on the ranch. For example, our brand inspector brought in his leather file folder to be fixed, but it had been duct-taped so many times that we thought, “There must be a better way to do this.” So we designed him a new pouch to carry his forms and his pistol in, and that’s where our Burk Computer & File Bag came from.
In our design phase, form follows function. Duke III, Tess, and I all collaborate to
find the look we want for the product. We try to stay as true to the traditional ranching aesthetic as possible, and all designs are inspired by products we use every day, like a saddle bag. We’re trying to make a purse that looks at home here at the Chico. Any of these products should look natural if being used by a member of our ranching crew, or on the streets of New York.
What’s the thinking behind a ranching company selling leather goods?
The leather shop is one way in which Ranchlands has diversified the business. In times of drought, for example, the shop wouldn’t be affected, while the income from cattle might suffer. It’s a way to protect ourselves from some of the uncontrollable variables that ranching depends on.
But the reason the leather shop exists in the first place, before we even sold anything to outside customers, was just having a way to fix our own tack and be more self-sufficient. Our ranches are really remote, so taking your stuff into town every time it breaks isn’t practical.
Doing leatherwork is also carrying on a tradition. The craft of leather has been passed on for many generations, and in Ranchlands alone, it’s been passed on for a few generations via Duke.
The physical shop is neat too. It’s a place where people can come after work and share a drink or stories, or fix tack if they need to. It brings people together at the end of longer days, and does a lot for the sense of community on the ranch. It’s also a great place for wine and cheese, we’re finding out.
Sounds like the leather shop is pretty important beyond just financial reasons.
Yeah, regardless of whether we’re making any money, it’s something that our vacation guests love to do when they’re here, and it’s something that the staff needs, between broken reins and making knife sheaths, so it’s a lot more than just selling goods.
And it’s personally important to Duke too, right?
Yeah, it’s a great outlet for creativity. Creating something and making something with your hands is really important to Duke. It’s also something he learned in childhood from a saddle maker that came to his ranch each month, so there’s a neat history to it. And like any skill, if you don’t have the means of practicing it, you’re going to lose it. Luckily we continue to have lots of tack getting broken, year after year, so we all have good reason to keep practicing.
And it’s something that has a natural place on a ranch. So much of the traditional ranching gear is made of leather, and it’s taking the business of cattle to it’s logical end.
Yeah, that’s another really neat thing, is that we have school kids come out here and we try to get the kids to really see the full circle of cattle to leather. We talk about raising cattle for food, for meat, and then to come in here and show them this other use, you’re really utilizing the whole animal then, because all of our hides come from the food industry, so it’s a byproduct that you’re now putting to great use by making something really beautiful and useful too.
So why sell purses and passport cases? Why not just stick to the traditional ranching or horse gear like saddles and bridles?
We talk a lot about “bridging the gap” at Ranchlands. We make these products that we hope appeal to people in urban settings, rather than just catering to people in agriculture, because it’s a way for these people to be linked to what we do on the ranching end. Hopefully if they buy one of our products they’ll see our hang-tag that describes a little bit about Ranchlands and what we do and maybe even check out our website and have a better idea of what ranchers are doing in conservation, what we’re doing in education, etc. It’s a way for us to bring in people outside of this industry and invite them to learn and see what we do. That’s huge for me, to feel like I’m making an impact beyond just making goods. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment to do this kind of outreach through our products.