Three women whose lives have drawn them from Sarah Lawrence to the farm, the ranch, and the winery—with many interesting stopovers in between.
The Rancher: Elaine Wolf ’48
Elaine Schlesinger Wolf’s initiation into the cattle business took place shortly after the Sarah Lawrence graduate arrived at Wagonhammer Cattle Company as a new bride from a big city, eager to adjust to life in Nebraska’s remote sand hills. When the animals needed to be weighed one day and the ranch was shorthanded—as was often the case in the early years—Elaine stepped in. Open to becoming a rancher but armed only with a degree in early childhood education, she began by hustling 1,500-pound animals into a weighing pen...
“I never prepared for a life as a cattle farmer’s wife,” she recalls of her marriage to Harvard Law School student James Wolf, who joined his family’s business after graduation. Living in a small town—like ranching—was an adventure for the young woman who grew up in Denver and spent four years relishing New York City as a student in Bronxville.
“But I always enjoyed animals and livestock, and small town living appealed to me,” she remembers of those early years.“ So I was willing to try this experiment. I guess I’ve been trying it ever since.”
Over the years, she learned the cattle business by riding horseback into Nebraska’s sand hills to check the herd’s supplies of salt and minerals, by managing the ranch’s personnel and by overseeing an office that grew from a one-room central command post to the modern computer-run facility it is today. Elaine is now listed as vice president of Wagonhammer Cattle, an operation with a registered Angus herd of 400 mother cows that produces performance-tested bulls and heifers for commercial cattlemen throughout the central United States.
Ranching, and moving to Albion, Nebraska, worked out well for her. “I discovered that in a small town a person really matters,” she says, “because if you don’t go out and raise funds for the school band or the hospital, it won’t happen. In a city if you don’t do it, someone else will.”
Elaine’s husband died last year, and the business is now being overseen by the couple’s son Jay, 43. There are three other grown children (another son and two daughters), as well as 10 grandchildren, one of whom is nine years old and already managing a small herd of his own.
What began when two immigrant brothers, butchers from Germany, purchased land in the late 1800s and raised their own cattle, is now being carried on by the next generation, Wolf says, adding: “In time, they’ll bring wives home who will—just as I did—learn to love this way of life.”
The Farmer: Luba Staller ’50
Luba Byman Staller’s cello has accompanied her from the High School of Music and Art in New York City, where she first studied music seriously, to Tehran and other locales in the Middle East, where her farmer husband worked during the 1970s, and on to central California and the avocado farm they now own.
“It’s been quite an odyssey of where I lived and how I adjusted,” Staller says, explaining that her cellos—she now has two, a Lorenzo Ventapane and a Paul Schubach—have over the years served as her calling card in new communities. “I’ve learned from all the moving we’ve done that nobody knocks on your door, that you have to involve yourself in the community,” she says. “It was wonderful having a cello, and that’s probably why, through all those years, I never gave it up.”
Luba married her husband Bob right after college. “I didn’t know what I was getting into. I never thought that being in agriculture would mean we’d travel so much.” Since 1978, though, they have lived in one place—on Morro Creek Ranch—as one of the larger avocado growers in San Luis Obispo County. Of its 348 acres, the ranch boasts 200 acres of orchard, the majority of which is devoted to the Haas avocado. While most of the fruit is sold to packing houses in southern California, the Stallers also broker their produce to restaurants and smaller-scale grocery stores. The third facet of the business is La Palapa, a year-round roadside fruit stand selling avocados and avocado-related products, including Luba’s avocado oil-based hand cream, called “This Is Serious,” which she developed in conjunction with a lab in 1986.
The Stallers opened the stand following a frost in the late 1980s that killed off 60 percent of their crop. “In order to maximize our income during that period,” she recalls, “we had to sell directly to the public. Many people think of farming as a romantic pursuit, but one has to have a hard business head to survive.”
From the early years of shepherding three children to adulthood, to the time spent opening the retail market, and on through another period during the 1990s when she served as a tour guide at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Luba has played with a variety of orchestras and chamber music groups. In Iran, it was the Tehran Symphony; today she is a member of an orchestra in San Luis Obispo. And while at different times in her life she focused on other pursuits, “always, whatever else I’m busy with, a very important part of who I am is a cellist.”
The Vintner: Betty Williams ’40
After receiving a law degree, teaching elementary school, raising three children, running a thoroughbred horse farm and co-founding a 15,000-acre land trust in California’s Santa Barbara County—only then did Betty Williams become a vintner.
In 1983, when she was in her early 60s, Williams converted part of her 106-acre Buttonwood Farm in the Santa Ynez Valley, where she already ran the successful horse breeding operation, to a winery. From 33,000 vines on 39 acres, Williams and son-in-law Bret Davenport today produce about 10,000 cases a year of Bordeaux- and Rhone-style varietals.
What does it take to run a successful winery, especially in California where grapes are the state’s single largest certified organic crop? “Patience and persistence, and more patience,” answers the businesswoman, who was born and raised in Louisiana and went on to study economics, first at Sarah Lawrence, and then at Tulane in her home state. She has also taken a hands-on approach to growing grapes, which means she personally took daily trips into the fields to monitor the condition of the grapes, not leaving the responsibility to others. Her advice to anyone undertaking a similar venture: “Don’t do it if you can’t afford the time or the risk of failure, but then that’s true of anything in the business world, not just wine making.”
And while her son-in-law, who is manager and company president, oversees most of the wine production these days, Williams—now an octogenarian—is still involved in the management of a number of gardens, as well as a 200-tree peach orchard, below the vineyards. In the 1990s, she also operated a 12-acre organic fruit and vegetable farm on the land but subsequently decided to focus her energies on the winery. “Life can get better as it goes on,” she observes, “because your frailties require you to simplify. I’ve done that in both my business and personal life.”
Today, the tall, distinguished Williams— who can still be spied frequently inspecting the harvest in the fields of what is now called Buttonwood Farm and Winery—has added another item to her list of life accomplishments.
Although she had been writing for some time, she formally undertook poetry in 1998, after joining a local writers’ group. Here’s a recent poem that weaves together a number of her passions—for the land she loves and its bounties, and for good friends.
Old Friend come with me.
I’ve a bin of wine, epiphanies to share.
I’ve seven roses in my vase,
That speak of mysteries and myth.
Sit with me.
Decant the wine, and break the bread.
We’ll reminisce. We’ll laugh and cry.
We’ll share the spice of time and wit.