By Thomas ClouseThe Spokesman-Review
When 73-year-old rancher Walter “Sonny” Riley faced federal officials in 2018 who alleged he was allowing his cattle to graze on public land, he knew the attorney he needed to call: Toni Meacham.
With documents filed against him in federal court, the Snake River rancher said he needed a lawyer who understood what a cow was – and how government officials and folks in agriculture don’t always see eye to eye.
“She’s just great,” Riley said of Meacham. “I would say she’s done more to help ranchers and agriculture than any lawyer in business.”
Meacham runs her own legal office when she’s not helping her husband, Troy, raise about 150 head of cattle and 90 registered horses on their family ranch near Connell.
Raised on the farm, she earned her associate degree while at Connell High School as part of the Running Start program before graduating from Washington State University in only two years with an animal science degree.
Meacham, 40, then attended the University of Idaho College of Law, because it was more affordable than Gonzaga and close enough for her to return home and help out at the ranch.
While she has nearly zero time for herself, the payoff is that Meacham gets to pursue her two great passions.
“It’s super rewarding and allows me to grow as a human,” she said. “I don’t know that most ranchers have the perspective that I have, and not many lawyers do either. It allows me to be grounded and relatable.”
Jack Field, the executive director of the Washington Cattle Feeders Association, said he has worked years with Meacham on various boards and in legal fights over water.
“There are a lot of talented attorneys out there,” Field said. “But there is only a small group who are talented and who are ranchers and livestock owners. Toni understands what a landowner is facing and the concerns they have when they get a letter from a regulatory agency.”
Field has tracked Meacham’s work for Riley, the rancher near Pomeroy, which continues despite at least four attempts by Riley to purchase land to trade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the disputed ground near the river.
“Toni is just as tenacious today as the first day she started that case,” Field said. “She doesn’t let her foot off the gas. She will continue to work that issue until she gets a resolution that her client is satisfied with.”
Field, who also served with Meacham on the Washington Cattleman’s Association, said Meacham is “very intelligent and highly skilled.”
“She’s not afraid of a fight, that’s for sure,” Field said. “I’m very happy to call her a friend and glad to have her in my corner if I ever need anything.”
Meacham said her family has been ranching for generations. Her grandfather, Bill Bennett, always talked about the challenges ranchers and farmers face.
When Meacham was in fifth grade, her grandfather introduced her to Mary Burke, a generational rancher from Cle Elum. Meacham said on that day she met the person she wanted to become.
“She was considered one of the best water-law experts in the state,” she said. Burke “would always check in with me. She would tell me, ‘Go forth and do good.’ ”
Burke died in 2016 at 80. She was named trailblazer of the year in 1999 by Beef Magazine. Meacham keeps a copy of that magazine in her office.
“She was a very strong woman who had gone out and educated herself and fought for the good of agriculture both on the state and national level,” Meacham said.
On the homestead
Meacham’s home, which doubles as her legal office, has a window with a view of the pasture.
She spent Sunday working in thick smoke with post-hole diggers as the family built barbed-wire fences.
Her husband, Troy, also has a “first job” in addition to ranching. He’s an agronomist, who helps develop methods and soil management to increase food production, for the J.R. Simplot Company’s french fry plants in Othello and Moses Lake.
The couple often relies on other family to help out with the cattle and horses. But the Meachams also found time, before the pandemic, to take their two boys to as many as 16 fairs and events to show their cattle, in addition to whatever sports they happened to be playing.
“It’s very personal, what she does,” Troy Meacham said. “She enjoys agriculture a lot. It’s a passion to her. She doesn’t want anyone in agriculture to fail.”
Both her husband and Field said Meacham will often work hours for clients that don’t get added to the final bill.
“She enjoys people and will bend over backwards to make things right,” Troy Meacham said. “It definitely means a lot to her. That’s why she does as well as she does.”
Riley, the rancher near Pomeroy, would agree.
He worked with Meacham even before federal officials kicked off the public land dispute that remains unresolved.
Meacham said she traveled to Riley’s River Ranch when he met with representatives from the Washington Department of Ecology over concerns about cattle polluting a nearby stream.
Riley picked up a stick and started poking the state official in the chest to make a point.
“I did not step in and intervene,” Meacham said, laughing.
Like most ranchers in the area, Meacham’s families have intertwined histories. And, each year, there are fewer and fewer of them left to follow that way of life.
“We’ve got to do a better job of telling our story and documenting our story,” Meacham said. “We have to show that we are part of American history. Ag is a huge portion of what makes America great. We have to remind people why we are great.”
As farmers become less of the overall population, their issues also have fewer voices, she said.
“That is why I sit on as many boards as I do, because my parents taught me that we have to give back,” she said. “We have to make sure this lifestyle is available to our children and our grandchildren.”