Driving south out of Colorado’s Front Range, Interstate 25 smacks into the Rocky Mountains at Trinidad before climbing over their shoulder at the Raton Pass. Coasting down the New Mexico side, the huge expanse of northeastern New Mexico opens wider with each curve of the road. Here’s what travelers saw as they descended the Santa Fe Trail, the golden rolling plains studded with low mountains produced by old volcanoes as the prairie begins its run east from the Continental Divide.
Burgeoning coal mines drew streams of European immigrants here a century ago, but cattle ranching has proven a more sustainable occupation. From the tiny village of Maxwell, 360º vistas take in nature’s grandeur, and cows are sprinkled in every direction. It’s still and peaceful, the sky rich with exotic birds crossing to the adjacent Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge. The quiet lasts until a Dodge flatbed feeder truck approaches the center of a hilly pasture and Mary Lou Kern flips the switch to sound her siren. The incongruous wail, evoking a police cruiser racing city streets, draws dozens of cows from surrounding arroyos. It’s their dinner bell.
Mary Lou, 46, grew up on this ranch and in nearby Raton, where she graduated from high school and went off to Las Cruces to earn a pair of bachelor degrees from New Mexico State University – in Agribusiness Management and Farm & Ranch Management, graduating in 1986. An internship turned into a job as a loan officer with the Farm Credit System, working first in Albuquerque, then Grand Junction, Colorado. “I did it for a just a year,” she recalls, “but that was long enough to learn that I didn’t want to be a banker.” When her father died in 1987, she went home for good.
“My mother tried to talk me out of taking over the ranch. She saw how hard it is, how a lot of your success is more dependent on the elements than on how hard you work. She wanted me to go into computers. But I always knew I would come back. I’ve always preferred being outdoors.”
Mary Lou’s mom, Louise, met Charlie Kern in Raton where both their families had arrived as immigrants – hers from Italy, his from Austria – drawn by jobs in the coal mines. Louise’s family gravitated to the retail trade, running the company stores in Brilliant and Sugarite; when the mines closed, they bought and ran Club Luna, a bar and dance hall in Raton that today houses Spur Lanes, the town’s modest bowling alley.
Mary Lou grew up on the small ranch bought with family savings, raised not only by her parents but by her father’s two brothers, Joe and Tony, who never married. “I was blessed, I had three dads,” she smiles. They were all concerned about Mary Lou’s dream of taking over the ranch one day. “Back then, more than now, ranching was predominantly a man’s field,” she says. “But my dad always told me, ‘You may not be as strong as a man, but you’re smarter. You can use your brains instead of your back.’
“So subsequently,” she laughs, “I own a lot of equipment!” She can rattle off the long list, down to the year and model number, showing a preference for the John Deere brand – a backhoe, a bulldozer, a skidster, five tractors “with lots of hanging attachments”. She’s particularly proud of the John Deere 50, “the first tractor my dad ever bought,” 57-years-old and still in use.
“We do all of our own maintenance and repairs. You have to – you can’t stay in this business if you’re paying people to do that. The best class I ever took was welding. It allows me to fix everything I break. I’m a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” she smiles, then corrects herself. “I guess I’m a Jacqueline-of-all-trades.”
Mary Lou runs the entire operation herself, with one full-time hand, Dago Chavez, who she stole away from her neighbor, Alice Moore, 10 years ago. “He was with the CS for a while, then with Alice for 6 or 7 years. I got him from there, her loss. I’m very, very lucky. I don’t know if I would have made it without Dago. I’d probably have to hire two people to replace him. Before him, I went through seven in a 2-year period, trying to get the right match.”
In the summers she hires a high school kid full-time and another part-time. She points to a steel gate that’s badly bent. “That’s what you get with high school kids. They don’t want to get out of the truck to open the gate.” She laughs.
Mary Lou owns the ranch just northwest of Maxwell and summer pastures atop Johnson Mesa and Bartlett Mesa to the north. She leases other pastures east of Maxwell, west of Wagon Mound, outside Miami, and atop Fisher Mesa straddling the Colorado border. Much of the winter work is done from pickups and 4-wheelers, but from spring to fall she spends a lot of time on horseback. “Around here, where it’s pretty level, the 4-wheelers work fine, but up in the rough country it’s better to get the trusty steed out. Or sometimes not so trusty.”
She runs 400 mother cows in winter, adding 800-1200 stocker yearlings in the summers. Two years ago she bought a 1988 International semi tractor so she could haul her own cattle and hay. She likes being self-reliant, not having to depend on other people’s availability and schedules. Each spring she hauls cattle to the base of the mesas, then she and her help ride horseback to push the herds up steep trails to the summer pasture. In the fall, they bring them back down.
“We call it ‘neighboring’, trading off helping each other.” Each year she neighbors with her friends, fellow women ranchers B.B. Cornay of Folsom and Nikki Hooser of Colmor, herding each other’s cattle to the high mesas on horseback, aided by a couple hired hands and some extra cowboys hired for day wages.
“I have several friends come from Cimarron to help with branding each year,” Mary Lou adds. “They don’t have cattle of their own but they’ll help all day if I feed them. They think this is the best café in town.” She points to her large kitchen, where she allows that cooking is perhaps the one hobby she makes time for. “As long as I give them a big dinner and plenty of beer, they’ll work for me every year.”
She farms 300 acres of alfalfa, with some oats as a rotation crop. “I don’t like the farming part of it,” she says, “but I do it because my cows like to eat. We’ve put in a pair of center-pivot sprinklers the last couple years, which saves us a lot of work. It’s a more efficient means of water distribution than flooding a field.”
On the side, she makes time to serve her extended community. She was an EMT when Maxwell had a volunteer ambulance service. She’s been on the Maxwell school board for seven years and board president for the past five. She’s on the board of directors for the Colfax County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Colfax County Farm Service Agency, the Maxwell Water Users Association, the Vermejo Conservancy District, and the Advisory Board of the New Mexico State University Livestock Research Center in Clayton.
When she reached forty, Mary Lou adopted her daughter, Mia, who is now 5 and Mary Lou’s pride and joy. “Raising cattle is a tough line of work. I can’t control the weather or the markets, so it’s a very stressful business to be in. But since I’ve had Mia, I can come home from a rough day, walk in that door and get a smile and a hug, and all that stress just goes away. She is such a pure delight. She has put life in perspective for me.”
In fact, the ranching life seems to suit Mary Lou perfectly. She observes, “I probably have ADD, because I don’t like doing the same things over and over.” In ranching, no two days are alike. This week she’s hauled cattle behind her semi, built some fence, and done some welding projects, including building new gates. She’s fed cattle and attended three board meetings. She explains her lack of hobbies by pointing at her work.
“It’s like I’m retired. I get to do what I love to do. I enjoy nature. I work with some of the greatest people in the world, in this industry and this area. And the animals, they just each have their own personality. They’re comical. I consider myself young, but if I died tomorrow my only regret would be not seeing my daughter grow up. I’ve got more than my share of blessings. I ride good horses. I have good cattle and a good dog. Good friends and a great partner and family. Add a cold beer and it couldn’t get any better.”
She gazes toward the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from her window, satisfied. Then she thinks to add, “Well, it’d be nice to have smoother-riding pickup truck!”
©2010 Tim Keller