A Day at the Ranch

By Roxanne Garcia

As part of our philosophy at the Tucson Farmers’ Markets, we visit each farm, ranch and small business in support of our vendors.  Recently I was lucky enough to visit a ranch nestled in the shadows of the Galiuro Mountains near the tiny town of Mammoth, Arizona.  Campstool Ranch has been passed through familial hands since the early days of the pony express, and today is run by Laurie  and Mike Mercer.  Their superb beef products are sold at the Oro Valley farmers’ market  and in other local arenas under the name Sombrero Butte Beef Company.

    The expansive landscape and beautiful vistas took my breath away.   I could only imagine what it would feel like to wake up to such a view each and every day. Now, I know that working and visiting are two very different things and I wanted to experience what a day on the ranch really meant, so I insisted that during my visit I wanted to help out.  Laurie was ready and waiting for me by the truck, I hopped in and we rambled down the road to pick up a load of salt blocks.  Down by the recently-built corrals, Mike was busy putting up more pipe fencing.  He quickly hopped on the loader and picked up a pallet of salt blocks and loaded them on the back of the truck.
Mike gave Laurie directives and away we went.  The day went like this: unlock/lock gates, drive to watering hole, unload 4-8 blocks at 50 lbs apiece, drive 4-5 miles to the next stop, repeat, drive 4-5 miles, repeat.   Just to be clear,  we are not talking about smooth paved roads, but bumpy, rocky four-wheeling roads.  But I was happy to be bouncing along and it gave me a chance to ask Laurie a number of questions that were brewing in my mind.  We talked about the number of cattle that were currently roaming freely among the hills (around 350 head), the type of breeds that do well (Brahman cows bred by Angus-Charolais bulls), and what makes them so well-suited for the desert (they withstand heat well and they eat desert plants). Amongst all of the issues that cattle ranchers experience in our harsh climate, water availability and very large predators like mountain lions and coyotes are some of the most challenging.  Laurie was particularly excited about some of the new technologies currently being tested on their ranch.  Certain cellular devices use solar power and help to monitor the water level in their water tanks.   The technology is really beneficial to the ranching way of life, helping to monitor the cattle and make sure that they are well taken care of. Laurie pointed out to me that the recent rains have given life to small green grasses, cats claw, cholla and jojoba leaves that are particularly good for the cattle to eat.  Six to eight months before the cattle are butchered, Mike grazes them on the native grasses in his new native seeded grass area, complete with a pivot irrigation system to keep the grasses growing.  Finishing the herd on this diet helps to tenderize the meat.
I got to see the old homestead that Mike’s great-grandfather built, a small one-room cabin, complete with an enlarged chimney with steps leading to the top for defense against any Indian attack. 

The homestead sits empty at this time and is used only when it’s round-up time. Laurie indicated that she would love to live there permanently someday.  Laurie and Mike love the ranching life, and couldn’t imagine any better lifestyle. They are building their dream and hoping to hand it down to their daughter, who is also quite enthusiastic for the ranching life (a rare thing these days!).

Heading back through all the gates and locks, I was really hungry and elated with having done a good half-day’s work.  I was headed back to Tucson; The Mercers were going to work until sundown.  Driving back home on paved roads I pondered their lifestyle, and it made me proud of them and of our markets.  I am so glad to support them in any way that I can.  I must also continue to do what I do, providing and promoting a marketplace where they can offer their one-of-a-kind products to the public.  In this way, it’s like I’ve been helping out at the ranch all along!