Significant Women in Oklahoma Agriculture Highlight: Mary Chris BarthFri, 02 Mar 2018 09:00:08 CST
Precedence was set in the family even before Mary Chris Barth was born – life on the farm continues on.
Challenges and tough decisions, like stiff Panhandle winds, will come in agriculture and in life in general. But Barth says, “You can either lie down and quit life or push on and make the best of it for others.”
Today, Barth, a widow of three years, handles the day-to-day work on a ranch gradually rebuilding its herd from the last drought. She does so with a positive attitude and a lot of grit.
“There is far more joy in overcoming life’s road blocks as compared to having a pity party,” she said. “Take the hand life deals you and make the best of it.”
That’s an aspect of agriculture that has been a part of her life since day one.
Barth’s parents, Shirley and Merritt Swinburne, lived just one mile into Oklahoma in Cimarron County, the state’s most western county.
So when it came time for Shirley to deliver her daughter on that mid-October day in 1958, they went across the line to Dalhart, Texas. The hours dragged along. After a while, Shirley’s husband Merritt could wait no longer.
Merritt had to leave Shirley’s bedside during labor to go home and feed the registered Hereford bulls.
“So started the story of my life,” said Barth who today runs her own Hereford operation on the opposite side of the Panhandle, in Beaver County.
As a child, she grew right alongside the milo, the wheat and the hay grazer. The family also had the registered cattle along with stockers.
“I have always wanted to ranch, much to my mother’s dismay,” said Barth, who graduated from Oklahoma Panhandle State University with a degree in agribusiness and a minor in natural science. “Throughout life I have taken continuing education classes in agriculture and was privileged to be a graduate of the Oklahoma Agricultural Leadership Program.”
It was while at Panhandle State in Goodwell, Mary Chris met Hank Barth.
“We began our marriage with a family ag partnership,” she said. “The family came to Beaver and Ellis counties to homestead in 1900 and his share was left to him by his father when Hank was 14. We grew rye and wheat and had stocker heifers.”
Then in the early 1990s, the partnership was divided into individual operations that remain in family hands today.
With that transition, Hank got an off-farm job as did Mary Chris. For 30 years she served as a rural mail carrier at nearby Follett, Texas.
All the while, they continued farming and ranching, renting more ground and farming wheat for several years while running stockers.
“We would work all day and alternate farming shifts at night,” she said. “The family joke was I broke the machinery and Hank fixed it. Those times we worked on machinery together now serve me well. When something breaks I think my way through what we would have done together to fix it.”
As the years rolled by and Hank faced some health issues, Barth took on more of the daily operation. Then on June 24, 2014, after a lengthy illness, Hank passed away.
During their nearly 36 years of marriage, in addition to raising crops and livestock, they raised two sons and a daughter. William and Zeb, graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 2006 and 2007, respectfully. Both sons and their families are transitioning from active duty to the reserves and Zeb is hoping to return to the Panhandle area and ranch.
Their daughter Melissa teaches science at Fargo and she and husband Tyrell also assist Barth with the cattle operation.
“We would love to be able to expand the operation to support three families,” Barth said. “Finding enough acres is a tough row to hoe.”
Today Barth’s operation has returned to the family core of Hereford seedstock production. Her pastures are a combination of owned and leased land.
“The core of the cowherd is home-raised,” she said. “Occasionally females with superior genetics are added from area producers. I do the daily work with Melissa and Tyrell helping with repairs and processing. Hank left me with no debt and the funds to rebuild our working facilities.”
Exterior fences have been replaced and interior fences rearranged for better rotational grazing. They’ve also installed water lines and more tanks and are in the process of rebuilding a 1940s barn to better suit calving needs.
And with all this progress underway, she’s thankful that the family was spared from a major threat a year ago.
“I was calving on March 6, 2017,” Barth said of the day the Northwest Oklahoma Complex wildfires began in her area. “The wind was blowing so hard you could hardly push the corral gates. Heifers struggled to walk to the protection of the barn to calve.”
Barth was told to evacuate and she went to the Slapout area to check on an aunt who was homebound.
“I left equipment parked in a wheat field, took oil paintings and the herd records,” she said. “The fire was pushed into a wheat field northwest of Slapout and contained. It was God’s intervention as there are few fields in that area.”
That certainly didn’t mean she wasn’t affected by the fires. Why? That’s because her neighbors, so many neighbors, were impacted.
So Barth reached out to help through a lifelong friend – 4-H.
She’d been involved with 4-H since she 9 years old and today continues to volunteer as a leader.
“Beaver County clubs work together on community service projects,” she said. “When the fires burned through in March 2017 we sought ways to assist. The volunteer camp at Knowles was our contact location. Initially we provided supplies then sorted the truckloads of clothing which were donated.”
There was also a woman in the community who raised chickens to supplement her income, and the fire claimed her chicken house.
“Our group was asked to replace it,” Barth said of the chicken house. “A group of Michigan 4-H ers brought donations and came to work. The group spent a week together constructing and showing Michigan the Panhandle.”
During this time there was an issue of what to do with burned wire from fences.
“The Michigan 4-H then began making balls of barbwire and calling them Panhandle tumbleweeds. You can put lights around them and they really are beautiful,” Barth said.
With challenges, such as drought and the death of her husband, Barth has had an up close viewpoint. But with the fires, she got both a close look and also a broad view of how good, people, especially in relation to agriculture, can be to each other.
“The generosity of people from across the nation was amazing,” she said. ”I attended the National Farm Bureau convention this winter. While I was walking through the trade show or working the Oklahoma Wheat Commission booth, people would inquire about where in Oklahoma I was from. Then they would start telling me about their experience in helping with fire relief – hay, wire, monetary donations. A man from Indiana described delivering hay to Laverne, Okla. I could explain exactly where they unloaded it.”
Then that man asked Barth an interesting question that made her once again proud of where she calls home: “His question to me was, ‘Do they always feed people the way they fed us?’”
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