Why I Farm

written by

Rob Dowdle

posted on

October 20, 2020

When I was a kid, my granddad would always ask me what I wanted to be when I got “big and fat” (his way of saying “what do you want to be when you grow up”). I never knew how to respond, in many ways, I still don’t thirty years later. I am a full time pastor. Over the years, I have earned several graduate degrees in my field and I enjoy the work. However, I am also called to farm. It is a strange feeling indeed.While growing up, my brothers and I helped my dad, a veterinarian, raise cows. We spent a lot of Saturdays building fences and working cattle. Most mornings in the fall we would feed several hundred pounds of bagged feed to new calves that my dad had purchased. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it. 

One fall after my dad sold a crop of feeder steers, I vaguely remember my older brother asking my dad, how much money “we made” that year on cattle. The answer was none. The running joke in our family is “Do you know how to make a small fortune in the cattle business? Start out with a large fortune.” So why would someone want to do so much work for no or little return? In July of 2017, we moved back home to Mississippi from South Georgia where I was a pastor. Prior to that Megan (my wife from Yazoo County, Mississippi), our three girls and I had lived in Jackson, MS; Atlanta, GA; and Princeton, NJ for school. My family’s decision to move back to Mississippi was a complicated one, but it revolved around wanting to be closer to our families. Further, over the course of the 17 years that I had been away from home, I began having progressively worse complications from ulcerative colitis. I needed to drastically alter my lifestyle. In Georgia, I had already begun gardening so that I could eat healthier foods. But I found that healthy foods no longer contain the same levels of nutrition that they had historically contained because of selectively breeding them for shipping and because of how they are grown. I began growing our foods organically. Pleasantly, I discovered that fresher, local, organically grown foods are not only much healthier, but they also tasted better. I reduced and eventually eliminated the drugs I was taking for ulcerative colitis and for a couple years my health improved significantly, though I had lingering symptoms. 

When I returned home, I started gardening on the farm. To my surprise, the soil was very poor. The decades before my dad started running cattle, the fields had been in conventional row crops, especially cotton. The soils were worn out and contained few nutrients and biological activity. With an eye on building the soil, I collected thousands bags of leaves from town to enrich the garden soil. I also experimented with cover crops. The garden soils improved dramatically, but even three years later, they still need some work. I enjoyed the physical work. Even more, there is something magical, or spiritual, about seeing something worn out slowly come back to life. It helped improve my heath significantly. The first beef that we finished was for our family in the Fall of 2017. We raised some egg laying chickens and started selling eggs in January of 2018. In the Spring of 2019 we started raising and selling pastured meat chickens. In the Fall of 2019 we acquired our first pigs and started selling their meat in the Spring of 2020. In 2018 we acquired our first beehive and in 2019 we trapped several more hives of bees. Though we have suspended our egg laying operation for now, we continue to produce grass finished beef, pasture raised pork, pastured meat chickens, and honey for our customers. We sell our beef and pork by individual cuts and by whole and half animals. Our meat chickens we sell whole per MDAC guidelines.

While I continue to pastor a local church full-time, I often ask myself why I continue to farm. Frankly, I love the physicality of the work. Also, I find that I am often doing a variety of different tasks that keeps me engaged. Further, I enjoy doing something on the farm that my family has been doing for several generations. However, there are deeper reasons that are difficult to articulate. It is fascinating to see land that has been worn out by decades of conventional farming slowly come back to life without the need for synthetic or chemical inputs. The regeneration that takes place is awe-inspiring. Working with nature, creation, the earth and seeing how it is coaxed back to a more productive life is redemptive. In ways that I do not fully understand, by farming I help heal myself, the land, creation, and hopefully those who purchase the food we raise. 

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Raising Happy Animals

There are a lot of reasons I farm. I have shared many of them with you. One of those reasons is that I spent a lot of time on the farm as a kid. My parents tell me that my dad changed more of my diapers on the farm than he did at home. Every time he went to the farm, I would want to go, even when it was bitterly cold. I am just now beginning to understand why I always wanted to go to the farm. I feel some sort of visceral connection to the land and its animals and plants. I cannot describe it, but in many ways working on the farm brings me to a place of communion with God, earth, and nature. The relationships that I form with the animals on the farm are an important part of why I enjoy farming so much. I enjoy watching a pig scratch its ears on a tree in the woods or root out a grub from a rotten log. I can only imagine the lives pigs and other farm animals live in confinement.I have only seen pictures of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) for pigs. Also, I have read descriptions and talked to people who have farmed that way. Sensationalized reports and videos are often publicized. I remember watching a video decrying some injustice and a worker in a CAFO picked up a pig that began squealing loudly. The narrator railed against the practice of weaning a pig from its mother. The implication was the pig was squealing over the loss of its mother. Granted, the weaning process is not easy for any animal. However, anytime someone picks up a pig, they squeal loudly, very loudly. When we pick up pigs to check for health, they squeal. It is easy to overly dramatize the problems with animals, if someone is not familiar with them. The mass production of pork in CAFOs makes food production more efficient and reduces the cost of the meat for many people.For me, the primary issues with CAFOs and pigs is that the pigs have little room to exercise. They are raised on concrete to better manage the manure and prevent pigs from escaping. Their tails are docked to prevent other bored pigs from gnawing on them. The pigs are raised in an environment where their distinctiveness is not honored, rather it is suppressed. Pigs enjoy running and playing. They love rooting around in the ground and breaking apart logs looking for grubs. They enjoy an incredibly diverse diet of foods. They offer so much diversity to a farm practicing in regenerative methods of agriculture. They clean up wood lots, fertilize the land, and eat plants and weeds that other animals do not. They are amazing animals whose natural instincts provide a lot of benefits to the farm. We acquire our pigs as weaned babies and train them to our electric fence. Then we place them in wood lots and pastures with plenty of room to roam around, play and root. This video of our pigs shows some of their antics when they are happy and on pasture. The mass production of meat chickens in large barns has received a lot of attention as well. Most meat chicken that one purchases today are the same general breed and are raised in large barns with thousands of others. While this offers the chickens safety and protection from weather and predators, the manure build up in the last fourth of the chicken’s lives can become toxic as the manure dries and becomes dust. This can be harmful for both people in the barn and the chickens. I prefer raising the chickens on the pasture. We get the chicks when they are a day or two old and we place them out on pasture as soon as they are big enough and the weather permits (often within 8-10 days). We use moveable, open air pens. The pens are moved daily and towards the last couple weeks of their lives we move them twice a day for more forage. They will eat grass, clover, and bugs in addition to their GMO free feed. Their moveable pens allow us to distribute manure throughout the pasture so there is no toxic build up. It is a process that is both good for the soil and the animals.Cows in CAFOs are placed in lots open air lots where they trample mud, manure and dirt. They have no fresh grass to graze and their diets are strictly controlled. Our cows are born and bred on our farm. We raise them on pasture and they have plenty of room to run and play. Their manure is scattered through the pastures and is an asset to the farm, not a liability. Finally, we raise all of our animals ourselves. Our beef is born, bred, and raised on our farm. I know the animals individually. Our chickens come as day old birds from the hatchery. I can guarantee that they are raised on GMO-free feeds and are given no antibiotics, hormones, or steroids. Our piglets come to our farm from a breeder I know and trust. I feed them GMO free feed as well and allow them to indulge their natural tendencies. I can rest easy with my conscience knowing I am providing humanely raised and healthy animals for my table and yours.

Learning to Be Regenerative

When I moved back home and started gardening on the farm, I was shocked by how depleted the soil was. I had been gardening in our yard in Georgia for several years by this point. Over the years I had improved the quality of the soil in our yard significantly. Even though I knew this, it still surprised me because I was not thinking about it. I began making compost, raised chickens in the areas that would later become the garden, and salvaged tons and tons of leaves from town. However, the thought of doing this on 20 acres was overwhelming, much less 200 acres. Most pastures receive a lot of synthetic fertilizers, especially nitrogen. Some studies estimate that over 25% of the nitrogen applied to fields runs off into the watersheds. I have witnessed some of this on the farm. These sources of nitrogen are also expensive. The synthetic forms of fertilizers provide abundant growth immediately. Long term, however, they can build toxic amounts of nitrates in the soil and worse, they destroy soil life. Soil life - the bacteria, earthworms, and other microscopic critters – feeds on the organic matter available and helps provide natural nutrients to the plants. The plants give off root exudates which these creatures eat. They work in a symbiotic relationship. Synthetic fertilizers disrupt this cycle. If plants receive readily available synthetic nitrogen, they don’t need to work as much with soil life. If there is enough organic matter in the soil through dead plant litter, animal manures, and root exudates, synthetic fertilizers can be reduced and even eliminated.One of the ways to accomplish increase organic matter in our soils is to produce high yielding cover crops for cattle to graze. In our area one of the best of those forage crops is sorghum-Sudan grass. Sorghum-Sudan grass is a nature hybrid resulting in a cross between forage sorghum and Sudan grass. It is not genetically modified. It Is capable of producing 8-10 tons of dry matter per acre per growing season. Normal grass pastures may only produce 1-4 tons of dry matter per acre. Additionally, it is a high protein and high energy forage that helps cattle fatten more quickly. When managed properly, its roots can form a dense mat the help break up hard soils. In the summer of 2019 I planted about an acre of sorghum-Sudan grass with some cow peas and sunflowers. Initially, I put about 10 units of nitrogen per acre, a very low amount. It was a small test plot but the two cows that I was fattening performed really well on the cover crop. It was a learning process and I waited longer than I should have to graze it, but I saw amazing benefits for the quality of the cattle and the soil. It produced tons of organic matter to sequester carbon in the soil. In the summer of 2020 I planted three acres of a similar cover crop that included sorghum-Sudan grass. I used only five units of nitrogen per acre, reducing my nitrogen usage by half. I managed to get three good grazing periods on the cover crop before drought struck. The cows grazed each paddock to the ground in 3 days. In 3-4 weeks the sorghum-Sudan grass was ready to graze again. Next year, I do not plan on supplying any more nitrogen to the cover crop. A wonderful, but labor intensive way to improve the soil, is to dump leaves in the pasture. In the Fall of 2019, I put our pigs in a ¼ acre paddock in the pasture. I brought 6000-7000 bags of leaves into that paddock. The pigs rooted around in the leaves and ate the acorns, pecans, and other nuts out of the leaves. Then, in the spring I planted a forage brassica and a legume into the paddock after I moved the pigs. A year later, the soil is phenomenal. This is the most effective way I have discovered to improve soil quality quickly. However, it is labor and time consuming on a large scale.Three years ago we planted more clovers in our pastures which help convert nitrogen from the air into nitrogen that other plants can use. In the Fall of 2020 we ‘no till’ drilled a diverse cover crop of wheat, rye, a forage brassica, and legumes into even more of our pastures. These cover crops will sequester carbon in the soil, add organic matter, fix nitrogen, and offer a high quality forage for our livestock. In the Spring of 2021 we plan to plant sorghum Sudan grass on even more of our pastures to help improve the quality of the soils and regenerate the farm.  Many practices that create healthier animals also regenerate the soils. Rotating cows through different paddocks on the farm helps build soil, while improving animal health. Pastures tend to grow in three stages. In stage one their roots are forming and their growth is relatively slow while they are getting established. In stage two their above ground mass takes off and grows much faster. At the end of the second stage the growth slows down or plateaus to prepare for the final stage. In stage three the pasture plants begin to go to seed and they become less nutritious. The ideal time to graze a pasture or paddock is when the grass is in the final part of stage two, just before they go to seed. If the cows are moved to a new paddock before they graze it back to stage one, the grass grows back much more quickly. The pastures are more nutritious for the livestock and they can grow fast by putting more sequestering carbon into the soil, thus improving soil health. It is amazing to see how the farm is slowly regenerating on a small scale. Land that has been worn out and barely productive, even with costly inputs is slowly becoming more productive with fewer inputs. For me, this is the heart of farming. Discovering ways to work with nature, restore her to productivity and abundance is redemptive. It functions as a symbol of humanity at our best. We take the broken, the worn out, the hurting, and coax them back to life and abundance. It takes work, but that is who we are and what we do at our best. If you are interested in seeing the difference in the soil quality in our pastures, you can see our farm tour of our pastures here.