Pollinating a resilient county

It’s a long drive down a rutted road to the front lines of the pollinator wars.  We’re following Johnny Thompson’s beat-up truck to the high tech lab of Broke T Honey near Choctaw, Mississippi.  Broke T keeps honey bee hives buzzing across the country.  They sell queens and  nucleus colonies or nukes–which consist of a few thousand bees and a queen.  The business provide the key ingredients needed to combat the pollinator crisis. The US has been losing billions of bees every year to a mysterious malady called colony collapse.  In the year ending April 2016, 44% of all the nation’s bees died.  To combat the crisis, someone must provide the bees to replace those lost.  Broke T is doing that.  In addition, Johnny is helping new producers get started:  “Many of my customers are repeats who are dividing their hives in half or i thirds and need a queen for each of the additional hives. If I had time, I could easily sell 5000 queens a year.”


Johnny is a big man and tells us his story in a deep Mississippi hills accent. From his kitchen table, he describes his honey bee system and how it is part of a resilient farming system in Neshoba County.

Johnny got started in bees long before the pollinator decline. “I started raising bees in high school. Now with all publicity about bees dying out, everybody wants to be a beekeeper.  We sell a world of nukes.  We increase queen production every year and can’t produce enough. This year we sold close to 2000 queens.  Ship them all over the United States.”

“We raise queens in the spring. I buy breeder queens and put them in a hive. Queens are  bred and selected for certain trains like seed stock for cows. All workers bees are females and males are drones.” Their sole purpose is mating with the queen.

“To get queens we maintain cell builder hives.  These are strong hives which don’t have a queen.  When a queen lays an egg, it is female and the only difference between workers and the queen is what they are fed.  On the 4th day the egg hatches into a larva.  It’s about the size of 1/10 of grain of rice.  Just can see it with naked eye.

“I go into breeder queen hives and pull out frames and find one covered in eggs and young larvae just hatched out.  I have cups I put day old larvae in. These cups or queen cells are like thimbles and look like a peanut and textured like a peanut.  Normal cells in a hive where workers eggs are laid are horizontal.  Queen cells are turned vertical.  The cups with the larvae in are on a bar with 15 cups and a frame has 3 bars in it.  So 45 queens all together. Then I take them to a cell builder and put in the frame with 45 cups.  The cell builder bees want a queen.  They will feed those larvae and turn into queens.

“So I put bee larvae into these special queen cell cups that are affixed to bars. Then the bars are placed in frames and the frames are inserted into queen-less cell builders containing lots of worker bees.  Since the hive doesn’t have a queen, the nurse bees rush to feed the larvae a whole lot of royal jelly, a protein-rich secretion from their glands.  An excess of the royal jelly is needed to develop a queen.

“From the time the egg is laid to emergence is 16-17 days. At about 15 days I  put them in minihives which is a box with 3 frames.  A honey producing box has ten frames. These three frames are: a frame of honey, a frame of brood, and then I add a frame with with nothing in it but some worker bees and one queen cell.  In a day or two the queen chews her way out, flies out and mates flying in the air.  Then it comes back to the box and starts laying a couple days later.

“I come back 21 days later, find the queen, put it in a cage, add attendants, sell her.  Then the next day I put another queen cell in and in 21 days pull another queen out.  We do the cycle over and over  every 21 days.  We start the first week in march. First ones come off the last week of march.  Then I keep going till August. We don’t get a queen out of all of ’em.  Some fly out and get eaten by a bird or dragon fly.

“We ship queens in little cages: a queen and five attendants. You can see the queen–it’s the big one with a yellow dot on its back where I’ve marked her.  In a large box, I can ship 100 queens; in a smaller box, I get 30 in it.  This year I sold a couple of guys 100, but most of my orders are 10-15-25.  Sometimes I ship just one.  For small shipments, I use flat rate express mailing envelopes.  I get them free from the post office, poke holes around the edges.

“We can get them to most places overnight, but in the Southeast it takes 2 days. Everywhere else–east coast west coast–they come overnight.  Due to whether trucks or planes to meet 2 day guarantee.  I can get them to California overnight, but to Alabama it takes two days.  UPS makes me put it in a box and the smallest box I have is for 30 queens and costs me 6 bucks.  Express mail envelopes, I can ship for $24.  For a box the cost is $50 for shipping.  For some folks, it might be worth it for even just one queen if they’re going to lose a hive and they don’t have a local source for queens where they can drive down the road and pick one up.

“Nukes we don’t ship. We used to build the containers for nukes ourselves; now we buy them. We buy sheets of corrugated plastic like the politicians make signs out of.  It’s really tough plastic. We pay 8 bucks a piece for the plastic. It’s a sheet 4 foot square, stamped and cut so when fold up it’s a box 8 inches wide, 20 inches longm 10 inches high with perforated lid–all from one piece of plastic. When people come to get them, I close the perforated door, set it in their truck and they take it home. In these packages we have a queen and about 3 lbs of worker bees that people can dump in hive and start hive that way. Can’t ship nukes.  Some are trying it, but I don’t.

Johnny’s one of the few people in the country who provide queen bees.  “Four guys in Mississippi raise and sell queens.  We’re all small scale.  Most of queens produced in US are produced in South Georgia and California.  There are several big producers in California and two or three produce 100s of thousands a year.  Some produce 2000 a day.  There are a couple of those in Georgia and about  6 in California.

The queen bees are just one part of his operation.  Like any resilient farmer, he has a diversity of enterprises.  The most directly related to queen production is honey. He has about 800 bee hives devoted to honey production.

“We keep growing our beekeeping operation.  Me and Daddy had a few bees when I was in high school.  When I left home he sold them. Daddy was a row crop producer and President of Farm Bureau. When he retired, I took over the cattle and chickens. Then, about 14 years ago, a neighbor had a swarm in his yard and we decided to go get them and starting raising bees again–partly as a retirement project for Daddy. Now we are up to 800 hives producing honey.  There are maybe 20 commercial beekeeping guys in the state.  Big enough they are making money at it.  It’s not something that a lot of people like.  When its hot outside, you gotta put a bee suit on, you get stung.  When they find out you keep bees, folks look at you like you’re crazy.  There’s pretty good money in it, though.”

“We produce raw honey, but raw honey has lots of definitions.  Some filter it and still call it raw.  Others say you can’t heat it and call it raw. Our honey still has pollen in it since we don’t filter it.  We do heat it to 120 degrees, but never over that.  We heat it so it will flow well over the baffles to get the honeycomb and junk out of the honey.  Most honey in the grocery store heated to 160 F and filtered.  High heat keeps it from crystallizing.  Any pollen, or anything for crystals to form on will make it crystallize quicker.  Ours will crystallize in 3 months; heated and filtered honey lasts for a year.  We just pick it up if it turns to sugar.  Then we set it in old fridge set up with light bulbs and a thermostat set at 100 F and it turns back to liquid honey and we take it back.

“Doctors say no scientific proof help with allergies, but we sell a lot.  Some folks begin eating a  t teaspoon a day and swear up and down that all their allergy problems went away.

“Bees feed on whatever pollen is available: clover in spring, blackberry bushes.  We put 48 hives to a yard.  Bees fly up to 3 miles in all directions, you never know what they are getting.  Certain times of year you know.  Henbit is first, clover blooms early.  Privet hedge in late april.  Fence rows covered in it.  When it blooms if 10 days of sunshine, they will pack in the honey.  Once privet is over, not a lot blooming in these hills.  Some near pearl river swamp and make through summer.  Load up first of June and move over to Delta on soybeans.  We give owner a case of honey for each yard we put in.  Just picked up first one from there this week.

“Watermelon producers will pay a little to get hives brought in.  Almond producers in CA pay a lot early in the year, then apple orchards, blueberries, cranberries pay a little bit. The fruit in Florida needs bees, but so many want citrus honey that they don’t pay you to bring down bees.

“There are lots of specialty honeys. Tupelo honey comes out of Georgia on the Florida panhandle.  I can make tupelo honey out of bees I put down in the Pearl River swamp, But the producers down there have a lock on the Tupelo specialty honey. People think it has to come from Georgia.

Sourwood honey comes from the Carolina mountains.  Conditions have to be just right to get a lot of it.  It’s a real premium market.  A friend from Illinois brings bees down for winter and had me taste his honey made from basswood, a tree that grows up there, I took a bite and its the awfulest stuff.  Everything is local.

“In the Rockies, fireweed grows after they log a tract of timber.  The honey it produces is clear as water.  It’s really rare and guys that make it don’t market it very far away.

“I don’t make any specialty honeys.  Most grocery store honey, like Sue Bee honey, all will say they are clover honey.  Out west and up in the Dakotas they do have sweet clover–both red and white.  Before corn got so big, all the CRP land had good clover honey.  Down here all we have is a little white clover in the spring and red clover on side of road.  If dairy hay producers let their alfalfa bloom, you can get good honey, but they like to cut before it blooms.

“Soybean is a little lighter honey.  We blend all honey together.  When we first started, daddy tried to separate it.  Spring honeys is real light.  Fall honey is real dark. Most fall honey produces really strong flavor from goldenrod.  You either like it or you don’t.  So we keep fall honey separate.  We put just a little in with spring honey to darken it a little.  Most want it a little darker.  If it’s too light they think you’re trying to sell them corn syrup. So we mix and keep same color year round.

“This year we didn’t get much honey.  Just too much rain.  All over southeast.  Some spots in Wyoming and the Dakotas they didn’t get any honey because of drought.

Creating a complementary system. Like most resilient farmers, Johnny is diverse.  His bees are complemented by cattle and chickens. “Daddy and grandfather both had cows as far back as I know.  Me and daddy did raise purebred Charolais.  He had them in 70s and 80s.  Then we  went purebred for awhile.  There’s a pretty good market for bulls, but return on investment was just not good enough.  Labor and land input is so high.  Bulls you are trying to sell at 16 to 24 months old. That means  you have to hold them way longer than commercial calves sold at 6 months.  You have to have a place for all your bulls and replacement heifers.

“So we got out of purebred and went to all commercial.  By eliminating bulls, we went from 150 mama cows to 350 mama cows on the same amount of land.  Time wasn’t as much, though return per calf is not as much either.

“Now I run about 385 cows.  Two hundred mama cows I own.  Another 85 I have on shares with a neighbor.  He had dairy and shut down and was looking for something to do.  I supply cows and bulls, he provides hay and pasture and we split the calf crop.  That give me more time for bees.

“Here’s our system. We wean cows at 7-8 months.  They weigh 6-700 lbs.  Sometimes I overwinter weaned calves on planted ryegrass.  Last year the price was good in fall and looked like it was getting worse, so we sold em.  Those calves probably went to ryegrass for winter to get them up to 800-900 lbs and then to feedlots in Texas to get them up to 14-1500 lbs and then off to slaughterhouse.

“We used to fall calve  most of ours to take advantage of the peak calf prices in March, to May because most calve in spring.  Most calve in Feb Mar and sell Sept Oct Nov.  The problem with fall calving is you put bull in Dec 1 just when winter hits.  If you don’t have something good for a cow to eat, its hard to get her bred back.  We planted lots of ryegrass with chicken litter for fertilizer and its gets down a lot of time you have to invest in it.  If you have a dry fall and get no ryegrass or it’s late, then you have to buy feed. About 3 years ago we sold cows all the cows we had breeding in fall.

“We no till ryegrass for spring grazing  and it’s easier to put in the bull May 1 on good grass.  Calves not worth as much if really cheap will overwinter and sell next spring.  But though cheaper, got lot less in them, especially time.

“Cattle industry has been good the last few years.  Last year was down a bit, but historically its been really really high last few years.

“A lot of guys have 20 to 30 cows and have a job in town. Farming is just a hobby for them.  Not a lot of people that make a living from farming.  A lot of em are subsidizing their cattle business with a job in town.  It hurts the guys trying to make a living at it.  For them, its like a savings account.  If they need cash, they load up cows and take them to town.

What’s kept farming going in Neshoba county is chickens.  In 70s and 80s there was still some row crops in the county, now all its all cows and chickens.  Almost all cow guys got into chickens and got fertilizer from it.  Chickens kept them in the cow business.  Cattle wouldn’t be a fourth of what is now if hadn’t been for chicken industry. Ones without chicken houses have a full time job.

“Biggest problem about the chicken business is that after 30 years, your houses are worn out and obsolete.  Today it costs $1.5 million for a new 4 house farm, not including land.  You get a 20 year loan and have to shut down in 30 years.  Most businesses you run 30 years and you have something you can sell.  But these chicken houses, they are worthless.

“I shut four houses down that were built in the 70s.  I have another four built 21 years ago and I want to run another 10 years.  I can’t sell them because I don’t want to sell the land they’re setting on.

Policy and sustainability. Over last 10-25 years in Neshoba County there’s been a world of pine trees planted.  CRP or ARP was paying folks to plant pine trees.  That has taken three fourths of the cattle out of Neshoba County.  In the 80’s I’d go up to the auction on sale day sale and it would start at noon and not finish selling everything until 1 or 2 in the morning.  Now they start at noon and by 3 or 4 they are through.  It’s all went into pine trees.

“Government came along said we’ll rent your land, pay to plant trees, give payment every year for 10-15 years.  Ride down road and you’ll see a lot of fences that used to keep cattle in and now are just fencing in pine trees.  For example, I had a neighbor who spent his whole life cleaning up a farm and getting it into pasture and the day after the funeral, his kids set it all out in pine trees.  They lived up town, had jobs ad didn’t want to fool with the farm.

“Now you can’t give pine tree away.  When pines get to be 15 to 18 years old and need to be thinned, you can’t get anything for it.  You have to pay to get a logger to come in and thin.  Lot of mills won’t even take pine for pulp.  It’s another government program which put a lot of folks our of work.

“I don’t want to plant in pine trees. I’m making decent money off cows and the bees are doing good.”

Diversification.  “My older son wants to get out of cows and just do chickens and bees.  Its working 24 7 with all that and he wants to get out of cow business.  When honey is good, its good.  But this year honey is down and cows can take up the slack.  We have friends in South Dakota who do nothing but bees.  They run 10-12,000 hives.  In the fall they load up and haul the hives to East Texas for the winter.  They are maybe down to 6000 hives when they get to Texas but they build up over winter.  Then they split them and they are back up to 10-12000.  But they had a drought this year.  Where normally they make 100 plus lbs of honey per hive, this year they’ll make 20 lbs per hive.  That won’t cover expenses, much less leave anything for salary.  With cows, chickens and honey odds are they won’t all do bad.

Redundancy.  “My oldest son couldn’t wait to get away from here.  All his friends at school didn’t do nothing.  We work around here.  My kids had to be at houe working.  He joined air force.  After 6 months in Afghanistan, year In Korea, year in Nevada.  He swapped to Guard after 4.5 years.  Got 3 kids now and thinks Neshoba County is a pretty good place to live.

“My youngest has been in college 3 years.  He’s fixing to join Air Guard and let them pay for his school since he didn’t want to show grades to his dad.  I was tired of paying for him to figure out what he wanted to do.  He’s working this summer for me until he goes to basic and tech school.  Started out wanted to be engineer.Then he did an internship designing big forklifts in Louisville, Mississippi, and didn’t like setting in a cubicle on computer all day.  After that he decided he didn’t want to be an engineer.  He likes being outdoors but who knows if he’ll come back.

“Most of the farmers in the county are getting old and has no one to take their farm over.  My neighbor had 2 daughters and nobody to take over his operation.  Another guy near here used to run a lot of cows and had chickens and chicken litter but also had 2 daughters.  One grandson has some interest, but he’s already sold his cows and shut down chicken houses.

“Most younger kids don’t want to work 24 7.  We do take vacations but to make it you can’t work 9-5 and take off weekends.  Very few of folks I know has someone to take over.  I know every generation you hear the same thing, but I think its getting worse.

‘It’s different for the big row crops guys in Delta most farming 10-15-20 000 acres.  They are managers. They don’t do any of the field work.  They have consultants.  With honey I work with one, an entomologist who spends his summer scouting fields looking for insects.  When he finds a high level in a field, he tells the farmer that such and such a field needs to be sprayed with this chemical and then owner calls in a spray pilot.  Most have a manager who handles people.  Owner spends more time marketing, figuring out what he needs to plant, working with his accountant, banker, marketing firm, and consultants.  So it’s more a 9-5 job.  Some more kids are staying in over there.  Sometimes you see a kid here who just has the bug, likes to work with cows, but not often.

Connectivity, social capital and Neshoba County Fair. Johnny’s family has been involved with the fair since its earliest days.  The original Thompson cabin in number 90 not too far off founders’ square.  “Daddy helped build it when he was a teenager around 1955 to 60.  When built, there were outhouses around.  Eventually the fair association put in a septic system and got commodes. As far back as I remember our cabin had running water but I can remember when we put in the hot water heater.  Bathroom was build on the back later.  When we put on the bathroom it had a 60 gallon tank on the roof. Water sat there all day and got lukewarm, so at least is not a cold shower.

“Daddy has 3 brothers and 4 sisters.  The cabin had two floors. Upstairs was two rooms full of beds.  Downstairs one big room.  Daddy and his sister’s family, got in back bedroom and built platform, with mattresses on bottom, full size bunk beds.  My parents on one, aunt and her husband on other. Two couples in each and kids on bottom.  A lot of cabins still are that way.

“Then the fair association was letting more cabins be built.  So daddy and his sister got cabins across from each other and their brother got another.  These were built in 1980.  Even then there was no AC.  We left top 16 inches open for ventilation.  We built ours with AC upstairs for sleeping.  We had a sawmill for boards, pulled commode etc out of old houses. The only things we bought were naisl and tin for the roof.    Daddy didn’t spend $2000 building it in 1980.  Now people are buying cabins like ours for $100,000.  People are paying $100,000 for cabin like that, tearing it down and building a new one. They’ll put down a concrete slab and spend $150,000 for new 3 story cabin.

“Now fair association isn’t going to let any more lots be opened up, so you have to buy an old one and if don’t like it tear it down and build a new ones.

“They turn electric on in mid-May and when fair over turn it off.  You don’t have title to land the cabin sits on.  You have lease for the lot your cabin sits on.  The original families were in Founders’ square with old pavilion where all speeches and bands are at night.  .  Horse races occur every night.  Beef cows come in Saturday night and Sunday, then show on Monday.  Dairy cows come in on Tuesday and are shown on Wednesday.  Petting zoos on weekends.

“Lots of people take week of vacation to come home for fair. Weather is two choices: hot and wet, hot and dry.  And may be both same day.  Dusty in the morning then rain and tromping in mud at night. The old Wiliams Brothers general store in the week leading up to the fair is the busiest all year by far, as everyone is buying up food for the fair.  The week of the fair, the population of county doubles.  It puts s strain on water and electric company.  Like establishing a medium sized town for that week. Lot of counties around have county fair, but basically carnival and cow show.

“People that wudn’t born and raised doing it aren’t as interested.  My wife’s family didn’t have a cabin and she still don’t care that much about it.  My boys love it.  My oldest son’s daughter was born first weekend of fair.  His wife was in labor at the fair.  His son came this year during fair.  Lot of their friends have cabins so wherever they happen to be is where they stay–our cabin or somebody else’s cabin.  Lot of people, look at it as one night and that’s enough.  When I was growing up we stayed almost every night, but have to get up and go bale hay or cut hay.  But if nothing had to be done, we stayed.  All my cousins and friends we there.  We hit midway, get on top porch and play cards, go to horse races, back to midway at night, then cards again.

“Originally it started just as a get together.  Everyone had a farm, crops laid by.  They had an in between time when haven’t started harvesting, kinda dead period. It was just a campground to start with.

“Most folks I know over there, their cabins are owned by the same families for 3-4 generations now.  Seldom does a new family come in.  Sometimes one is torn down and replaced, but by someone with connections to the community.

“It’s a community thing.  The ones who are new are ones who grew up here staying in someone else’s cabin and now want to come back and need a cabin to do it, so come back and buy one.

Infrastructure and resilience.  In surrounding counties, a few families or companies own nearly all the land.  Neshoba is still a county of small farms.  “Owen Birches had a trucking company, made a lot of money, and bought land back when it was cheap. For years he had cattle, running a couple thousand mama cows. But as he older, he slowed down and finally set it all out in pine trees.  All his land has been in timber now for 15-20 years. That family’s by far the biggest landowner in the county.  No one is even close to them.  Lot of guys with several hundred acres, but no really big operations.  Kemper, on the other hand, is a timber county owned by big timber companies.

“Kemper county has no chicken houses.  I’ts got few areas where there are any cattle or anything.  Just not many farmers up there.  Nothing to do.  There has to be infrastructure to keep everything else going along with it.  Neshoba has partly gone that way, more and more timber and less open land, but in Kemper there’s nothing but timber. Well, they do have a few chicken houses, but hardly any.

“Do need a llittle open land to farm, even for chickens, but not for the litter anymore. Now a world of litter is trucked off of here.  Used to be when built a house, all the litter stayed here.  People would even give it to you just to get rid of it. Today, a couple guys make a living cleaning out chicken houses and trucking it to grain farms in the Delta even big cattle farms in other counties.  So you don’t need land to put litter on as much.”

Still a lot of farmers in Neshoba County.  Chicken industry has kept more farmer going in Neshoba county than anything else. That and cows took place of job in town. Wife still going to town so they can have insurance.

Lee Leake County comparable to Neshoba County.  Good many folks with cows, lot of chicken houses,  Scott Co comparable.  Newton a little bit.  Kemper never had faming anyway so nothing to save there.  Winston Co too far away to have chickesn.  Chicken business is regional.  Neshoba, Leake and Scott, esp Scott.

Without chickens, cattle guys would have quit a long time ago.

Kosiusko still milk plant, plant in Newton shut down.  Don’t have dairies don’t have milk for prcessing plant.  Once processing plant shut down have to truck way off, puts at cost advantage so they have to shut down.  Cotton gins and cotton farmers.  Used to be cotton gins in every county.  The modules so some shut down, then cotton cheap and corn high and gins left went out of business.  Now having to truck cotton 150-200 miles to find a gin.

Dependency hypothesis.  Johnny provides more depth to the discussion of the effect of high paying jobs on the resilience of the farming community.  He contends that in Neshoba County, people took the jobs in town but never lost touch with their farming roots. “Compared to surrounding counties, Neshoba has had some of the better paying jobs.  Lost most of them.  40 years ago, Philadelphia full of factories.  Wells-Lamont made gloves. Grandmother worked there all her life. They had several hundred people there. Running sewing machines, not high paying, but good and steady.  Lot of folks worked their whole life there and retired from there. Newmanco sewed pants and shirts.    US Motors and  Emerson Electric built motors.  Good jobs.  High paying jobs disappeared 15 years ago.  A lot of industry has left. A lot of people now that were working in Philadelphia may be driving to Canton to work for Nissan.  Most of the manufacturing jobs have left. Philadelphia is struggling to find factories to come in.  The county spent $1 million refurbishing a building and then the company never showed up.

“At one time we had 3 sawmills in town.  Now we’re down to one sawmill and it don’t employ a third of what it used to due to automation. We had a battery plant.

“Almost everyone got up in the morning and went to town to work. Most who had a good job also had cows at home. At both of those motor places.  When I was growing up everybody had some cows.  Even though they may have only had 40 or 80 acres.

“Back then, if a cow got out, someone would call you and help you put it back in.  Now I’m the only one left out here and if cow gets out and knocks over a flower pot, they’ll send me a bill.     I paid for two swimming pools in last 10 years. There were in ground pools, but had a heavy rubber liner.  Cow all in, swim to the shallow end and knock a hole in liner. In town they have to fence their pools, I guess not out here. One of my pet peeves is people who move to the country for country life but don’t want smells, cows, or dust.  They want it to be like living in city.  It’s getting harder and harder to keep doing it.

“Most folks don’t really care whether steak comes from US or Canada or wherever, they just want it good and cheap.”

We hate to end on a down note, but we’ve been talking to Johnny for two hours. We can tell he is antsy. We thank him for his time, saying we don’t want to keep him from his work.  He mentions the next projects he’ll be working on. He and his son see us out and we head back down the long rutted drive way.

We drive past plenty of excellent pollinator habitat with dozens of flowering plants, past his older son’s house where his grandchildren live. Healthy children, overgrown fence rows and honey bees are safe from chemical pesticides here. Johnny’s resilient farm is an oasis for pollinating bees.  Just as Neshoba County is an oasis of resilient small farms.

Johnny’s oasis is a beach head in the pollinator wars. Neshoba may be a beach head in the fight for resilience of agriculture in the South.


Trees and pasture: the Neshoba way to calm down the climate

Resilient farmers don’t care how many degrees you have. They know that highly educated people often get lost in theories and concepts which are divorced from reality. Stuck on a college campus or in a lab, researchers can come up with some pretty useless ideas.  Impractical researchers or government agents pushing a new theory are humored but mostly ignored. Most farmers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, have never heard of carbon sequestration or climate smart agriculture.  Yet they have done more than most to pull carbon out of the air and combat climate change.


How have they done it? They switched from row crops to pasture and trees.  Fifty years ago, Neshoba had three cotton gins and most of the county was planted in row crops.  The soil was being mined for nutrients and losing organic matter.  Today their are no row crops in the county.  Nearly all land in Neshoba County is in grasslands or forest.  Forests pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in roots and wood. Properly managed grasslands can have higher levels of carbon in the soil than even forests. Combining grasslands and woodlands, known as silvopasture, is the best way to remove carbon from the air and increase soil fertility.

Temperate ecosystems with enough rain are naturally combinations of grasslands and woods.  Trees gradually take over pastures until they trees get mature and produce enough tinder to support a fire which thins out the trees to create pasture again. It’s the adaptive cycle of all nature: a fast growing r phase, followed by a slow growing “climax” community or K phase, the the release or omega phase exemplified by fire, and then the alpha or reorganization phase where a new system, better adapted that its parent, begins.

All living systems are open, so Neshoba county farmers were partially reacting to external stimuli when they moved to pasture and trees.  Mechanical cotton pickers and lack of labor put small cotton farmers out of business.  Pine trees were bringing lots of money and little need for labor.  The flatter ground of other counties made row crops easier and cheaper to grow elsewhere  So row crops disappeared and trees took over.

Lately the price of pine logs has dropped so much that most farmers aren’t replanting pine.  They are planting hardwoods or converting their land to pasture and increasing their beef herds.  Some are increasing vegetable, milk and meat production for local markets. But they aren’t going back to row crops.

Row crops spew greenhouse gases from their smoking tractors and  methane and nitrous oxide from fields.  Pastures and forest pull in those gases and clean up our atmosphere.

The farmers of Neshoba County may not know a lot about greenhouse gases and carbon sequestration, but they are countering the impact of modern industrial agriculture.

Trees and pasture are the Neshoba way to permaculture and food production which doesn’t destroy our atmosphere.


More details on permaculture and climate click on the following links:

Embracing chaos and disruption to refine permaculture 

Cattle and forestry: silvopasture 

Cattle, buffalo, antelope can improve ecosystems and help fix carbon 

Shiva, rebirth, resilience

Where everyone knows your name

Do you share tools and work with your neighbors? Do you even know them? Resilient people and resilient communities do.  Really resilient communities are even more connected.  Many, if not most, community members grew up there.  They know each others’ parents. They know most of the families in their community.  A cohesive and supportive community is characteristic of resilient systems. This is true whether the system is natural or man-made, small or large.  In human communities, this quality is called bonding social capital. We recently visited a county in Mississippi which ranks high on resilience and bonding social capital.  To illustrate, here are some of the statements made by members of this community:

neshoba county fair

“I grew up in a neighboring county and I loved my home town, but there weren’t generations and generations that just stayed and stayed and stayed.  Of all my friends growing up, only one stayed.  Here is grandfathers, great grandfathers and uncles and aunts and everybody’s just still here.

“You can call a store downtown and they’ll pick out a gift for you and you just say charge it to me and they’ll just charge it.

“We have a lot of people who come back to Philadelphia. My husband has a group of friends that graduated from the local school together.  Eighty to ninety per cent came back.”

Many rural areas see their children leave for cities and not come back. Not Neshoba county.

“My children both came back. Why? They just love Neshoba County.

“People want to be around family; they don’t want to go off and not come back.

“We have businesses which have been here for years and years.  Williams Brothers for over 100 years, our furniture store has been here for 65 years. The drug store on square for almost that long.  Local people support local businesses. Generations of families have owned the same business.”

Neshoba County has a nationally known county fair known as Mississippi’s House party.  Extended families have built cabins at the fair site and take their vacations there.

“Neshoba County Fair is definitely a result and a testament to the longevity of family and friends.

“We’re different from other counties.  The Fair helps us stay connected and you want to pass it down to your children and your children’s children.

“My daughter moved to Connecticut as a nanny and was never coming back to Philadelphia, never working in the store. Now she’s back here, both children, husband and mother all working at the store.

“We have a lot of churches here, the community is really faith-based.  Faith and family.

“In other counties, people didn’t adapt to change. When one big industry shut down here, people were resilient and wanted to stay here.  If you get the mindset you’re gonna make it and gonna stay here and you’ll adapt and do other things.  If you have that desire to stay, you’ll find a way.

“If you can’t find a job in Neshoba County, you might live somewhere else for a while, but you’ll come back.  Your family might even stay here while you work somewhere else until you save enough to come back full-time.”

“My husband was from Neshoba County and he warned me Neshoba County will be different.  I didn’t believe it.  I thought it would be same as other counties.  Neshoba County is the same way it was 200 years ago.  Nothing has changed.  Nothing.

“When people meet you the first thing they say is, Now, who’s your mother? Who’s your family?”

“You can live here forever, but if your family wasn’t from here, you will never be from here.  They’ll always ask who are your kinfolk?  Who do you belong to?

“I’ve been here 24 years.  My last name is Lilley, but I can’t get it through that I’m not a Lillis.  There are a bunch of Lillises around here.  I got tired of it and just say: I’m from the Lillises up in the North part of the county.  Then they say: Oh yeah I knew them, now which one was your daddy?

“I started having fun with it. I started saying I’m a Harvey. They’d say never known any Harvey’s in Neshoba County.  I say there was one.  My husband’s mother married a Harvey.  He stayed long enough to conceive my husband.

“If you’re from the North, you’re still a Yankee.  A Yankee is one who comes from up North but comes and goes. Damn Yankee is a Yankee who comes and stays.”

The people who move to and contribute to Neshoba County are gradually accepted, though never seen as really from Neshoba County.  Yet, all the newcomers we talked to said they loved it and would never leave.  Some of their children have even moved to the county.

You can find all sorts of definitions of social capital in the sociology literature, but the above statements capture it best.  For most of our species’ history, we have lived in communities where we knew each other and each other’s families.  Communities high in resilience still have those strong bonds between local people.

Such bonds are not the only necessary quality for resilience. Resilient communities build on these ties to create local processing and marketing.  They innovate while maintaining their traditions. They accumulate resources and infrastructure and complementary diversity. They are capable of transformation when needed.  And they are integrated with their native ecological systems.

Nonetheless, the foundation for all of these qualities is the bonding and trust that community members have for each other. Maintained over generations, it all begins with a desire to work together with your neighbors.

Indigenous people and resilience: the Choctaw of Mississippi

Floods hit most of us sooner or later. How did American Indians survive such disasters without our technology?  Before man decided to build permanent structures in flood-prone areas, people were far more resilient.  They just picked up all they owned and moved to higher ground until the waters receded.

choctaw stickball

More and more divorced from Nature, the response of many to a natural disaster is to rebuild what they had before.  The Mennonite disaster response teams are excellent at swooping in to rebuild houses and get people’s lives back to normal quickly.  They have come several times to rebuild houses after floods in the Yukon River valley in Alaska.  But rebuilding in a flood plain only recreates the process which leads to disaster.

American Indians and other indigenous peoples were more in tune with nature and its rhythms. Natural systems are almost always more resilient than man-made systems.  Are today’s systems created by indigenous peoples more resilient than others created by man?

Our sustainability/resilience index revealed that one Mississippi county stood out as more resilient than surrounding counties: Neshoba County.  Neshoba is unique in many ways, one of which is that it is the ancestral home of the Choctaw nation.  So we set out to answer the question: how do the Choctaw contribute to the resilience of food and agriculture systems in Neshoba County?

American Indians were divided into two types, hunters and farming tribes.  Along with all the tribes in the Southeast were, the Choctaw were farming people.  Along with the Cherokee, the Chickasaw and the Creek, all tribes in the Southeastern US were farming tribes. The farming tribes predominated across America when Europeans first arrived, but not for long. Horses escaped from the first Spanish explorers and the hunting tribes quickly realized their value.  The tribes who adopted horses, such as the Sioux or Dakota, were better able to hunt buffalo and defeat other tribes. As American Indians had since they arrived from Asia, the stronger tribes defeated the weaker and took over their territory.

The Lakota and other hunting tribes expanded from their ancestral lands in western Dakotas into Minnesota, displacing Ojibwe or Chippewa.  But the Ojibwe had become friends with the French traders and one-upped the Lakota. They got guns from the traders and learned how to use them. They drove the Sioux from the most of Minnesota and forced the Fox out of northern Wisconsin.

The Dakotas later got guns just in time to confront the US Army. During the late 1800s, the army was charged with pushing Indians away from any area the European settlers wanted.  Some of the Dakota fled to Canada to avoid the slaughter.  It didn’t work.  The army followed and kidnapped their leaders (including their chief Shakpe or Shakopee) and brought them back to Minnesota to be hung.

Small groups of Dakota survived on a few acres here and there in Minnesota.  Eventually, the U.S. government purchased small reservations for them—one at a town they’d named after their former leader Shakopee, just west of the Twin Cities.  The small tribe limped along in poverty until they discovered how to capitalize on the love of gambling by some white people and the prohibition of it by others. Since Indian reservations set their own laws, the Shakopee Dakota established a casino.  Through gambling revenues and subsequent investments the Shakopee have become the richest American Indians in the nation, thanks to $1 million annual payouts ($84,000 a month) to each adult member of the tribe.  The band named after a chief who was a victim of American greed is now rich because of a related flaw in the American psyche: casino gambling.

The Mississippi Choctaw have also benefited from the whites’ love/hate of gambling, though following a bit less violent history. In 1830, the United States passed the Indian Removal Act which was intended to remove all Indians from the eastern portion of the United States and to relocate them on reservations west of the Mississippi River. Of particular concern to the Americans were the Indians from the Southern states. Peaceful tribes such as the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw were required to leave the lands which they had been farming and improving for thousands of years, travel to what is now Oklahoma, and start over with unimproved lands.

Oil was discovered on Choctaw lands in Oklahoma and today Oklahoma’s Choctaw Nation maintains a workforce of more than 6,000 and a payroll approaching $300 million. The Oklahoma Choctaw have seven casinos, a manufacturing business, a management services company, 13 travel plazas, 12 smoke shops, a printing company and a document-archiving company.

Some of the Choctaw in Mississippi retreated into the woods and didn’t move to Oklahoma.  This group has lands scattered in three counties of Mississippi, but mostly in Neshoba County. The tribe is the largest employer in Neshoba County.

You can’t miss the Choctaw lands if you are travelling from the west into Philadelphia, Mississippi. You’ll see signs for the Choctaw’s water park and then their Dancing Rabbit Inn and golf courses.  You’ll really know you’re there when you see twenty stories in the air a huge golden globe atop the Pearl River Casino which straddles the highway.

We stayed at the Dancing Rabbit, but we weren’t interested in the casino.  We want to know about Choctaw agriculture.  Our first stop was the Choctaw cultural center where we learned that the Choctaw had virtually abandoned agriculture and many of their traditional skills, but were trying to bring them back.

The person in charge of this revival is Gilbert Thompson.  From the moment we entered his office,  Mr. Thompson immediately made us feel at home and was very open and free with information.  We took us on a tour of main site of their facilities. He introduced us to several of his fellow Choctaw working on six different Choctaw programs involving agriculture.

The oldest is the Farmers Market.  This program began in 1995 and is supported partially by tribal dollars to insure fresh vegetables are available to tribe members.  The tribe put in $50,000 last year which is a slight increase over the $45,000 which has been the usual yearly subsidy.  The program is also supported by vouchers for young families (WIC–women, infant and children, the handicapped and the elderly).  The market also receives some cash from people without vouchers and those who choose to buy more than the value of their vouchers.

The market buys produce directly from farmers who are certified by WIC.  Twenty-eight famers are certified to supply the market. Among the growers are D D Rushing, Jerry Wilson, Bruce Terrell and Harvin Hudson.  Vendors can be Choctaw or outside the tribe.

When customers come into the market, they register and are approved by representatives of the various voucher programs and then choose what produce they want. Black eyes peas are 51% of sales and watermelons are big sellers.  Tomatoes are 12%. Other products were squash, peppers, eggplants and irish potatoes. Frozen tomatoes and 9 lb bags of shelled peas are also available to maintain the freshness.

A mobile market takes fresh produce to 8 out-lying Choctaw communities.

The market facility was also designed to contain a cafe, but the nearby Choctaw shopping center had eating options.  The kitchen is now sometimes used for cooking demonstrations by the extension agents.

Vocational Rehabilitation.  This is a facility for people who previously could not maintain employment.  The goal is to help them re-enter the workforce. Four greenhouses up the hill from the farmers market are used by the participants to grow flowers for the casino and tribal offices.  All flowers for the resort and golf course also come from these greenhouses.  Three years ago blueberries bushes were planted just north of the greenhouses, but they are not yet being harvested.

Youth offenders.  The tribal Justice Center has gardens for incarcerated youth which provides an opportunity for youth to get outside and also interact with elders. This project was funded for three years and though it was successful it is no longer being funded. The garden is still being maintained by the incarcerated people.

Choctaw High School has a greenhouse and raised beds as part of an occupational training center. They produce vegetables for a restaurant run by the school.  The high school produces mums for mothers day, ferns and roses.  The program is especially geared to students who have difficulty with academic school work.

The tribe prepares land for 200 family gardens.  This includes bush hogging, plowing, disking and cultivating.  The largest is two acres.  These families are encouraged to become vendors for the farmers market after being WIC certified.

Diabetes program. Working with the health center, the program supplies education and fresh produce to individuals who are at risk of being diabetic. These individuals will get vouchers and take courses in vegetable preparation.

All of these projects are supported by the tribe and the Federal Government to improve the health of Choctaw families.  None of these five projects is intended to be self-supporting. Recently the Choctaw have established a sixth project which is intended to become an independent, for profit entity, Choctaw Fresh Produce. This is the project which we focused on in more detail since resilient systems must be self-supporting, by definition.  If their resilience requires outside subsidy, then a system’s resilience cannot be independently measured.

Choctaw Fresh Produce.  This for-profit business started almost five years ago through a grant and is still partially grant supported. The program was begun and directed by Dick Hoy until his untimely death last Christmas.  After his death his field coordinators Daphne Snow and David Weatherford took over with Daphne becoming General Manager. We talked to David on the hillside overlooking the two largest Choctaw Fresh Produce hoop houses.  OFP has 18 high tunnels in 5 communities. The biggest are 30 by 144; the rest are 30 by 96.  We later saw project hoop houses in Tucker and Bogue Chitto communities.

The goal of the project is to create a profitable business which provide jobs by getting fresh produce back into the Choctaw community and Mississippi more broadly. David says, “There is no fresh produce available around here.  You don’t buy it at Wal-Mart you do without.”

Much of their sales is to the casino and the casino’s hotels. A good portion of their sales is for the Associates Dining Room, where meals are provided for casino and hotel employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  In the first years, CFP operated a CSA.  That was good for up front money with twenty-five members in Choctaw and 175 in Jackson—each paying $300 per year.  The CSA has been put on hold because the wholesale sales were more profitable and less work.  The CSA needs 15-20 items to insure the each member has a full and varied basket every week.  The intention is to bring the CSA back—probably next spring.

They have sold to Whole Foods in Jackson but encountered a few problems.  “They are so big and require so many forms. Rainbow Coop in Jackson buy a lot, every week.”  They also sell indirectly to restaurants in Jackson who have organized their own farm to grow produce for them and others.  They have a warehouse in Union on southern border of Neshoba County. Called Up End Farm, they are also known as a food hub. CFP sold 200 lbs of eggplant to them a few weeks ago and has also sold them cucumbers.

CFP is presently working to get GAP certification, so they can participate in the Mississippi farm to school program and other large buyers. CFP already has an order with the MS Department of Agriculture for farm to school.  They want cherry tomatoes in September. “Nobody else wanted it so passed on to us.” CFP produces “tomato berries which are shaped like strawberries, but have a good tomato taste. They are much like cherry tomatoes.  We hope to get the Ag Department to replace cherry tomatoes with our berries for farm to school.

David is also meeting with Choctaw food director to get produce into local schools.  They can buy without GAP certification.  “We meet all safety regulations.”

Recently, CFP has set up a kiosk where food is sold on the honor system to employees at the casino.  This spring they sold eggplants, onion, cucumbers and tomato berries at the kiosk. The equipment is minimal: a mailbox for the money, signs and a rack of produce.  They sold $1000 every two days.  CFP had to devote one guy to manage it.  He started at 8 am Monday morning. He’d collect money, inventory produce, go back to CFP to get what he needed to replenish it and had to do that three times a day 5 days a week.  The market is the 3000 employees of the hotel and casino.  CFP plants to continue that kiosk this year and expand to the hospital, the tribal office, the school and add two kiosks at casinos.

Other changes in the works focus on the outlying communities. Producing in 5 communities has become a logistics nightmare. In the original plan, local residents would be trained and manage each one of the local sites with assistants from staff living close to the sites. Manager Dick Hoy lived 10 to 15 min from the County Line site where there are 7 hoop houses.  He was going to take care of that greenhouse including a lot of transplant production. The void after his death and the 1.5 hours a day travel of staff to that site has led to the decision to move the seven houses down to the main location so Daphne and David can manage them more easily. The hoop houses in the remaining three communities, Bogue Chitto, Tucker, and Connehata (each has three) will no longer be used for CFP sales but be turned over to the local schools and community and for U pick. The plan is for local residents to pick butter beans, peas, squash, etc.. Initially CFP will still organize the production with the goal of eventually turning everything over to the communities.

CFP at present has eight employees.  In addition to Daphne and David who are not Choctaw, there are six full time employees who are Choctaw from the communities of Pearl River, Tucker, Red Water, and Bogue Chitto.  Three of these are on a 90 day trial.  At the end of that time, they will either be hired, or others will take their places. David and Daphne run CFP. David does marketing. Daphne organizes everything in planting and greenhouses. David makes sure the workers go where they should go.  He takes care of boxing, packaging, pre-sales and delivery.

In addition to cucumbers, tomatoes and green onions, CFP grows “the prettiest romaine lettuce. We had trouble selling it initially. Now the resort is our biggest buyer of romaine. They bought 4000 heads in 2 month period. We’ll be growing basil as a companion crop for tomatoes this year.  We have strawberries in Conehatta as a trial.  Got hot this spring when they were trying to produce.  The few we had sold great though.  We put pint of half strawberries, half blueberries and they’d be bought as soon as we set them down in the kiosk.

CFP has found “certified organic is hard. Often the only want to get rid of pests is to pick them off by hand.  We do apply some organic pesticides, but at $500 for a little bottle, its expensive.  It’s been a struggle.  I hope Mississippi will grasp the organic side of it like in other states.  We’re just behind here.  It’s just getting word out.  What’s good for you.  Where does your produce come from. Even I didn’t realize until I came to work here that the average produce comes from 1500 miles away.  It’s lost so much nutrition.  With our produce, we pick Monday, ship it Monday or Tuesday and it’s on your table same day.

“We have looked into value-added products.  We looked into salsa, but labor is a problem. Find someone with knowledge and desire to work.  We are looking into packing cause some buyers want produce in bags.  But that means hiring new person and buying new equipment.  How long will it take to make profit?  Where we pack has a kitchen where chefs get trained, so we do have the basic facilities.”

Other changes this year include putting in “raised beds at Bogue Chitto because the soil is so bad.  We’re taking good black soil from County Line and putting it between concrete blocks in Bogue Chitto.   Here we use compost that we get from Decker Dirt in Brooksville.  It’s certified organic compost.  It’s 40 yards for $600 but it’s the best black good soil.

“We don’t do compost ourselves due to disease.  When we pull plants we take them to dump off our property, never till into soil or put in compost pile.  It takes so long for diseased plants to decompose. At some point we might do compost, but not right now.

Resilience and today’s indigenous peoples?  Today’s Choctaw have learned how to survive and thrive in modern America. They now provide jobs for non-Choctaw to produce fresh produce for them and run their casinos, hotels and golf courses.  They are surviving and growing—certainly characteristics of resilient systems. They have found their niche in the American system. As long as American policies toward gambling and Indian affairs continue, the Choctaw will continue to survive and grow. However, the traditional skills of the Choctaw in pottery, drum-making, agriculture and even stick ball had almost died out before the casinos.  Choctaw leaders know their present success rests on changeable state and federal policy and that they must do more to develop the qualities of resilience in their people.


Related resilience blogs:

No disaster is natural. https://meadowcreekvalley.wordpress.com/2016/07/29/no-disaster-is-natural/

Who is indigenous? https://meadowcreekvalley.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/indigenous-megafauna-day/



Milk revolution: forward to the past

If you are lucky enough to live close to a traditional family dairy, you may be drinking real milk.  Most of us don’t.  Most Americans drink a white liquid which almost tastes like milk, It’s cheap, but it’s a pale substitute for the real thing. We drink it because we don’t have access to anything else and because its cheap.  Many immigrants to the US discover the same thing.  They can’t believe the low cost and abundance of our milk—until they develop digestive problems. Then they begin to believe American milk will make you sick. Some Americans believe all milk makes you sick–they call it lactose intolerance or milk allergies.

beason dairy

The problem is not milk, but industrial milk. All milk is not created equal.  In more and more parts of the country, people are realizing that. Many in Mississippi have tasted the difference when they tried the milk from Billy Ray Brown’s dairy in Oxford, Mississippi, or Beason Dairy near Philadelphia or Country Girl Creamery near the Gulf Coast. MIssissippi is a hot bed for the revival of traditional family dairies. All these local dairies milk traditional Jersey dairy cows. People swear by the taste and the lack of digestive problems.  The Resilience Project has been visiting resilient local dairies lately and we’ve learned a lot about why these local dairies can charge so much and sell more and more every year

Fifty years ago in the US, dairy families milked traditional milk cows: Jerseys and Guernseys.  Today, nearly all milk comes from Holsteins.  Holsteins produce larger quantities of milk per cow and less butterfat, so American and European industrial dairies like them. But the proteins in Holstein milk are different from the proteins in traditional dairy cows. Holstein milk is high in a protein called A1 which is much less prevalent in milk from Jersey, Guernsey, and most Asian and African cow breeds, where, instead, the A2 protein predominates.

“We’ve got a huge amount of observational evidence that a lot of people can digest the A2 but not the A1,” says Keith Woodford, a professor of farm management and agribusiness at New Zealand’s Lincoln University who wrote the 2007 book Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health, and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk. “More than 100 studies suggest links between the A1 protein and a whole range of health conditions”—everything from heart disease to diabetes to autism.

The difference between A1 and A2 proteins is subtle: they are different forms of beta-casein, which make up about 30 percent of the protein content in milk. The A2 variety of beta-casein mutated into the A1 version several thousand years ago in some European dairy herds. Two genes code for beta-casein, so modern cows can either be purely A2, A1/A2 hybrids, or purely A1. Milk from goats and humans contains only the A2 beta-casein, yet not everyone likes the flavor of goat milk.

When digested, A1 beta-casein (but not the A2 variety) releases beta-casomorphin7 (BCM7), an opioid with a structure similar to that of morphine.  Studies increasingly point to BCM7 as a troublemaker. Numerous recent tests, for example, have shown that blood from people with autism and schizophrenia contains higher-than-average amounts of BCM7. In a recent study, Richard Deth, a professor of pharmacology at Northeastern University in Boston showed in cell cultures that the presence of similarly high amounts of BCM7 in gut cells causes a chain reaction that creates a shortage of antioxidants in neural cells, a condition that other research has tied to autism.

One peer-reviewed study conducted at the National Dairy Research Institute in India, published in October in the European Journal of Nutrition, found that mice fed A1 beta-casein overproduced enzymes and immune regulators that other studies have linked to heart disease and autoimmune conditions such as eczema and asthma.

A 2011 study implicates BCM7 in sudden infant death syndrome: the blood serum of some infants that experienced a “near-miss SIDS” incident contained more BCM7 than of healthy infants the same age.

The traditional breeds differ in more than just this one protein. Guernsey and Jersey milk contains; 18% more protein, 20% more calcium and 25% more butterfat than average (butterfat level up to about 6.8% in Jerseys).  Jersey milk contains more Vitamins A and B1  than Holstein milk. In addition it has an extremely high concentration of B2 (riboflavin).

Jerseys provides the most nutrition per given unit of volume. If a person were consuming Holstein low fat milk, 9.64 ounces would need to be consumed in order to receive the same amount of nutrition from consuming 8 ounces of Jersey milk.

Earlier this month we visited Shelby Beason and his family dairy near Philadelphia, Mississippi and learned why farmers are starting traditional dairies and why Americans are rediscovering the taste and nutrition of traditional milk.

Shelby always wanted to farm when he was growing up.  He showed Jersey cows at his county fair and worked on his cousin’s dairy farm but started farming with beef cows and baling hay for his neighbors. Eventually he was able to quit his job in town with 200 beef cows and baling and selling a bunch of hay.  He says, “I got the idea for this dairy when I read an article about Billy Ray Brown up in Oxford.  A light just went on and I knew that was something I could do. Then we went to visit Country Girls creamery down in Wiggins after they started up.  We visited with them a few times and finally decided to sell most of my beef cows to get the dairy started.”

“Country Girl does value-added butter, ice cream, cheese.  But we don’t usually have extra milk. We stay behind more than ahead on milk. August is the time when it drops off.  This week’s rainy, cooler weather helps keep milk production up.  But didn’t help me in hay field.  Knocked me out of a day’s work. I’ve got a 100 acres of hay down right now.

That’s important, Shelby says, because you gotta manage grass before you can manage cows. This year has been really wet. I just got over all my hay ground one time.  Some of hill ground I’ve cut twice.  Normally in dry year we’ll get three cuttings on low ground and two on hills. This year will be reverse.  Low places we were so late getting in.

“I have fed alfalfa when I’m short on hay.  My main forage for lactating cows is ryegrass baleage. I put up a lot of ryegrass baleage. I tube wrap it. Alfalfa is pretty expensive when I have to buy it.  We give them a little grain at milking. Other than that all forage.

“Being here in Neshoba County, I use lot of poultry litter from local poultry houses. All my P and K come from poultry. In winter I add some N with urea. In summer, I used to add N with ammonia nitrate, though now cut out now due to druggies using it.  Today we have to use ammonia sulfate and similar products.  I have to buy a lot of nitrogen.

“Some folks don’t like litter because they think it causes weeds, but it doesn’t; it just causes them to grow.  I use Graze-on to keep the weeds down.  I like clover with ryegrass so I don’t like to use a lot of Graze-on. Graze-on gets all broadleaves including clover.

“We don’t sell raw milk.  You can’t in Mississippi.  But my dad was raised on raw milk and says he can’t tell difference in taste between my milk and raw milk.  Maybe its because we only pasteurize it at low temperature rather than the high temperature industrial dairies use.

“A lot of our business is restaurants–50% of our production.  I’ve got a guy delivers 5 days a week.  We don’t do any farmers markets.  We are in Whole Foods in Jackson.  We got with them when they started that store up three years ago.  We knew they were building and got in with them when they opened up.  That’s the only corporate type place we’re in.  All others are family owned.  Whole Foods requires proof of insurance twice a year.  No one else even asked for it.

“Our product is more expenstive. Many folks just want gallon of milk  But we’ve got a better product.  Some places don’t sell a lot of milk, but they want our milk because customers come in and buy our milk and buy a loaf of bread and other stuff so it’s to their advantage.

“We tried to talk to dairy specialists at Mississippi State, but they were not any help. All of our information came from Billy Ray and Country Girl.  MSU does have a new dairy specialist who came from Kentucky.  She’s interested.  She put on a workshop a while back for others interested in what we’re doing.

Cheap industrial milk put a lot of people out of business in Shelby’s area. “We used to have 85 dairies in Neshoba County.  Now there are only about 85 dairies left in whole state. A lot of them went out in 80s and 90s.  I remember them leaving in 90s and early 2000s.  I watched at least a dozen or 15 went out.  Newton county to the south, they’ve lost a lot in the last 4-5 years and down to one now.

“They are quitting because they are not getting any more for milk than 40 years ago, but equipment, pick up trucks are twice or more what we used to pay.  They only get $15-20 a hundred when we get the equivalent of $55-60 a 100 weight for me.  Of course, I’ve got more costs: pasteurizer, bottles, putting label on it and distribution. Distribution is the biggest cost we have that they don’t.  But just like other dairies, the biggest cost of production is feeding that cow.

“We’re happy our present level of production.  We can make more money from fluid milk than from cheese and butter–that takes lot more labor.  We like doing fluid milk, but if wanted to expand that would be a way to do it. If one of my kids wanted to come back, we might expand, but right now we have enough work for me and my wife.

“It never crossed my mind to do something like this until I saw that article on Billy Ray.  A light went off and I said I can do that. I’m not afraid of taking a chance, of trying something new.  I’ll take a chance, but this never crossed my mind until I saw him doing it.  The only agriculture in Neshoba County is beef cows and not as much of that as used to be. The rest of it is forestry and poultry.

“I’m not just in milk business.  I also bale 800-1000 acres of hay every year.  Three to 400 acres I farm for other guys, 600 for myself.  Between my brother and me have 150 cows.  I had 200 beef cows before I started this, but sold most of them to fund the dairy.  Last year I went to Texas and bought 75 heifers.”

Shelby Beason is helping others get started in traditional dairying, but, like most farmers, he’s not big on proselytization.  He does know his milk is better than the milk we get in grocery stores.  He’s willing to just let his milk do the talking for him.


The leaders of the new traditional dairying in Mississippi:

Beason dairy: http://www.beasonfamilyfarm.com/

Billy Ray Brown’s dairy in Oxford: http://www.brownfamilydairy.com/

Country Girls dairy: http://www.countrygirlscreamery.com/







Another mountain, another epiphany (on politics?)

We’ve switched sky islands.  Now we are in the Davis Mountains.  Same cool, dry air as the Chisos, just a hundred miles north. And my dreams are still vivid. Ever since coming to the sky islands of Texas, I have been having dreams you would not believe.

chisos mountains

If you’re like me, solving problems is one thing often best done asleep.  Nothing better than a good night’s sleep to stimulate the creative juices. Sometimes I even wake up writing a solution in my head.  I might try to go back to sleep, but then my brain starts writing out the solution again and I might as well give in, get up, and commit it to paper.

We came to the Davis Mountains by first following the Rio Grande.  Looking at the deep chasms and narrow valley which surrounds the border, we wondered about how they will build a wall.  Might be better just to annex the valley and build a wall further south in the Chihuahua desert. Or forget about the whole wall and just let illegal immigrants work under supervised conditions in those annexed valleys until they learn English and assimilate. I hope you can appreciate irony.

The all-too-real dreams have continued from the Chisos to the Davis.  In one, I was with a group of people gathered to plan change in our nation.  The group had been organized and successful for some time and had evolved to fit the DC establishment.  They knew that lobbying is all about money.  How much you can get for your members. There is nothing really awful about this.  More money for good causes means they can accomplish more.  However, such pursuit of dollars will never cause much change.  If you accept the fact that nothing will change in DC, then lobbying for more dollars is the logical route.

At the end of the dream, some of us were coming to a different conclusion.  Finally, two of us shouted at the same time: why settle for a few more dollars?  We must focus on fundamental change.  I woke up with this phrase echoing in my mind. My dream was so persuasive that I started working on revisions to a draft for a section of the next farm bill and sent it to some colleagues who were in the dream.

Fundamental change of federal policy is possible. The lesson of the 2016 political season, both the final triumph of Trump and many triumphs of Bernie Sanders proves that fundamental change is just around the corner.

I just hope the result is not a hideous beast which devours its children. Both right and left are so self-righteous. Always ready to accuse but seldom willing to listen.  They each march in lock step to the mindless drumming of their group.  No one dares contradict the latest edict of their crowd for fear of being ostracized.

And where do they hear the latest group-think?  In the ever-present, self-confirming social media. Thanks to continuous exposure to social media, we have a monopolies of mind in the US.  All the major news organizations except Fox occupy one echo chamber.  And Fox is just a different echo chamber also inhabited by all sorts of alt-right outlets.

I prefer to get my news from Nature.  And today’s news from the Davis Mountains is that we have a beautiful world.  Let’s be grateful for it and stop the greedy who would destroy it.

Sky islands and epiphanies

Mountain peaks are in short supply in the Delta.  We’d been without mountains for quite a while, so a trip was required to the sky islands of  Texas this week.  Now and then, it’s wise to escape the lush, fertile Delta for some inspiration in the mountains. In three spots springing from the Chihuahuan Desert are huge mountains which create their own climate.  As you climb these mountains you find plants and animals only found in cool, high rainfall areas. The first such sky island we visited is called the Chisos Mountains.   We found in the Chisos, just as spiritual people have always found in high places, epiphany and transcendence.chisos mountains

High places have been set aside to be protected and revered all over the world. Early in America, such was not the case. The pursuit of the dollar was much more powerful than spiritual effects. The Chisos, as an island of low temperatures and high rainfall in the vast Chihuahuan Desert, are appreciated by anyone in August in Texas. Early settlers saw only the tall Douglas firs which they chopped down and shipped out. Later settlers saw only the lush grass which grew where the trees had been cut down and overgrazed it.  Only in the most recent years have the non-commercial interests in the US been strong enough to set aside the Chisos and other high places for the use of those on pilgrimage or re-creation.

The National Park Service has managed to recreate what primitive peoples established all through the world.  Protection of high places for people who just appreciate high places. At some point, however, people began to establish shrines on high places. Mountains became places to worship of whatever gods people believed in. They constructed altars and sacred objects such as pillars or poles in various shapes identified with the object of worship (animals, constellations, goddesses, and fertility deities). High places were often spots that had been artificially elevated such as the mounds of the Mississippi Valley.

Early on, high places played a major role in Jewish worship.  Abraham built altars at high places in Shechem and Hebron. Abraham built an altar near Moriah and was willing to sacrifice his son there. This site is traditionally believed to be the same high place where the temple of Jerusalem was built. Jacob set up a stone pillar to the Lord at Bethel and Moses met God on Mt. Sinai.

Joshua set up stone pillars after crossing the Jordan and considered this a high place of worship because the Israelites “came up from” the Jordan onto higher ground. The high places were visited regularly by the prophet Samuel.

The problem for monotheistic religious officials was that the people got benefits from mountains even when they did not worship the one true god. Solomon established idolatrous high places for his foreign wives outside of Jerusalem and worshiped with them. The people enjoyed sacrificing at pagan high places and Solomon joined them. Solomon wavered between the high place in Jerusalem and the high places dedicated to other gods.

So, however much the people liked mountains, some monotheistic prophets condemned them and said that God only approved one high place for sacrifice–the temple in Jerusalem. Religious officials claimed that God commanded that all other high places be destroyed. King Josiah destroyed them.

Other religions don’t have the same aversion to high places.  In China you can find dozens of sacred mountains. The sacred mountains are important destinations for pilgrimage.  The Chinese expression for pilgrimage is just a shortened version of an expression which means “paying respect to a holy mountain.” In  traditional Chinese religion five mountains have cosmological and theological significance as they represent on the physical plane of earth the natural order emanating from the primordial God.

The five mountains are among the best-known natural landmarks in Chinese history, and have been the ritual sites of imperial worship and sacrifice by emperors from time immemorial. The first legendary emperors of China went organized processions to the summits of the Five Great Mountains. Every visit took place at the same time of the year. The excursions were hunting trips and ended in ritual offerings to the reigning god.

A group of mountains associated with Buddhism in China are referred to as the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, and the group associated with Taoism is referred to as the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism.

The communist Chinese tried to eradicate religion, but left the areas around the sacred mountains alone.  Near Chengdu in Sichuan province, I found one of the sacred mountains to be similar to our national parks, except for the monasteries and temples built on its sides and a shrine on its highest peak.  This park’s set of peaks is called Qīng Chéng Shān, literally “Misty Green City Wall”. This Mount Qing Cheng area was famous for being the most secluded place in China.

Pilgrimages to mountains, such as ours to the Chisos, will always continue because they stimulate epiphanies and inspiration.  Perhaps that is why some church officials don’t like them.  New ideas upset the old order.  They might even lead people to challenge the idea that the future is already fixed and nothing you do can affect it.

Anyone who has seen their spirits lifted by visiting a mountain will be unlikely to submit to religious authorities who ban worship in high places. Some unbelievers hesitate to ascribe spiritual significance to mountains.  On my sojourn at Mount Kilimanjaro recently, I found people spending vast funds in pilgrimages to the top, though they contend they were just hiking.  Back from Kilimanjaro, lots of local news stories in Arkansas were on Kilimanjaro.  We’d never had such stories before.  Such Jungian synchronicity is also decried by some religious officials.

Walking the peaks of the Chisos, we see the way the mountains have been uplifted and emerged. Just as mountains are emergent, so can better ideas and better ways of living emerge when we are open to them. Those who believe in an omnipotent God who has already determined the future can’t accept that there is a better way that can be created.  They too will pass away.