Over 90% of Texas is designated as rural, with the majority of that land in agricultural production. Because agriculture is important to the State's economy, the condition of Texas agriculture is a huge concern. Recent Farm Bill provisions are directed at correcting these problems by promoting sustainable agriculture which, it is pointed out, can slow climate change, reduce the loss of topsoil, and protect natural resources in the bargain. While farmers are known for establishing some of the country's first environmental organizations and are considered to be stewards of the land, agricultural practices in place since the 1950s are also seen as the cause of major environmental problems. More and more, farmers are answering the call to stewardship, and Kent and Ramy Jisha are chief among them in Texas.
Kent Jisha bought his farm in Hopkins County, Texas 15 years ago. Before that, he'd been a dairy veterinarian since he graduated from Texas A&M in 1987. He even spent a couple of years in practice in Wisconsin in the late Eighties. "I went to Wisconsin to get cow experience," Kent explains. "Here, you look more at groups of cows rather than individual cows. In Wisconsin, every cow has a name, and if one cow in a guy's herd didn't eat right that morning, the farmer knew it."
If you ask Kent why on earth he went from veterinarian to dairyman, he'll say simply, "I like cows." Kent's wife, Ramy, is also a veterinarian, and has just opened a small animal practice in nearby Sulphur Springs, where Kent grew up on his family's farm. Since Hopkins County, Texas has 25% of all the dairies in the state, it would appear that he chose his location well. Or, perhaps the location just chose him.
An hour east of Dallas, the Jishas' 1,000 acre spread is in oak woods and prairie. The area attracted early European settlers because the open grasslands and surrounding forest areas were ideal for settlement. In fact, Kent says, it looks a lot like Wisconsin. In spite of the fact that Hopkins County has the lion's share of the dairies in Texas, there are only two other organic dairies in the County. The Jishas' makes three.
Kent says that the advantage of the area is that it's good for growing grass, but it's not great soil for crops. What's more, the intense heat and humidity of the summer months is hard on the cows—so much so that the Jishas calve seasonally. Their cows are dried (stop milking) and bred so that they calve in the fall and winter, giving them a break during the stressful summer months. (Some grass-based farms in northern climates dry their cows over the winter.)
Back when Kent bought his farm 15 years ago, he started out conventional like everybody else. He started out small with 36 cows, but eventually followed the conventional model which requires efficiencies of scale. "I started out as a small dairy, just grazing, and I remembered not having so many problems. Then I got to the point where I was milking 5 to 6 times as many cows and making less money than when I milked fewer cows. My conventional dairy required feed mixing wagons and tractors and lots of employees and fuel. It was a constant headache. I thought, there's got to be a better way, or I don't want to do it. Now, with 70 Jersey and Jersey crosses, the organic dairy is so simple. I have more time to spend with my kids." Kent and his six and seven year-old sons like to head out on the ATV and check on the dry cows, monitor the pastures, and move cows from field to field.
The grazing pastures consist mainly of perennial Bermuda grass and annual Sudan grass, both staples in the southern states. "They're not the greatest grasses in the world nutritionally speaking," Kent says, "but the Bermuda grass sends roots 8 feet down and that's important when it comes to drought and a lack of irrigation. We get a lot of rain in the winter so winter pasture does really well. We also have broadleaf Signalgrass. For years I tried to get rid of that stuff when I was conventional. Now I realize that you can use these native plants instead of spending so much money trying to kill them. And the cows love it."
This year, Kent's growing Iron and Clay Cowpeas, a crop that was introduced to the U.S. during early colonial times and is now a staple crop in the Southeast. They are extremely high yielding in forage mass and have plenty of protein, something dairy cows really need. Because they are a legume, their roots fix nitrogen so they help to build the soil along the way. Kent is intent on feeding his cows off of his own land. "With the cost of fuel and grain, it makes no sense whatsoever to buy feed elsewhere. I guess I just have the mentality that I need to grow stuff." That's what sustainable is all about.