As the second largest state in the U.S., Texas covers a lot of territory that varies considerably in climate and landscape. In the central Texas county of Comanche, roughly 100 miles west of Dallas, lies a 1,300-acre spread belonging to Charles and Kaye Williams. Part of that acreage began as Grandfather Williams’ farm in 1915.
The Williams’ farm is situated in an area of Texas known as the West Cross Timbers, dubbed thus by early travelers through the area who encountered these timbered strips of land after traveling on the open prairies.
When Charles’ father returned from military service in 1951, he took over the farm. “We were never too far from the organic model to begin with. I grew up around the concepts of organic management,” Charles says. “My dad used a lot of organic remedies. He read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the over-use of herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics struck him as being dangerous. We tried to stay away from that, but we didn’t do so well with organic production on the fertilizer side because our soil fertility was so low to begin with.”
For decades before the Williamses arrived, the sandy loam soils of the West Cross Timbers were agriculturally productive and planted with peanuts. But when the Williamses acquired their property, the result of all that peanut production was evident in the extremely depleted sandy soil. “We had trouble growing anything here because our land had been worn out.” Charles says.
Eventually Charles went to school, and then he did his military service just as his father had. When he came back to the farm, his father was getting ready to retire and Charles took over. “We stayed very small for this area. The average dairy is about 1,500 to 2,000 cows, but we milk about 200 Jerseys. We’ve always had Jerseys. They do really well on grass and they handle the heat a little better than the bigger breeds.”
As the Williams Farm gained acreage over the years, Charles’ biggest goal was to rejuvenate the soil without using chemical fertilizer. “The large dairy operations needed to get rid of their manure, and it made sense to use that manure to fertilize the soil instead of buying synthetic fertilizer in a bag.” Some folks say you can’t grow anything without synthetic fertilizer, and I say we did it for thousands of years before we got so dependent on chemicals. We still can.”
After milking, the family’s cows can roam 400 acres of nutritious Bermuda grass, small grains and sorghum. In the more remote areas of the farm, they grow small grains like wheat, rye and oats to harvest as silage for the cows. “It’s part of my goal to be self-sufficient,” says Charles. “We grow as much of our feed as we can right here instead of paying someone else to grow it and someone else to truck it here.”
Once Charles decided to go completely organic, he was surprised that people were so interested in what he was planning to do. “I thought people would be a little more averse to it. My dad always talked about the practices he used, and I don’t know what the community response was to him, but people are certainly concerned now. Our area has a high rate of cancer, and it’s kind of locally acknowledged that this is due—at least in part—to the intensive use of pesticides and herbicides over the years. There are certain areas of the community where everybody has had these health problems.”
For the Williams family, farming organically means survival for their small farm as they go up against the competition of the large dairies. “We joined Organic Valley because they offered a market for the smaller dairies. The co-op really helped us with the organic transition. Without Organic Valley’s interest and support, we couldn’t have gone forward. I think people who farm organically do it because they really want to farm. My daughters are both grown and on their own now, but they and my wife, Kaye, couldn’t be more supportive.
“I’m 64 now and I’m going to farm some more,” Charles continues. “I feel pretty good. I’ve been rebuilding the farm to leave it a better place. I know that’s possible when I watch the cows graze. I like to turn them out after milking and walk amongst them while they graze.”