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 one hundred 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 lies 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 more open prairies. In 1854 a railroad prospector described it "...as by far the richest and most beautiful district of country I have ever seen...with a gently undulating surface of prairie and oak openings...with intervening plains of luxuriant grass."
When Charles' father returned from military service in '51 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 the sandy loam soils of the West Cross Timbers were agriculturally productive. The Williams first sold milk in 1938 and have dairied continuously since then. Most of Comanche County's agriculture for the last 50 years has been based on peanut production. When the Williams acquired their property, the result of all that peanut production was evident when observing the extremely depleted sandy soil. "We have trouble growing anything here because our land has been worn out." Charles says.
Eventually Charles went to school, then he did his military service just as his father had done. When he came back to the farm, his father was getting ready to retire and Charles took over the farm. "We stayed very small for this area. The average dairy is about 1,500 to 2,000 cows. We milk about 250 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, adding land that was once planted to peanuts, 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."
1,300 acres seems like a lot of land, but only 600 acres of the Williams' farm is tillable. And when it comes to grazing livestock, the stocking rate is lower than in other parts of the country where the soil is more fertile. It takes more grass grown over more ground to feed one animal.
"Around the dairy we've got 400 acres of pasture that the cows can walk to after milking. We combine Bermuda grass, small grains, and sorghum in the grazing area. On the remoter acreage, we grow small grains like wheat, rye and oats, and harvest that as silage for the cows. It's part of my goal to be self-sufficient. 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. We're trying to limit what we have to haul down the road, because I think the price of fuel will not be going down."
Once Charles decided to go completely organic, he was surprised that people were so interested in what he's 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 over the years of these pesticides and herbicides. There are certain areas of the community where everybody has had these health problems."
For the Williams, farming organically means survival for their small farm against the competition of the large dairies. "We joined Organic Valley because they were offering a market for the smaller dairies. The co-op really helped us with the transition. Without Organic Valley's interest and support, we couldn't have gone forward."
Charles gets help from other sources, as well. His neighbor, Eldon Easley, a former peanut farmer who runs beef cattle now, helps him farm and harvest his small grain crops. Charles has had the same four employees for the past 15 years to help him manage the calving and milking. "Without that help," he says, "There's no way I could do this on my own."
"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 59 now, and my goal is to farm at least 10 more years. It wouldn't seem like the thing to do to make these big changes at age 59, but I intend to rebuild the farm, 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."