On a late November day in rural Oklahoma, I arrived at the Downing Family Farm just as the husband and wife team of Wes and Kathy Downing were finished haying their cows. The afternoon sun was warming large pastures with nearly dormant Bermuda grass. While many of the black Angus were spread throughout the acreage, a few calves came up to greet me, with a little enticing from an afternoon helping of grain. I had been anxious to see how the Downings were managing their five-year-old operation that offered all-natural beef, pork and poultry. Perhaps most telling was what I didn’t see.
Just days away from Thanksgiving, the turkeys were understandably gone to market. I didn’t realize that the chickens and hogs would be absent, as well. Low overhead, meaning no expensive confinement buildings, is an intentional part of these modern farmers’ plan. Although they did keep poultry through last winter by creating a sort of greenhouse to keep them warm, they've decided to go entirely seasonal with their operation, keeping them only in the warmer months. They’ll start raising hogs and chickens again next spring, as well as hosting laying hens. Wes proudly showed off the simple domed pens that move daily throughout the fields when the chickens are on the farm. Fresh air and grass are the most abundant resources the family farm has to offer its livestock. Avoiding herbicides, pesticides and questionable additives are the other part of their efforts to grow a natural agriculture product. Wes comments, “We kind of let nature work for us, and we let the animals do the work on the farm.”
Some conventional farmers are especially amazed that there’s no need for chemical weed control. Part of the answer is the way poultry and cattle alternately use the pasture. Wes explains, “If your farm is managed properly and it’s grazed properly, you really don’t need that. We mob graze, we rotational graze in small paddocks. We have 350 acres here just broken up into various small pastures, and we’ll put a tremendous amount of cattle on that pasture, and in two days everything that’s on it is gone (including weeds).” He says that within three days, chickens are on that same piece of pasture, eating fly larvae out of the cattle droppings.
The Downings explored going USDA Organic, and so far have found it cost prohibitive. Their cattle and poultry get about half of their diets from grain. When they did the math, they figured that feeding organic corn to their laying hens would raise the price of a dozen eggs from $4 at the Oklahoma farm markets to around $5.50, which they don’t expect customers would pay. Instead, they argue that everything else about their farming, which they present as a healthy alternative to large-scale confinement farming, still offers an authentic, natural product. They buy corn from a local grower and follow practices that add as much sustainability as possible.
Why should consumers care that some farmers are working on a small scale to make all natural food for them? The Downings say it’s more nutritious, healthier and better for everyone involved. They say they’ve contracted independent laboratory testing at Oklahoma State University that shows their eggs are healthier than the typical eggs from a grocery store. They note higher good cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol, balanced omegas, and lots of conjugated linoleic acid in their pasture-raised eggs. Wes acknowledges that not everyone will choose to try a local alternative like theirs, “We’re just a choice, our food is a bit higher than the grocery store, the hamburger that you would buy in the grocery store, but ours hasn’t been irradiated, perverted, discolored, colored, you know, ours is fresh. I always tell everybody I would eat raw hamburger off my processor’s floor before I would eat cooked hamburger from the grocery store.” They proudly advertise that they are selling the same food they trust to feed their own children.
These farmers and business owners are actively involved in the local cooperative foods movements in their state. When I question further how average or low-income families can afford to purchase foods straight from the farm, Wes explains, “The snap tokens, the food assistance programs are now being accepted at a lot of farmers' markets in Oklahoma, so we have a lot of customers that actually come up with food stamps and purchase our food, which makes me feel really really, good, and I think it makes those people feel good because they’re actually getting to buy a more healthy product for their family.”
This farm couple offer some unique perspectives. Kathy grew up on a family farm herself, the daughter of the well-respected high school agriculture instructor at Grove, Don Boyett. Although she went on to work for several years as a pharmacist, Kathy understood farming from her roots, and she watched the demise of many family farms when agribusiness began to dominate the landscape in the 80s and 90s. Wes’ first introduction to farming was in Future Farmers of America in high school. As a city boy who went on to work for the phone company, he saw some farming practices from the outside, and thought they didn’t always make sense. For instance, why force animals meant to live and produce on a seasonal cycle to artificially do these same things during a cold, hard winter?
Wes and Kathy say their streamlined, natural approach to farming has been so well-received that they are having to evaluate how they can keep the scale of things in the coming years small enough to maintain top quality. They said they've had more demand for products than they could fill this past year. The Downings are interested in farming not only as a business, but as a way of life that crosses cultural divides and offers everyone something better. If you live too far away to visit them or an Oklahoma farm market in Tulsa or Oklahoma City, they encourage you to find a similar farm closer to your home. Better yet, they encourage you to raise your own food whenever possible. Wes has enjoyed holding workshops to teach city-dwelling folks with permits how to care for their backyard laying hens. You can learn more about the Downings’ farm at DowningFamilyFarm.com