05 Jan Family Farming Tradition in South Mississippi
– by J. B. Brown
My ancestors have been in South Mississippi since before the War of 1812, our earliest ancestors settled in this area in from the Carolina’s and Georgia. Interestingly enough, they did not settle in the more fertile soils of the delta. They did not want to dig in the dirt. They much preferred to run free range cattle and sheep and harvest what timber remained in the area to raft down the rivers on high water to the mills on the coast. The counties and parishes of South Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, known as Spanish West Florida, were ideal for grazing sheep, cattle and growing timber.
Growing up in rural South Mississippi this lifestyle was still strong in my youth. My life has revolved around farming and agriculture in some form or fashion since my earliest memories. As a child we spent our summers shearing sheep and tending the many cucumber patches that supplied the local pickle plant in Wiggins, MS. Every house had a chicken coop and a few milk cows. The piney woods of South Mississippi at this time was still home to open range cattle and sheep. It was this environment that shaped my passion for the land and farming. As soon as school was out for the summer is when our biggest workload kicked in. We would wake up before light and saddle up horses and ride to meet up with other penners. We would gather and drive sheep to wherever the shearing was taking place that day. We would start shearing sheep after dinner and would usually finish just before dark leaving just enough time to run the sheep through the dip vat before turning the loose. You then saddled the horses and rode home to do it all over again the next day. This daily routine would go on each day till Wool Sale Day which usually occurred in late August. Some people would not favor this lifestyle but I loved it and it’s a love affair that has never left me.
South Mississippi counties began passing laws in the 1960’s the repealed open range. The loss of open range had a profound impact on South Mississippi and how we farmed this ground. As soybean prices climbed many farmers started growing soybeans in summer followed by grazing steers on rye grass on the same ground in the winter. I began farming soybeans and backgrounding steers myself at this time.
I continued farming through the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, increasing my acreage and diversify my crops and running more cattle on ryegrass. Like many other farmers the market crash of the early 1980’s was a hard hit to my farm. I was forced too sale off equipment and liquidate assets and regroup. This was especially difficult considering that my wife Louise and I had started a family by this time. We put in many long days and nights and skipped vacations to hold onto the main farm. I made the decision to do what my ancestors originally came to South Mississippi for, cattle and timber.
Most of the land taken out of production pasture and planted in pine trees, leaving 200 acres to convert to permanent pasture and cow/calf herd. This task was made easier with the help of my children. There were days that made you wonder if it was all worth it but then things would come together and it would remind you of why you get up before daylight and go down well after dark. Those days when you see your son get the same joy of herding cows that you still get. The day you see your son become as interested in the land like you are.
It is one of my greatest pleasures that I have been able to continue that farming heritage today and that my son Kevin Brown and his wife Greggina will continue that tradition too. Today we graze 110 brood cows and manage the timber for profit and wildlife. Kevin and I are both certified prescribed burn managers and we use prescribed fire as our main timber management tool. Each year during the dormant season we aim to burn at least 2000 acres. With restrictions on days when we can get a permit to burn we usually achieve around 1200-1500 acres. The acreage that is not burned is the first to be burned the following year. We graze our cattle on ryegrass in the winter and Bermuda and Bahai grass in the spring and summer. We have continued to cull inferior genetics from our herd and maintain and promote desirable traits in replacement heifers and bulls.
A noted Indian Chief made a great comment about the land once. He said “ We do not inherit the land from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children.” My hope is that Kevin and Greggina will receive the land in better shape than I found it and carry on the tradition of farming in our family.