Oxford Goes Green

By  |  August 25, 2009

“Billy Ray’s farm does not yet exist on an earthly plane. It is a vision of his imagination so far, and I have no idea of the form it willultimately take in real life….” —Larry Brown, “Billy Ray’s Farm”

2009 08 26 Edge McElwee

In May of 2008, John Currence opened a diner here in Oxford. He called it Big Bad Breakfast. A reader of the late Larry Brown’s work will recognize the name as a send-up of Big Bad Love, the author’s 1990 collection of hardscrabble short stories.

John and Larry were good friends. The chef read the writer’s work in manuscript. The writer drank whiskey in the bar above City Grocery, the chef’s white-tablecloth restaurant.

When he opened that diner, in the rear of a fading strip mall, John staked a claim to a better brand of greasy spoon. He built a smokehouse out back and began curing pork bellies in the dregs from drained Tabasco barrels. He sourced cage-free eggs for omelets and canned local blueberries for jam.

On the final page of the menu, like the credits at the close of a movie, he listed producers. Cheddar from Mississippi State got a nod. So did farm-raised catfish from the Delta. And so did dairy from Billy Ray Brown, son of Larry Brown.

John pledged that, when you reached for a cup of chicory-laced coffee at Big Bad Breakfast, you would soon be pouring cream from one of Billy Ray’s heifers in your cup. He promised that when you ordered a bowl of Frosted Flakes, you would soon drown that cereal in milk from local cows.

A little more than a year after he opened his doors, not long after Billy Ray bought four Jersey cows and began milking them twice a day, seven days a week, John Currence made good on that pledge.

I imagine that it is a place where tall trees grow and the deep green rolling pastures are dotted with flowers. —L.B.

I go through six-month cycles of abusing words, of finding ways to work a pet combination of vowels and consonants into almost everything I say and write. Catalyze was one of my recent obsessions. I used it to the point that Jess, my eight-year-old son, began parsing my syllables and asking me about calicos and corneas.

More recently, I’ve overused the word virtuous. I’ve been pegging that term to ideas and people I find so good-hearted and well-meaning that they become self-serving and, ultimately, bothersome.

To my mind, too much of today’s dialogue about food is dedicated to glorifying the virtues of an ascetic farm life, in which the chosen few get their hands dirty while cultivating the tilth, both terrestrial and existential.

Maybe it’s the way that much of the press writes about newfangled farmers that gets in my craw. Or maybe it’s the newfangled farmers themselves. I’m thinking of the ones who make a lot of money in some other field, grow frightened at the prospect of making less money in that field, find Jesus or Vishnu, and soon relocate to a bucolic corner of anywhere, intent on raising heirloom vegetables, pasturing heritage pigs, and, come evening, knitting scarves by the fireside.

On Billy Ray’s farm, there will be total harmony, wooden fence rows straight as a plumb line, clean, with no weeds, no rusted barbed wire…. Each cow will have an acre of grass and the grass will be regularly fertilized and mowed so that everything is neat and orderly. —L.B.

Read “Billy Ray’s Farm,” the centerpiece in Larry Brown’s 2001 book of essays by the same name, and you’ll recognize that hubris, in the guise of virtue, need not animate conversations about farming. Farming, in the world according to Larry Brown, is mundane. And harrowing. It’s bleak stuff. Cows die while calving. Calves die soon thereafter. Each day, the entire viability of the farm seems to be threatened by some catastrophic occurrence. 

Back in 1995, when Larry wrote the piece (and the Oxford American published it), Billy Ray was beginning to manage herds of beef cattle, grazing them on rented pastures south of Oxford, in rural Lafayette County. Larry remained hopeful, despite evidence to the contrary, that his oldest son could raise beef cows and milk cows and, for that work, wrest a livelihood from the land.

But Larry was also a realist, a man who understood that farming was arduous. He understood that farming has its risks, and that, as risks go, cattle farming is not the safest bet. 

Early in the enterprise, after trying to perform CPR on a newborn calf that got stuck in the birth canal and emerged, covered in mucus and blood and, unmistakably, dead, Larry summed up his eldest son’s prospects this way: “I was angry about my boy trying so hard to start a farm of his own and having everything he touched turn to shit.”

The fickle finger of cow fate swings wildly and it’s like a roulette wheel, you never can tell where it will stop. —L.B.

I write about food, about how people define themselves in kitchens and at tables. Agriculture factors into my world, too. I buy into Wendell Berry’s observation that “our land passes in and out of our bodies just as our bodies pass in and out of our land.” 

But I’ve always been on the consumer side of the equation. I’ve never been a producer, which means that, while I can pretend to know food, I can’t pretend to know farming.

What I do know, after conversations with farmers, including Billy Ray, is that, taking into account market pressures and distribution headaches, not to mention the vicissitudes of nature, farm life is tough. It’s not a world for dabblers, virtuous or otherwise.

Among small farmers still tilling crop rows, Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon—the man who said, “Get big or get out”—remains the booger bear. Butz queered the Jeffersonian ideal, the notion that our nation would be a republic governed by citizen-farmers. He chaperoned the shotgun marriage of industry and agriculture.

When, fourteen years back, Larry Brown wrote of his son, the nascent farmer, he worked to strike a balance between realism and optimism. In the interim, the time of the booger bear has passed. 

The small-farm ideal that Butz tried to squelch is now in resurgence across the region. And, nearly five years after his father’s untimely death, Billy Ray’s dairy farm has become a reality.

Fat sleek calves frisk on the sunny hills and draw sustenance from between the massive hind legs of their mothers, their bags laden with rich milk as they calmly chew their cuds while the calves nurse and butt. —L.B.

On the morning of July Fourth, I got to the Mid-Town Farmers’ Market early. Mary Annie Brown, Larry’s widow (and Billy Ray’s mother), was setting up a card table in the back corner. A friend was there to help her lug an oversized cooler, iced down with thirty-eight half-gallons of milk, fresh from Billy Ray’s four-cow herd. 

The returnable glass bottles were fetish-worthy. They had a nice heft, an easy grip. Each was tagged with a red cow, rendered in silhouette, and a legend that established the provenance as Brown Family Dairy, Oxford, Mississippi. 

The white stuff within was exceptional, especially when compared to the grocery-store norm. Billy Ray pasteurizes his milk, to satisfy health-department regulations. But he doesn’t mechanically homogenize it. Cream naturally rises to the top. (You can spoon it off, or shake the bottle to incorporate.) After years of drinking low-fat and reduced-fat milk, Billy Ray’s milk flowed like wet paint and tasted a damn sight better than latex. 

Even though I arrived just ten minutes after the opening bell, I snagged one of the last half-gallons. By the time I made a circumnavigation of the market, Mary Annie had sold out. When I joined her beneath the tent of a vendor selling hearth-baked bread, she was smiling and walking on the balls of her feet.

Billy Ray will work hard and his farm will earn him a living, and he will be happy, and his life will be fulfilled, and he will know a great peace in his soul such as few men have ever known. God will smile down upon him and his efforts, and the farm will hum like a well-oiled machine. There will be dogs, and life will be good. —L.B.

Two days later, I got up before the sun rose and met Billy Ray out at his milking barn. More of a shed than a barn, built—by Billy Ray and friends—of concrete block and metal siding, it sits alongside Billy Ray’s house, in sight of Mary Annie’s house.

When Mary Annie and I talked at the market, Billy Ray was milking four cows. By the time I arrived at the farm, he had, in response to demand, added two more. All are Jerseys, mottled brown and white in color and, counterintuitively, kind of skinny.

Their tails were swishing back and forth as Billy Ray led his charges into the chute, toward the milking machine. “I was at the Kroger with my wife and we saw this organic milk,” Billy Ray told me, as he hooked suction tubes to an udder. “And I studied it and I learned it came in from California. And that got me to thinking. You know those ads that tell people happy cows come from California? Seems to me, happy cows come from here, too.”

Billy Ray didn’t saddle me with tales of how tough it was to make a living by raising beef and dairy cattle. I had his father’s book for that. 

Instead, Billy Ray, now thirty-four, said this sort of thing to me: “I love seeing cattle and calves together; I know that sounds corny, but that’s the truth.” And he said this: “Cotton, beans, and corn can’t never be small again, but dairy can.”

Milk from Brown Family Dairy is now popping up all over town. At Liz Stagg and Frank Coppola’s market on Lamar, north of town. In the cooler at Bottletree Bakery, just off the Square. Down at the Taylor Farmers’ Market. And, yes, at Big Bad Breakfast, where a poster for Big Bad Love, the movie, hangs high on the wall, and empty pint bottles, imprinted with that same cow, that same legend, are stacked behind the counter like dead soldiers at a juke house.

You may draw all sorts of conclusions about Billy Ray and his dairying operation. You might make comparisons to his father, who taught him-self to write and struggled, for many years, and against great odds, to earn a living as an author. In that same spirit, you might observe that Larry’s gumption foretold Billy Ray’s success. 

Or you might just let Billy Ray sum it up. “I ain’t a dairyman yet,” he said, as he unhooked the machine from the last cow of the morning. “But I’m learning.

Harris and Milly Brown at the Brown Family Dairy, August 2009. Photograph by John McElwee.

John T. Edge, author of The Potlikker Papers, has served as an Oxford American columnist since 1998. He directs the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA program in narrative nonfiction at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism, and hosts the television show TrueSouth on SEC/ESPN. Season three debuts this fall.