By Lisa Hamilton
For decades after the Civil War, cotton was the major crop in Hopkins County. A profitable commodity, it was at least partly responsible for the economic growth in communities like East Caney. But it is also exhausting for both the land and the farmers who work it. As one man recalled in a local history book, by the 1930s, the crop had left Hopkins County a place of “worn-out farms and worn-out people.” Gradually irrigation reclaimed land in West Texas and cotton farming moved there.
Looking for a replacement crop, farmers found that Hopkins County had near-ideal dairy conditions. Annual rainfall of forty-four inches made for lush pastures to rival Wisconsin and Vermont. An eight-month-long growing season meant cows could be out on pasture and feed themselves nearly year-round. As farmers switched to dairy farming in the 1930s and ’40s, the county came back to life. While cotton had robbed the soil of nutrients, the grazing cows’ manure recharged it. The nearly year-round payments of dairy farming provided an income far more reliable than the cotton commodity market.
For the next half-century, milk cows would be the county’s primary industry and a source of deep pride for the people there. “The dairy business in Hopkins County has afforded the citizens of the county and the businesses of Sulphur Springs a level of prosperity unequaled in all of the state of Texas,” a county promotional guide trumpeted in 1980. “How many towns with a population of twelve thousand people has four home-owned banks, a savings and loan, and other markers prevalent in this city? We have more nice brick homes, new automobiles, and vacations than any group of rural citizens in the state!”
The highest number of dairy farms officially recorded in the county was 507 in 1977, but local estimates range into the seven hundreds. Some people in town will tell you Hopkins was once the top-producing county in the South, perhaps even in the United States. Numbers don’t back up the claims, but the county was indisputably number one in the state—the Dairy Capital of Texas.
In the 1950s, dairy became the lifeblood of the Lewis family. For the first decade in Smith Bottom they had sold milk to the local Carnation plant as a sideline to the farm business. Most farms in the county did. Because that milk would be evaporated and canned, it required only minimal, Grade-B standards; the half-can from the family cow passed the test. After the war came a rising demand for fresh milk, Grade-A, but that was a whole different business. Grade-A production required things like cement floors, hot water, and a separate room devoted to cooling equipment—for most farms it would mean building a whole new barn. Then again, the investment promised to return a more stable income and with it a certain prestige. Going Grade-A meant becoming a full-time, first-class dairyman, the proudest position in the local farm community.
To this day Harry speaks about his family’s upgrade as a point of pride, remembering that in making the switch his father was counseled and encouraged by other black farmers who promised it would “set him free.” The first day they filled cans with Grade-A milk and sold it to the creamery was June 6, 1952. The date rolls off of Harry’s tongue.
“Oh, I remember when they built this barn.” Harry sits on the rails between stalls in the milk barn, putting iodine on a cow’s teats. “I would sit over in the sand pile, taking bricks from the stack and building my own barn. Eventually they’d come and take the bricks away and use them for the big barn. So I’d get more, and do it all over again.”
He sits there with a soft, happy look on his face. Then he has a thought, which makes him let go of the udder, stand up, and walk to the tank room. He returns and hands me a little white Styrofoam cup, the kind you use for orange juice in a motel’s continental breakfast. The cup is filled with cold milk.
It is an odd moment. The cup itself is a picture of purity, but in a very dirty world. All morning long I’ve been surrounded by mud and manure.
This barn was once painted white, but its walls are now brownish to shoulder-height—spattered from below and smeared by bodies. From this doorway my view is of eight cows’ asses, one evacuating as I hold the cold milk in my hand. There are flies on the feed and on the cows, on my arm, on the walls.
But Harry is sure of this moment. He is sure of this farm and what he’s doing here. He says his farm is always open to anyone who wants to see how they run things or just sit on the porch and talk. He knows the farm is old-fashioned and a bit run-down, knows there is an old Dodge pickup parked in the meadow and goats playing king of the mountain on a heap of scrap metal rusting in the pasture. He knows people will see a soupy sea of mud where Wynton has scraped the slurry from the barn, especially after the rains this past month. He knows that in addition to seeing the happy cows on green pasture they expect, they will also see things they might not like. Yet when I asked to visit, he said yes without a moment’s hesitation.
“Imagine,” he says, “if people saw where their milk normally comes from. Imagine if people visited a big, concrete dairy. You know what I call that kind of dairy? I call it a penitentiary. When you’re not free to move, then you’re incarcerated. Those cows are in a penitentiary.” His face twists in disgust.
Harry knows his dairy is different. The difference is, in a word, pasture. Most people who don’t think about farming a whole lot would probably assume the milk they drink comes from cows on pasture like in the classic red-barn image of a farm. Those who spend a lot of effort knowing where their food comes from likely know that most milk comes from cows that don’t live on pasture. Either way, given the choice, most people would choose the milk from the cow that is on green grass. It’s a major part of what people think they are buying when they pay a premium for organic milk.
It is true that the USDA mandates that milk certified as organic come from cows that have access to pasture, but to date that’s as specific as they have chosen to be. This has been the source of a long-standing legal and legislative melee between farms and consumers who believe in green grass and farms that fulfill the requirement only as much as organic regulations require. There are even some dairies that have found loopholes large enough to slide in their multi-thousand-cow herds, for which the only thing they have resembling pasture is a lawn in front of the company’s office. Farmers and consumers who believe in cows on green grass have campaigned for the USDA to more concretely define the pasture requirement, for instance as a percentage of the cow’s diet or the number of days per year it is available, in order to rule out those dairies that do not truly meet the criteria.
For Harry, though, pasture is not quantifiable. It isn’t a standard to be met; it is a principle. Either you have it or you don’t. “We all realize the golden rule for organics is pasture,” he says. “But people take that lightly. They write it on their cartons, but do they do it as religiously as they would wear a Christian cross or hold a Bible or some other holy book? They say, Yeah, we believe. But really do they? If they do, do they practice? The word pasture must be practiced. And if it’s not practiced, it’s not pasture. And it’s not Godly created.”
I am intrigued, but not exactly sure what he means. He continues.
“Pas-ture. You can use the word in the same way that you use the word godliness. We all love to use the word G-O-D. You can use pasture the same way—it doesn’t change.”
“Um, how do you mean?”
“Because God is the creator. And pasture is the foodstuff for his creation. You can’t have one without the other. If he created this heaven and earth, he created pasture. To feed his existence.” Harry’s on a roll. “Why was Noah goin around pickin up animals?” He lets out a great, big laugh. “Heh? Because he knew there would be a pasture. If there is a God, there is a pasture. Noah did what God told him to do. He says, Okay, I’ll get the animals—he didn’t worry about feeding them.”
“Because he knew that as long as there was a God there would be pasture?”
“Pasture! Our Earth is a pasture.”
He explains further, how the Earth is made of rock, and that rock becomes topsoil, and that topsoil is the basis to produce plants and animals. That is pasture. To Harry, pasture is not simply grass, it is the natural order of things, the uninterrupted, unadulterated food chain.
“The seal, it’s an underwater animal, but it pastures. And the whale, if it eats krill, it receives it from the coral reef, which what? Comes from the topsoil! Just because it’s in cold water don’t stop it being topsoil. Because it’s producing nourishment to create the krill to create the enormous animal called the whale, it’s pasture.”
Pasture is godliness. As Harry talks he twines the two words together. He disdains the corporations for trying to alter or obscure the meaning of pasture for their own profits, changing the cow to live on grain and concrete for the sake of their annual reports. In the same breath he deplores so many churches’ commodification of spiritual belief.
“People try to sell. They sell crosses, they sell Bibles, they sell images. But It ain’t a picture, It ain’t a cross you’re wearing around your neck. You read scripture, that’s fine, that’s to reinforce. But you have to get out here and say, I feel it. That’s what It’s about. Church is a building, a place to assemble and worship together. But every day is God.”
He lets the words hang in the air between us.
“I look at Him as an invisible. If I see God as I see Jesus Christ, like everybody got him in their house”—he draws his breath, draws his eyebrows straight up in supreme contempt—“well, I know where that’s goin. That’s one certain people sayin”—he switches to a mocking falsetto—“This is the way God looks.”
He switches back to his own voice. “No! This ain’t the way God looks to me. Visibly, I don’t want to see God. I want to see him invisibly, moving the mountains. And when he feels that the mountains need to move. I can want it now, but it don’t work that way. And that’s the organic way. I want to rush, but unh-uhh. Be patient, and he’ll getcha there. He’ll get you there and give you back more than you ever thought you could have.
“Cows, we have modified to use grain instead of pasture because it’s a boost feedstuff, and it’s faster, and it produces more milk, which is about profit. And stock shares. So we think that is the better way. But from the beginnin we’re totally backwards in our thought process. God didn’t give us nothin to make better—we have destroyed everything that God gave us. In organic we’re just tryin to get it back to the way it was. We got to get back to what God has, and then sell that. And when you do that you understand that you don’t create prosperity. You receive it, through your efforts of shepherding.”
In my hand is the little white Styrofoam cup, filled with milk. It’s close to ninety degrees in the milk barn. I’m sweaty and dirty.
Harry has returned to the stall where a red cow with white spots waits. He is pretending not to watch me and the cup. To be honest I don’t even like milk. My sister drinks it by the gallon, but I have refused it ever since I could speak the words to do so. At least this serving is cold.
Lifting the cup to my mouth I see that the liquid is not pure white but slightly yellow, with butterfat. It’s chilly on my lips. Creamy, cold, crisp. It tastes like melted ice-cream-flavored milk. I drink it all in two swallows.
“Wow!” I blurt out. I don’t ask for one, but I want another cup.
Harry just nods, doesn’t even look up as he puts the milker on the red-and-white cow before him. Doesn’t need to. I can feel the swagger. When at last he stands up, he looks at me and points to the cow. “That milk is not two hours old,” he says. “Went from this cow, straight to you.”
After he says that I look at the barn again. It’s still old and cramped, with more than its share of flies. The white walls are still messy. And yet, I realize, what milking barn is attractive? What cows do not shit? What dairy farmer has clean coveralls at the end of the day? No dairy is all just pretty cows on green pasture. It’s a messy business. The true measure of right and wrong here is not one of manure or mud, but rather of the details. The calmness of the cows and the people. The pace of the work and the attention it allows. Even the shit: most dairy cows have a sticky coating of manure on their backsides and tails. It’s the result of replacing pasture with an unnatural diet of grain and the ill health of confinement, both of which can lead to perpetual diarrhea. Harry’s cows, on the other hand, defecate solidly. Their feet may be muddy, but their rears are clean.
Cleanliness. Godliness. Pasture. “That word,” Harry says, “is going to put farming back like it’s supposed to be. So I keep puttin it out there. Tell them people, if you can’t go to a farm that’s like Mr. Lewis’s, that’s wide open, something’s wrong. It’s open house with us every day. But go and see what those penitentiaries do, and you will see that it ain’t farmin.”
Excerpted by permission from Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness by Lisa Hamilton, © 2009. Published by Counterpoint, www.counterpointpress.com. Available at bookstores everywhere.
For more than 10 years, writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton has been telling the stories of farmers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Her work has been published in National Geographic Traveler, The Nation, Orion, and Gastronomica.