How traditional farming methods flourish in Texas, for the good of all. I spent this Easter in Greenville Texas, where I was a guest of Mr R.W. Holleman and his family on their farm - which is the foundational farm of a cluster that sell under the brand of Holleman Farms. I went down to Texas at the request of St William's, Greenville, to chant the Easter Liturgy , from Thursday through to Sunday morning. Thomas More College's choir instructor, Dr Tom Larson (who also runs the Schuler Singers) is a good friend of Fr Paul, the wonderful pastor of the parish who has a love of liturgy, and the Larsons, Tom and his wife Sherri and now four children go every year. For most years, in a noble and marathon service for the Church, Tom has been singing the whole Easter Liturgy there on his own. For the last two years I have been asked to go to Texas too - creating a choir of two - and this has been a great opportunity for me to learn from Tom. One of the highlights was singing the gospel of John on Good Friday. For this we had the addition for the first time of Tom's eldest son Ben, who is just 14, singing the high register parts. He did a wonderful job and was seemingly nerveless, which given that the church was packed is amazing.
Which brings me to farming in Texas. The Hollemans are parishioners who offered to host all the Larsons and myself for this period. As well as the guests, RW and his wife Kristina have eight children (the latest addition, baby Charlie, arrived less than month earlier). As you can imagine it needed all 200 acres of Holleman Farm just to give the humans elbow space, never mind grazing for the animals.
I am interested in this for a number of reasons. At the simplest level there is the pleasure of spending time on a farm (especially when everyone else is doing the work!). But beyond that there are some exciting things happening: RW is steadily increasing productivity using modern developments of traditional farming methods that produce good quality food without use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers, hormones or antibiotics. The phrase that is now used to apply to this is 'beyond organic'. They had to go 'beyond' because 'organic' has become a devalued label that is now more marketing ploy than substance.
When these methods are used, the result is a beautiful landscape and I believe that this is because there is greater harmony between of the work of man and God's creation. Man is meant to cultivate the earth. When he does it well, the land will be highly productive and it's beauty will be enhanced. The Hollemans take seriously their responsibility of managing the resources that God gives us for the benefit of the common good. Their hope for Holleman Farms incorporates this broader vision of beauty into what they are doing.
The other aspect is the RW is a gifted and imaginative businessman who has been succesful for many years in the corporate world. He understands therefore the need to sell what they produce in order to make it viable. On order to compete, he is continually developing new avenues of distribution, a lot of them making use of marketing contacts accumulated over more than 20 years in business with people who have nothing to with farming. The great thing about this is that it doesn't matter what his contacts do for a living, everybody likes good and wholesome food.
At the moment agriculture is a business driven by government regulations and subsidies. This tends to work against the small farmer and act in favour of the large factory farm. It is not fair and it is not good, in the long run, for any of us. The food that is produced is neither tasty nor highly nutritious. Refreshingly RW is not complaining. He is working on being more innovative in creating markets for what he does. At root of this is the understanding that the goodness of a product can create its own market (something that artists should also understand before he complains that no one commissions his work!). Without resentment he is prepared to roll up his sleeves and compete in the current market place, despite the iniquities. And it is working. This is early days though and if this project and any others like it is to be something that changes agriculture for the good, then along with everything else it must be able to compete at the bottom line with everything else that is out there in the long run.
RW wants to contribute in this broader way by being an example of what can be done that can inspire to emulate him and who knows, perhaps do it even better! This is healthy competition in every sense of the word.
The farming method he uses is one based upon a system sometimes called 'grass-fed' farming, in which land is left fallow and put out to pasture in a systematic rotation. In addition he rotates the animals that pasture on the land, so one method allows for sheep first, hens second and pigs third. This works because the animals' feeding requirements are complementary, but also because they contribute to the pasture land in complementary ways. The manure of different animals, for example, gives different nutrients to the land. As a result, the pasture land flourishes and the grass comes up again better than before. RW described how an ares that had been like scrub land was transformed into lush green grassland in a matter of months. The methods he used are based on those pioneered by a farmer in Virginia called Joel Salatin, who has written books and publishes a magazine about these methods.
Being the sophisticated Englishman that I am, my image of Texas hitherto had been formed by cowboy films. I pictured brown scrub grass on a semi-arid landscape that could support one cow per hundred acres (or something like that). This is not what I saw. I have been told that everything does turn when it gets much hotter in the summer, but nevertheless, I was pleased to see such green pasture land. I should have guessed - it must be called Greenville for a reason.
Below: sheep are the first animal onto new pasture. The electric fence that contains them has to be moved and then the sheep herded in.
As you can see everyone pitches in and helps.
Gus Holleman and Martha Larson are assigned to look after Charlie while everyone else attends the job in hand
Well nearly everyone else ... it's exhausting seeing off coyotes through the night.
Once the fence is up, then in go the sheep driven by the resident shepherdess.
After the sheep have done their work, on the adjacent area the chickens come in and do their work. They peck at the ground and manure already their, eating the bugs and pests, aerating the ground and leaving nitrogen rich manure.
And, below, after the chickens go, the pigs move in. This is an old breed that is particularly good for low-fat, high flavour meat. I can attest to the flavour of the sausage meat! We had it everyday at breakfast.
In this particular rotation scheme, this is the final grazing phase before the pasture is left to grow again. There are other schemes in which other animals, for example cows, are added in too. And who would have imagined, that after the pigs have done all of this the grass can grow at all. In fact it comes back stronger than ever and the process can start all over again.