21st June 2006: Fresh air, sweet water, all-natural grain and tender grass. That makes good living for a farm animal, and it's what makes the animals raised on Ron Brandon's Mississippi farm happier, healthier - and in the end, presumably tastier and better for you - than those raised in a factory farm.
"Nothing here lives on concrete," Brandon proudly states. "Nothing."
Nothing eats feed that contains animal byproducts. Nothing receives growth hormones. Nothing is administered prophylactic antibiotics.
Zion Farms is small, but it provides a living and a life for the Brandon family, and furnishes his customers with wholesome eggs, chickens, beef, pork and lamb.
He grew up around the farm, where his grandfather ran a dairy operation on the 50 acres near Pontotoc, Miss., about 100 miles south of Memphis. Today a few head of grass-fed cattle amble through the pastures again. Goats and sheep do the same, laying hens roam as they please, and a colorful lone rooster struts near the house.
"I've always loved this farm, loved this life, loved this place," he said. "And I wanted a healthy farm life for my family."
About 35 miles away in Prairie, Miss., Steve Schrock's Cackleberry Farms is considerably larger than Brandon's Zion Farms but still tiny compared to today's conventional farm.
And that's just the way they want it.
They're among a handful of area farmers who have returned to the old ways of farming.
"Local producers producing food for local people is a concept we've gotten away from in modern times," Schrock said. "And that's what we're striving to get back to."
He was a conventional farmer for years, but opened a feed mill in 1987 and later introduced poultry and beef.
Brandon is among the farmers who purchase Schrock's feed for its quality.
"It's all natural grains and corn," Schrock said. "We don't use any additives or animal byproducts. We don't let any of that junk on our property."
About five years ago, Brandon attended a seminar about organic farming in Oxford and heard the words that would set his path: Pasture poultry.
It's a simple concept.
Free range chickens sound good, but predators make true free ranging a costly practice for small farmers. The Brandons and Schrock instead keep their chickens in secure pens which are moved around a pasture, hence the name "pasture poultry."
But they walk on grass and they breathe the fresh air, unlike the factory chickens that live indoors in a crowded cage, allowed less room than a sheet of typing paper for movement.
Each morning Brandon hooks a hitch to the side of his pen and moves it to a fresh patch of grass. The chickens eat grass, seeds, insects and feed provided from Schrock's mill.
A new day brings a new patch.
"And the chickens are leaving tons of free nitrogen behind them," Brandon said.
It's really just plain old-fashioned farming -- sustainable farming, the old circle of life. It's a national trend which has been slow to return to the South.
"We were the only ones in North Mississippi for a good while," Schrock said.
There are a few other similar farms in the southern part of the state, and a couple in Arkansas and Missouri that are within reasonable driving distance from Memphis.
These aren't organic farms, though.
"I think 'authentic' is a good word to describe what we do," Schrock said.
To grow organic products, farmers must follow guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But they don't necessarily provide for a better quality of life for the animals, which is something many small, ethical farmers consider important.
Brandon gets riled up when he talks about it.
"Someone can feed a chicken organic grain in a stinking chicken house and call it organic," he said.
His four children, ages 2 to 11, help work the farm. They not only gather eggs, milk goats and help feed, but they also pitch in on processing -- or slaughtering -- day for the chickens.
He could send the chickens out for processing, but he won't (by law he has to send the livestock out, but he takes it to a local abattoir instead of sending it to a large commercial operation).
"We are not about to put all the effort and labor -- this is hard work -- into this farm like we do then send our chickens to a plant where they're doused with chlorine and government-approved irradiation," he said.
So his chickens are processed on site. They're inserted head down in a stainless steel killing cone and their throats are slit.
They're eviscerated, scalded, plucked, washed and put on ice. Locals often come in to purchase on processing day, when the chicken costs less per pound than they do after they've been packaged and frozen.
Larry Jarrett of Pontotoc is a loyal customer.
"I buy the chickens for health and for taste -- they definitely taste better," he said. "The eggs also have a better taste and the yolks are brighter."
(Indeed, the yolks are an intense orange, a result of the laying hen's free range diet.)
Jarrett was raised on a farm.
"I'm not against corporate farming, but I'd rather support smaller farms who practice a responsible stewardship of property," he said. "We've lost so many family farms around here in the past 40 or 50 years."
Schrock agrees and he's hopeful that consumers will spur other farmers to adopt healthier practices.
"People want to know what's in their food, what they're getting, and who's raising it," he said.
"What we want is many, many, many local farmers, and right now there are still few, few," he said. "But as people become better informed, there will be even greater demand."