Jones County, Mississippi
A walk on Justin Pitts’ heritage cattle farm in Jones County, Mississippi will carry you back 100 years, says the 40-year-old family farmer whose been working the land all his life.
“I’ve been farming since I was able to walk alongside my granddad as a child,” Pitts says.
The Pitts family’s farming roots are deep. They’ve worked farmland in the area since 1815. Pitts has staked his claim to 160 acres of rolling woodland and pasture near the county seat of Ellisville. He rents another 160 down the road. The farm is sandy-soiled, but produces good forage for livestock. Pitts markets his heritage breeds of cattle, sheep and goats at farmers markets, health food stores and catering companies in and around New Orleans.
“I can’t raise enough lamb to meet the demand in New Orleans,” Pitts says.
His heritage breeds date back to the days when Spain held sway in the region.
“I raise Piney Woods Cattle, some call them Mississippi Woods Cattle. The “Spaniards brought them over. They’ve passed from one generation to the next as far back as anyone can remember,” says Pitts. Spanish Goats and native Mississippi sheep, plus a flock of 250 heritage breed laying hens round out the bulk of farm production. For Pitts, whose independent streak is evident in virtually every statement he makes, economic survival depends on being able to work a market niche, but farming is as much about raising good food as it is about anything else.
“I tell the people who buy this meat that I’ve grown it with me in mind. It’s for me first, then everybody else. I don’t want to eat any hormones, or implants or antibiotics in my food, so you won’t find any in my meat. My animals graze. They eat blue stem grass and whatever else is growing up in the woods. I might feed them a little corn every once in a while if I have to supplement their feed, but I don’t like to buy corn because it’s probably all GMO corn.”
While consumer interest in locally raised and grass fed meat is growing, Pitts says making a living on the farm is still a tremendous challenge. Sixteen hour days are not uncommon. He regularly drives to New Orleans to participate in the Crescent City Farmers Market and sell to other retailers. He also has to drive his animals to a small, USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in De Kalb, Mississippi to be processed. It’s 125 miles one-way, and with the price of gas going up, it’s getting tougher.
“It’s a pill everyday trying to get something accomplished,” says Pitts. “But maybe the government will leave me alone and I’ll make it.”