ALL-NATURAL APPROACH: Raising sheep and cattle, Cameron Family Farms practices holistic, small farm sustainability & land stewardship
“The small landholders are the most precious part of a state”
- THOMAS JEFFERSON in a letter to Reverend James Madison, Oct. 28, 1785
In your mind, J.S. Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze plays backdrop to the waning light and the increasing cricket song as a squirrel harvests acorns. Grass helms dance on a light, warm breeze as it rustles the live oak leaves and carries with it the contented clucking of the chickens scratching away at bugs in the flower bed.
In charge of ranch security, Anatoles Louise and Jet lazily keep an eye on the flock of Dorper sheep as it slowly moves across the pastoral canvas of gently rolling grass-covered hills; the lambs doing their funny little jumps and sprints to keep up. The dogs are relying on the rest of the security task force PJ the lama and the donkeys Diva and Megan to do the actual heavy lifting guard work.
Never one to sit still for long, Jack slowly gets up to exchange his rocking chair for the saddle – it is that time of day that he can enjoy a quiet ride across the fields on Gadget, just checking on the Corriente herd before nightfall.
Tammy sits for a little longer, taking in the scene that breathes harmony, peace, love and happiness for her. There is no hurry; the day’s work is done. The onions are harvested and put up in the pantry, the okra picked and ready for the farmer’s market, the beef inventory is in the books, the delivery for Oma Leen’s farm-to-table restaurant selected out.
This is a regular scene at the homestead on the 300-acre Cameron Family Farm, located between Cranfills Gap and Iredell. On their farm, Jack and Tammy Cameron live and breathe a holistic, all-natural approach to raising their cattle and sheep, and growing a variety of garden products. Former pilot and Texas Christian University graduate in Ranch Management, Jack focuses on the main operations as Tammy is the invaluable and indispensable support act, filling the roles of ranch hand, confidant, pond manager, tender of the vegetable garden and the chickens.
On their anniversary in Oct. 2020, Tammy captured their relationship, in a Facebook post:
“Forty-one years ago, Jack became the pilot and I was the copilot. After many years of marriage, Jack became the Captain and I became the Chief Pilot. We have had several years of turbulence, but God has always been our Flight Lead. Fly high, be free and live your dreams.”
At Cameron Family Farm, the guiding light is their Faith in God. As stated in Psalms 24:1, “The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord.” This leads to their strong sense of stewardship — stewardship of the land and stewardship of the stock. And their approach to stewardship is to know their business.
Another important influence in the Cameron’s farming philosophy is Wendell E. Berry’s “The Unsettling of America,” a 1977 book-length polemic in which Wendell explains that responsible, small-scale agriculture and a healthy man-earth relationship is essential to the preservation of the land and the culture. Man needs to be in balance with nature and to know that nature and the land respond well to and flourish with kindly use and care. Wendell’s plea is to stop exploiting the land and to nurture it, increase its value. The emphasis shifts from efficiency to care and from quantity to quality.
“A competent farmer is his own boss,” Wendell wrote. “He has learned the disciplines necessary to go ahead on his own, as required by economic obligation, loyalty to his place, pride in his work.
“His work days require the use of long experience and practiced judgment, for the failures of which he knows that he will suffer. His days do not begin and end by rule, but in response to necessity, interest and obligation. They are not measured by the clock, but by the task and is endurance; they last as long as he can work.
“He has mastered intricate formal patterns in ordering his work within the overlapping cycles – human and natural, controllable and uncontrollable – of the life of a farm."
Jack and Tammy pay tribute to that competent farmer in all they do when tending to their farm and flock. The Camerons have an intimate knowledge, love and care of their farm, embracing the responsibilities and pleasures of farming. They use the wisdom that comes from unceasing attention and practice, whether it is herd management or tending the vegetable garden.
The Camerons follow nature and its seasons – trying to understand why this year’s tomato crop took so long to grow and ripen; why certain pests were more prevalent this year than last year. They know good farming is a work of nurture and a work of faith and hope.
“Agriculture teaches me patience,” Jack said. “You never achieve completion. You have to settle into it.”
Other influences to the farming couple are pioneers of regenerative agriculture, Allan Savory and Joel Salatin. According to Savory, to farm sustainably is no longer enough. Farmers need to steadily improve their land by bringing it closer to what was there before the advent of modern agriculture by stimulating the symbiotic relationship between livestock and the vegetation – with hearty vegetation regrowth thanks to improved nutrient content, and the soils improved moisture-holding capacity.
This approach pays off in the long run – the herd and grasslands require less maintenance and it lowers the production costs. Jack stresses that their farming is not a retirement hobby but clearly a business, in all its aspects.
In a land filled with Black Angus cattle for beef production, the Camerons went another route – one more suited to their philosophy and the natural environment. Their hardy Corriente herd with smaller, leaner cows convert grass to beef better, are low maintenance, have high fertility, calf easily, reach maturity quickly, while being very well-suited to the Central Texas climate – surviving on less water and sparser, more diverse vegetation.
Additionally, where the Corriente have grazed, there are less weeds, prickly pear and mesquite. Besides these obvious advantages for ranchers, Corriente beef also has several attributes that are beneficial to the consumer – the naturally marbled, tender beef is naturally low in fat, cholesterol and calories. Because of their horns and athleticism, most people know the Corrientes as roping cows at rodeos. The Camerons sell their bull calves to that business.
The choice for Dorper sheep was for their docility, and they survive well in the Central Texas climate with minimal management. The fast-growing, well-muscled Dorpers meat is rich in high quality protein and many vitamins and minerals.
The cattle herd is around 24 females, with seven to eight calves and a bull named Jose, the pretty steers named Trail Boss and Peacemaker. The sheep herd consists of around 10 ewes, their lambs and a ram.
“All I need to produce protein is sun and rain,” Jack said, over-simplifying his role as rancher.
With the smaller herds, Jack is able to interact directly with each animal. He makes sure his produce cows are accustomed to human interaction, that they get plenty of individual attention, to the point of massaging them. This ultimately leads to his animals being less stressed at the processor, and with less adrenalin in their blood, their muscles retain less water.
Another advantage of smaller herds, is that the Camerons control the whole process from calf to processing and retailing the produce, cutting out the costs of the middlemen, with all revenue going straight back to the ranch.
As with the beef, the lamb is processed at a USDA certified processor. Wanting to be completely transparent to their customers about their meat product, the Camerons have a Statement of Soundness to show them. It states that the herd is grass-finished beef, that the farm is certified by the American Grassfed Association and United States Department of Agriculture approved as an all-natural producer. The farm does not use herbicides or pesticides. These important certifications come with a lot of work and annual inspections, making sure the quality is maintained.
Besides milk as a calf and grass as an adult, the only supplements the animals receive are molasses, apple cider vinegar for gut health, mineral licks and cotton seed cubes. No growth hormones are used ever. The herd is vaccinated against Black Leg – a gas gangrene producing bacterial disease. Breeding stock also receive Brucellosis vaccine and Bovine Blocker – an antiviral compound for pregnant cows.
The farming couple has never encountered hoof rot or respiratory ailments in their herd. But if it were the case, the cow will be isolated, treated according to veterinary guidelines, which might include antibiotics. Any animal receiving antibiotics is excluded from supplying produce and is sold separately.
“Even though this is not our sole income, the operation now pays for itself,” Jack said. “We are so fortunate to be able to live off the land. It is so fulfilling to raise your own food and sell off the surplus.”
The Camerons finds gratification and satisfaction in the direct connection to their food – a good, wholesome product, while increasing the value of their land. But farming itself is not the only drive for the couple. They want to actively increase awareness on where the food on our tables comes from and are very much involved in promoting the farm-to-table industry. They will gladly explain their farming operations to visitors at the Bosque Farmers Market booth.
Knowing that the youth of today are tomorrow’s advocates, they hosted a group of 24 4-H youth from Bosque, Johnson and Hill County, letting them help out with tagging and inoculating a newborn calf, explaining holistic and regenerative farming. The county agents wanted to show different aspects of agriculture on the summer field days. With many of the youth growing up on traditional cattle ranches, the Cameron Family Farm operation allowed them to see a niche livestock operation and to hear the philosophy behind this small scale cattle ranch.
At this stage in his life, Jack gets to enjoy the four major loves in his life – Tammy, music, flying and cattle along with the accompanying working of the land. Jack plays guitar and owns his own plane with private landing strip on the farm. But getting to this place did not happen overnight. It was a long and winding road, with a few bumps and harrowing turns along the way.
The journey starts in Eldorado, Kansas – the end point of the Chisholm Trail – where Jack’s parents operated a ranch. There on the Flint Hills, the cattle were fattened back up before being shipped up north by rail. The love of the land and the animals started there, while cattle and horses have always been in his life. Tammy’s dad and Jack’s dad happened to be buddies.
The road to Bosque County was by way of Tulsa and Frisco as Jack and Tammy started their family. By that time, Jack already had a Finance degree from Tulsa University, enrolled in the Air Force pilot training to pursue his dream to become a pilot. He was a test pilot in the Air Force before he became a line pilot for American Airlines. At night school, Jack finished his Ranch Management degree. And as if that wasn’t enough, Jack got his real estate license as well.
In 1994, the first acres and original homestead were bought. Over the next 20 years, more land was bought, and the farm became the family weekend retreat.
“We did not find this place, it found us,” Jack said. “And we did not buy this place as it is, we built it.”
In the beginning, Jack did a lot of cedar clearing, taking the land back to its natural state with native grasses like Big and Little Blue, Switch grain and Indian grass. Where cedar sucks the water out of the soil, grasses are very effective at limiting erosion and runoff and increasing the water-holding capacity of the land. And the native grasses require nothing more than the livestock manure the sheep and cattle produce to thrive.
The definite move to their home in the country came in 2011 after Jack was diagnosed with stage 4, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. Not long after that in 2014, Tammy waged the battle against breast cancer. The chemo and radiation therapies were hard and emotional times for both of them. And an extra blow came from the Federal Aviation Administration deeming Jack unfit to fly. Not once but twice, Jack’s cancer returned. But thanks to a new drug, he waged and won those battles, too.
And now, Jack is back flying low and slow in the blue skies in his yellow Maule plane. Their faith, perseverance, staying positive and living life to the fullest got them to where they are today.
“God has been gracious to our family and our life,” Tammy said, in spite of their battles with cancer. “Our strong faith got us through. We never gave up, never complained and were grateful for each day. The battles made us stronger. And we are not at the best place in our health in nine years.”
Three pots atop the Cameron homestead kitchen cabinets – one for oil, one for grain, one for water – symbolize the story of Elijah and the Widow. Because of her faith in God and following his word, the widow gave up her last food to a stranger, only to be rewarded with everlasting supplies of oil, flour and water for her family.
For the Camerons, sharing their bounty is a Christian duty, showing their faith. They generously give in time, effort and money to their church and organizations they are members of – like the Bosque Farmers’ Market and Meridian Parks and Recreation – never afraid to do the hard work when needed.
And with that, we return to the setting sun over the Cameron pasture, to a farm settling into a peaceful night after a day of sweat-off-the-brow honest labor. Dragonflies dart over the stock pond, their wings shimmering in the last light. The sheep are in the paddock. The ranch security task force is in place. The three barn cats stretch out on the warm stones by the barn as the guinea shuffles past. Jack unsaddles Gadget as Tammy’s horse Gizmo welcomes him back to the stable.
With last light, we close with the wish “May every sunrise hold more promise and every sunset hold more peace,” as the last notes of the Bach aria drifts away on the breeze. “Sheep may safely graze where a caring shepherd guards them. Where a regent reigns well, we may have security and peace and things that let a country prosper.”
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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