Farming with Spirit
Faith and farming are transformative—and inseparable—for the McDowell family on their fourth-generation farm.
By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole
When the pastor takes the pulpit at County Line Baptist Church in Halifax County, Virginia, a 5-foot cattle prod leans at his side. It’s not a prop. It’s not what might be known in ministry circles as an “object lesson.”
For Pastor Michael McDowell, it’s an essential part of his story.
It’s also an essential part of the Apostle Paul’s story, a source of faithful inspiration for McDowell. “When Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus,” says McDowell, “Paul falls from his horse and Jesus speaks to him, and says, ‘Paul, it’s difficult for you to kick against the pricks.’”
And that’s where the stories of Pastor McDowell and Farmer McDowell intersect. “I was reared around mules and animal-drawn implements,” he says, recalling days on his four-generation farm, just down the road from the church, when there wasn’t a tractor to be found. “That ‘prick,’ or prod, directed an animal to go where they were supposed to go. It’s a constant reminder to me when I tend to want to go another way.”
Like, perhaps, when he considered not even filling out an application for Farmer of the Year, a top honor presented each year at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Georgia, to the outstanding farmer in the southeastern United States. “I was just totally opposed to it,” he says. “We’re not ‘those people,’” chasing awards. But then he had a conversation with another pastor. “He said, ‘Mike, what if filling out that application gives you a larger platform to tell others about God?’ And I was like, ‘Oh.’”
McDowell and his wife (and partner in farming and ministry), Wanda, have been telling their story pretty much constantly since winning the award, a story where faith and farming inextricably overlap. McDowell’s farming story is one of conversion, too. In fact, the McDowells’ evangelism about the experience of transforming their own operation has helped transform an entire region.
Until very recently, this southern border that Virginia’s Halifax County shares with North Carolina was tobacco country, a place where a family with a big front yard could make some serious money with the flue-cured leaf. “Tobacco people could live off three, four, five, 10 acres,” says Michael, “so the fields here are of that size.”
So were the fields on the McDowells’ Locust Level Farms, where Michael’s parents and grandparents raised tobacco, and taught him to do the same. As a teenager, Michael tended three acres of tobacco that would help buy him a car and put him through college at Virginia Tech, where he earned degrees in both animal ag and plant and soil science. Locust Level became one of the largest tobacco farms in the area, “at 75, 80 acres,” says Michael, but quota cuts were changing the industry for growers even as the Surgeon General’s warning was changing the perception of tobacco for consumers. Though acres planted in Halifax County and the state have leveled off over the past five years after dropping precipitously, cash receipts continue to fall year over year. “So there was a need for expansion in some (other) part of agriculture for the area,” he says.
Locust Level grew its last tobacco crop in 1999, and by that time had already diversified into cattle. Still, the McDowells were no different from their neighbors when it came to topography. “There’s not a lot of open rangeland,” says Michael. That meant careful management for both land and animals. It was just sensible to embrace conservation practices that made the most of smaller acreages, including permanent grass cover and over- and inter-seeding for pasture maintenance with almost no tillage. He was also one of the earliest adopters of high-tensile fencing in the region, which made rotational grazing easier “instead of just treating our cows like Bush Hogs,” he laughs.
Meanwhile, he was carefully observing traits over time to breed what Michael calls “the randomness” out of his purebred Angus herd. Today, Locust Level runs “about 160 momma cows,” he says, along with several dozen purebred sale bulls, spread across some 1500 acres that also includes alfalfa and other mixed hays. “We set out implementing a strict genetics program through use of performance data that we could translate into genetic predictions,” he says. “Even as a small breeder, you can use genetics to improve your cattle.”
Strict genetic selection has led to one of the finest seedstock herds in the state, and a reputation with customers not just for excellence, but transparency. “We want our customers to know everything that we know about the cattle,” he says, “so we can use traits that we can predict to help people match up to what they need to be profitable in their programs.”
One such trait would even help Michael answer the call to ministry. Breeding for calving ease means Michael can tend more to the business of the church rather than obsessively checking cattle day and night; it also means his customers can better run cattle while carrying on professional lives off the farm.
Michael’s off-farm résumé is as diverse as his operation, but all of it contributes to his success at Locust Level. Besides spending 14 years selling and installing the high tensile fencing he helped introduce to the area, he is also a founding member of both the Halifax County Cattlemen’s Association and the Southern Virginia Beef Alliance. Not surprisingly, Rebekah Slabach, the county’s Extension agent who nominated McDowell for Farmer of the Year, pretty much credits him with developing the Angus brand in the state.
He’s a staple on the county’s Farm Service Agency committee and Farm Bureau board, as well as in the county’s 4H and FFA programs. He even helped neighbors secure loans as an ag lender, building relationships with pretty much every farmer in the region. Nobody doesn’t know Michael McDowell.
With so many connections and so much credibility, McDowell even helped tackle one of the region’s—and the industry’s—lingering challenges: the shortage of labor. “One of the farmers I work with told me, ‘My banker can take away all my money, my landlords can take away my quota and my land, and I’ll find some way to survive. But if I don’t have labor, I’m done,’” says Michael. So he was instrumental in bringing in H-2A migrant workers into the area, “which was unheard of,” he says, and placing them with work that matched their qualifications.
That résumé is more than impressive enough to win him the award, but Michael says, “it was just me… It was what I wanted to do to help others come along.” He says if his wife, Wanda, were listing the accomplishments that led to the win, she’d likely start with a different line item.
“She would say it was because of the family,” he says.
“He’s done a lot of things here on the farm, very innovative things for the area,” says Wanda. “But I think his role as a daddy to our three children, and the family we have reared… all of our children have helped on the farm,” she says.
And today, they help the region. All three adult children live in Halifax County. One is an emergency room doctor, married to an optometrist; one is a dentist, married to a dentist; one is a veterinarian, married to a veterinarian. All six are serving a county that might otherwise lack such professional services, says Michael. And the two vets have helped the purebred Angus business succeed; both are involved with the Locust Level’s advanced AI and embryo transfer programs.“He’s done a lot of things here on the farm, very innovative things for the area.”Click To Tweet
The family’s success, Michael insists, is the byproduct of service for the greater good. He remembers his own father telling him, “Son, you need to realize that in this world there’s just a certain number of people you need to take care of,” he says. “Those of us who are given the ability, whatever the resource is, it’s given to us so we can share with others.”
And he sees blessings from that, he says, even when time becomes the most precious resource of all. Pastoring, he says, “takes up a lot of my time outside of the cattle business.”
But there’s another word from the Apostle Paul from the book of Romans; it reminds Michael how “God works all things together,” he says; farming and ministry, “the two are greatly tied together.” Besides the genetic selection that allows him more time away from the farm, he points all the way back to his youth, when FFA public speaking programs placed him in front of small crowds at the local level to thousands of kids at conventions, honing skills he’d use decades later in the pulpit.
“And I dare anyone else to explain it any other way than the fact that it’s God’s will,” he says. Even if it took a little “prodding.”