Farm manager Brant Crowder came to McDonald Farm a little over 10 years ago with big ideas for the 2,170-acre farm in which approximately 750 acres is for production.
Brant and his family live on the farm. “I was working for a corporation and had just gotten a promotion. I wasn’t looking for anything. It found me. A friend told me about it and told me I should check it out,” Brant says.
“None of the McDonald family lives here permanently – they sometimes like to come out and see what I am doing,” he says.
Once owned by grocery store operator and newspaper publisher Roy McDonald, the farm has passed down through the hands of family members. “Frank McDonald is Roy’s grandson and he is one of my supervisors,” Brant says.
“There are about 40 people that own it now, all family or spouses. It is set up like a corporation but it is still a family farm,” Brant insists.
The farm was acquired in 1821. “The reason the farm came into prominence was because of Red and White grocery stores. The Red Stores (Home Stores) were for Chattanooga and White Stores were for Knoxville. Dairy products that went to those stores came from this farm - ice cream, cheese and milk….” Brant says.
“The Red Stores were eventually bought out by Red Food Stores, which are now Bi-Lo. Once the stores folded, the dairy part of the farm had faded around the 70s. It was a high tech dairy in its day,” Brant says. “It was one of those farms where the milk was not touched by human hands - they had the automatic milkers.”
The farm now primarily produces corn and soy. The corn is used for grain feed. When the stores that bought the McDonald’s dairy faded out, they focused on the corn and soy and also wheat.
When Brant began running the farm, he added the cattle. “There was no grass or no fences – we made a lot of changes. The cattle are pretty much grass-fed beef, but because we still don’t have a lot of grass, we also feed them grain to give them a boost.”
When asked about controlling pests, Brant admits to using Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) practices.
“A lot of genetic modification came about the good old-fashioned way. They bred a gene and plants would tolerate something and they would breed it to tolerate other things and then they took that technology and actually genetically modified it. So it was something that was naturally occurring to start – they just made it faster by genetically modifying.
“We raise genetically modified corn and soy beans. Wheat has not been messed with much as far as the genetically modified side of it. The genetically modified trait in the corn helps where we don’t have to spray anything because it is already in the plant. There is a seed-treatment on the seed - it is an insecticide. If the insects eat what is on the seed, it will kill them eventually,” Brant says.
How does this affect human consumption?
“I don’t know that it does harm people because it is in the seed,” Brant says. “It doesn’t come through in the corn per se. They actually introduced Round-up Ready sweet corn, which is directly eaten by us. That would have had to have been genetically modified to be Round-up Ready. If everybody thinks that it is alright to process the corn we grow – now they have taken it a step further and are doing it with sweet corn that is directly for human consumption,” he states.
“Dairy cows are fed genetically modified corn; it really has not shown up to be any problem or anything. That may change, I don’t know,” Brant shrugs.
“I resisted at first, I was conventional for a while, but the drought that we have been in for the last seven years has forced us to put corn in our bottom grounds so that we have a better chance of making a yield there. The only way you can put corn after corn every year is you have to go genetically modified because disease and insects will build up in the soil. That is really your only option,” Brant asserts.
What about crop rotation?
“That might work for smaller farms but not for a farm on a bigger scale like this. We primarily sell feed corn to locals for pigs, cows, horses, chickens and we also sell wheat. We sell a lot of our corn to Pennine Farm Supply. They produce a lot of the feed that is sold in their store – a lot of our corn indirectly goes into the community too. We sell directly to individuals,” Brant says.
One of the projects he is excited about is the agritourism coming in the fall. “It starts Sept. 15 and 16 and goes on each weekend through Nov. 3 and 4 at 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. on Sunday.
“Now that we are doing agritourism, we are selling pumpkins to the public. We call it ‘Farm fun for the entire family’ – people come out and spend the day on the farm. It is something we developed because with the drought that we have had, we had to look at other sources of income. This is something that we can do and become more a part of the community,” Brant says.
“People have not really been allowed to come out here; it has always been a private farm unless it was a wedding or a church picnic. We do a lot of different things; we put in a gem mining operation. Mining has been part of our culture for hundreds of years so that is something fun to do,” Brant says.
The farm also offers hayrides, a pumpkin patch, a corn maze, kid’s rides, and a market. “We will have corn cribs for the kids to play in, slides and a critter barn with animals to play with and pet. It’s like a farm amusement park without the rides,” Brant laughs.
“With no irrigation system, we are dependent on the rain. With this weather pattern we have been in we just hope it will change. We feel the route we are going right now is best because of that. Every year in the last several years, we have lost money,” Brant admits.
Have you ever thought of using organic practices?
“We have thought about it but the size we are – it would be difficult to go that way because of the amount of fertilizer that we use. We could switch to chicken litter but sometimes you can get it and sometimes you can’t,” he says.
Why do you feel genetically modified organism practices are acceptable?
“You would have to ask me a hard question,” Brant laughs. He pauses and continues, “When I switched to genetically modified corn, I wanted to make sure people that were buying from me didn’t have a problem with it.”
“Pennine didn’t have a problem with me switching and I asked several of our customers and they didn’t have a problem so there was really not a reason for me not to switch. I can spray Round-up which allows us to use chemicals that are not harsh to the environment,” Brant confirms.
“If we didn’t have genetic modification – we’d have to use a lot more harsh chemicals that are really bad for the environment. We rarely use insecticides. The plant can’t tolerate them. We primarily will use Round-up – everybody uses Round-up. It won’t make you sick or kill you,” Brant says.
“We were doing alright when we were growing conventional, but to maximize our yield in a dry year we had to go to GMO.”