The Secret's in the Soil
Family discovers how to bring new life to tired land
Ron and Barbara Crain in a paddock with their calves. - Photos by Laura Araujo
A warm, late-spring breeze blows across the still-green wheat fields of Alfalfa County. Verdant earth stretches in every direction, interrupted only by an occasional plot of canola in full yellow bloom. Towering wind turbines stand silhouetted against the bright blue sky, their blades dancing in the wind. But missing from the landscape are the small family farms of yesteryear—farms like Wagon Creek Creamery, owned by Alfalfa Electric Cooperative members, Ron and Barbara Crain.
From Kyoto to Helena
Situated on 150 acres northeast of Helena, Oklahoma, the Crains’ farm is named after the Wagon Creek, which twists its way through the terrain. The farmland has been in Ron’s family for a century. His ancestors grew wheat there for nearly six decades before his dad started a dairy operation in the 1980s.
At the time, Ron and Barbara were half the world away, teaching English in the cities of Yokohama and Kyoto, Japan. In 1991, during their second stint abroad, the Crains received a call from Ron’s father. He asked them to partner in the family business. Though Barbara had grown up in Tulsa, she had fond childhood memories on her grandfather’s farm in Kansas, and had always dreamed of becoming a farmer. So from Japan, with two young boys in tow, the Crains set off on a new adventure—dairy farming.
Back home, they transitioned to the reality of farm life. They worked hard to build the business, day in and day out, but commodity pricing didn’t always reward their efforts.
“We had no control over when the bottom fell out. We decided, ‘We can complain about this for the rest of our lives, or we can do something different,’” Barbara says.
That’s when Barbara remembered a cheesemaking kit her brother-in-law had gifted her. A mom of five young kids at the time, she had stashed it away. But one day she decided to give it a try. Her first experiment was yogurt cheese. All the kids liked it. Success. She continued making it and perfecting her recipe.
Eventually the Crains reached out to Oklahoma State University’s Food and Agricultural Products Center. After consulting the university, they built a commercial creamery where they began making their own dairy products. They also discovered Barbara’s “yogurt cheese” was, in fact, Greek yogurt. She learned she could tweak the yogurt-making process to produce cheese as well.
Around the same time Barbara discovered Greek yogurt, Ron started reading more about pasture grazing and soil regeneration. When the Crains acquired the land, they quickly found that it was worn out from years of conventional agriculture.
In 2005, they began converting their pastures back to grassland. They seeded Bermuda and ryegrass, and they planted legumes, such as clover, that help to fix nitrogen into the soil. Ron also began breeding smaller cows that milk better on grass.
“It has all been a learning curve. I’ve done lots of reading about genetics, soil improvement and the link between grazing on grass and restoring the soil,” Ron says. “I’m deeply interested and continue to learn as I go.”
By 2006, the Crains’ herd was completely grass-fed, year-round. Their farming practices continue to evolve as they learn more about “regenerative agriculture”—agricultural practices that focus on restoring soil health.
Most recently, the Crains have begun a practice called ultra high density grazing. They divided their acreage into 44 paddocks, approximately 5 acres each. They rotate their 80 cows through the paddocks. Ron uses rolls of poly wire to create 1/8- to 1/4-acre plots and moves the animals three or four times each day. This forces them into “non-selective” grazing.
“They don’t get to choose the plants they eat like normal cows. We try to create a salad of different plants, and they eat it all,” he says. “We’re in control, and we move them across the land.”
It’s a labor-intensive practice, but one that pays dividends in terms of soil health. The cows (as well as chickens) fertilize the land as they go. By the time the animals rotate back through, the pasture has regrown. The Crains don’t use chemicals and rely on natural predators to create balance in the ecosystem.
“We’re improving our soil health. Our farm holds water. We have a greater diversity of plants, the wildlife has taken off and our insect population has soared,” Ron says. “It’s very encouraging.”
Quality vs. Quantity
Since the Crains’ cows are on a 100% grass diet, they produce a fraction of the milk of a grain-fed cow. On a weekly basis, the two dozen cattle they milk net about 300 gallons of dairy.
“It’s hard for small farms to compete with the ‘bigger is better’ mentality. But you lose a lot when you get too big,” Barbara says.
One of tradeoffs is quality. According to Ron, a couple of the health benefits of grass-fed dairy and beef are higher levels of vitamins and Omega 3 fatty acids, which are important for more than 50 different bodily functions, including controlling inflammatory conditions.
“Grains promote a diet heavy in Omega 6s. Grass-fed dairy and beef bring Omega 3s and 6s into balance,” Ron says. “Grass-fed beef is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat.”
The Crains target their high-quality products to a whole/health food market, people willing to purchase at a higher price point for the nutritional benefits.
Chelsey Simpson, co-owner of Urban Agrarian, a local food grocery with locations in Oklahoma City and Edmond, has known the Crains for more than a decade. Their grass-fed yogurt and butter are sought after by the shop’s clients.
“I grew up on a dairy so in all the work I do with local food, I have always had the softest spot for dairy farmers. I really respect what the Crains are doing because trying to grow a dairy from the ground up is not easy, especially when you’re trying to rehab soil that’s been robbed of nutrients over generations,” Simpson says. “I respect their dedication to grass-fed dairy. It sets their products apart and sets them apart as stewards.”
Kris Hutto, director of the Tulsa Farmers Market, says the Crains have been part of the market for 15 years; over time they’ve seen an increasing demand for grass-fed beef and dairy. She expects this trend to grow as people become aware of the necessity of protecting the integrity of the soil and the animal.
“It’s a huge niche that’s growing in popularity. The environmental impacts are overwhelmingly positive and necessary as we continue for generations to come,” she says. “They are doing this in the most natural and conscious way possible.”
To her knowledge, Wagon Creek Creamery is one of two 100% grass-fed dairies in Oklahoma, and one of a few grass-fed beef operations in the state. Hutto adds that the Crains are some of “the kindest, most friendly people. I can’t think of a better example of the type of farmer you’d want to meet at the farmers market,” she says.
Herd of calves grazing in a rotational 5-acre paddock to promote “non-selective” grazing.
Passing it on
With a growing number of people interested in regenerative agriculture, the Crains are looking for ways to use their farm to teach a new generation—young people like Tim Little. Little has worked for the Crains since he was 13. Now a college student, he returns every summer to intern on the farm.
“I started there not knowing much about farming, cows or dairy. I learned how to milk, how to graze properly, how to work the earth and even how to make yogurt,” he says.
Though he’s studying mechanical engineering, Little hopes to someday have a farm on the side, and he plans to model it after the Crains’.
“It’s incredible how it works. It’s a lot of work, but the benefits are huge,” Little says. “The Crains are onto something with their all-natural system.”
According to Barbara, the average age of a farmer today is around 60, which means they anticipate a large turnover in farmland over the next decade or two. She adds that small farms, like Wagon Creek, have to be supported or they will continue to disappear from the Oklahoma landscape.
After three decades of investing in their own north-central Oklahoma soil, the Crains want to continue sharing the knowledge they’ve acquired in order to offer new life to other family farms.“There is so much we’ve learned that we’d like to be able to pass on,” she concludes.
Learn more about Wagon Creek Creamery at wagoncreekcreamery.com.
Wagon Creek Creamery products:
- Whole milk and fat-free Greek yogurt
- Cheddar, pepper jack, gruyere and
- parmesan cheeses
- Crème fraîche
- Grass-fed beef
Wagon Creek Creamery products are available at these locations:
- Tulsa Farmers Market
- Urban Agrarian, Oklahoma City and Edmond
- Paseo Farmers Market, Oklahoma City
- Scissortail Market/J.B. Pratt, Oklahoma City
- Wagon Creek Creamery in Helena, Oklahoma (call ahead to make sure they’re home)