Building on a legacy started by his great-grandfather just after the Civil War, fourth-generation Louisiana farmer Antwain Downs intends to leave an even stronger legacy for the next generation.
Nine years ago, Downs retired from a career at a local paper mill, and started farming full time. Since then, he’s been expanding his farmland as opportunities have come his way. But he is quick to give credit to his ancestor for starting the family farm, located near Bastrop, in northeastern Louisiana.
“If he hadn’t bought the land in 1872, I wouldn’t have had land to start farming on,” says Downs, who has farmed part time for nearly three decades, even while working off the farm.
He has expanded the original acreage, the first generation of his family to do so, to its current 550 acres. And while he and wife, Patricia, have only one child, a daughter who works as a business analyst, they also have grandchildren, who someday might be interested in taking over the property.
“Even if the next generation doesn’t want to farm, they can rent it for the income, or if they do want to farm, they’ll have something to start with,” Downs explains.
Improving the Land
Expanding the farm hasn’t always been easy. Much of the acreage that Downs has purchased needed improvement before it could deliver the yields he wanted, and that required hard work, commitment and patience. Today, most of his land is precision-leveled and irrigated.
To manage and work the farm, Downs relies on one full-time and several seasonal employees. Patricia, a retired registered nurse, helps with the books and also serves as a respected sounding board.
Over the years, Downs has shifted his focus from cotton, his original crop, to today’s rotation of corn, wheat and soybeans.
“Around 2007, we started to change over to grain, when cotton prices got low,” he says. “The transition wasn’t hard, but the biggest problem was where to store the grain and how to transport it.”
“I learned from the school of hard knocks. If I can make it easier for other farmers in my situation by sharing my experiences, then I want to help.”
- Antwain Downs
Since then, he’s found a strong ally in a local cooperative, which stores and markets his grain, and has built his own on-farm storage bins. To manage the new crops and minimize expenses, he also has purchased harvesting equipment, trucks and trailers in partnership with two neighboring farmers.
Cooperating With Other Farmers
Cooperating with other farmers is important to Downs. He is a founding member and treasurer of the Morehouse Black Farmers and Landowners Association, and is also a member of the National Black Growers Council.
“I learned from the school of hard knocks,” he says. “If I can make it easier for other farmers in my situation by sharing my experiences, then I want to help.”
Downs also credits the Extension agents from Southern University and Louisiana State University AgCenter for helping him develop the farm plan that has brought him to his current success.
Always looking to the future, Downs recognized last year that interest rates would likely rise and that his current loan structure put him at financial risk. On the recommendation of his local commercial banker, he refinanced 240 acres of land with Louisiana Land Bank, locking in a 15-year interest rate.
“You get to know your banker,” Downs says, “and I know he wants to see me do well. I didn’t move all my business to Farm Credit, but I’m looking forward to working with them.”
Louisiana Land Bank appreciates the opportunity to work with Downs.
“We look forward to helping Mr. Downs grow his business and reach his goals,” says his loan officer, Land Bank Assistant Vice President Jarrod Sellar.
- Karen MacDonald
Farmers Helping Farmers
National Black Growers Council Focuses on Education
Sometimes the best source of help and information for farmers is other farmers.
That’s essentially the philosophy of the National Black Growers Council (NBGC), a nonprofit organization that advocates for the best interests of African- American farmers locally, statewide and nationally.
And that’s why Antwain Downs is gladly helping to coordinate an on-farm demonstration program in his community of Bastrop, La. Hosted by the Morehouse Black Farmers and Landowners Association, which he co-founded, the July 24 field day will be part of the council’s 2015 Model Farm Series.
“Our mission is to help black row crop farmers become more efficient, productive and sustainable,” says Leigh Allen, NBGC executive director. “One way our members do that is by networking and sharing their knowledge and experience through workshops, on-farm demonstrations and other educational forums.”
Allen notes that some members have formed business partnerships with each other. In addition, the council has established relationships with agricultural businesses such as Farm Credit, “because we all contribute to the global food supply.”
“The model farm program is an excellent venue for studying new technology and production methods, and Farm Credit is pleased to lend its support to the program,” says Isaac Bennett, Farm Credit Bank of Texas senior vice president of capital markets. “We are eager to assist the NBGC in helping its members excel.”
Model farm field days are scheduled to be held in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia this year.
A secondary goal of the NBGC is to teach young men and women about the virtues of farming, according to Allen. Census data show a 9 percent increase in the number of African-American agricultural producers from 2007 to 2012. Still, the NBGC is concerned about attracting, mentoring and training the next generation of full-time professional black farmers, as well as educating youth about career opportunities in the agricultural industry.
Established in 2010 to represent the unique needs of full-time black farmers, the council’s current members are responsible for farming more than 100,000 acres of land in 11 southern states, from Texas to Virginia.
For more information, please visitwww.nationalblackgrowerscouncil.com.