Nestled in the rolling hills and timberland of the southern Piedmont area of Virginia, Locust Level Farm is in a part of the state where, historically, fields of two to fifteen acres produced tobacco, supplemented by row crops. Michael McDowell is the fourth generation to practice stewardship on this land—designated a Virginia “century” farm—but he has taken some decidedly different directions from those of the past.
At the age of sixteen, McDowell says that his father offered him three acres of flue-cured tobacco under a sharecropper arrangement to produce funds for future college expenses. “I can’t say how important it was to take that step. It taught me early on the value of responsibility and about the challenges and rewards of working the land to provide for my needs.” He went on the graduate from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg with a double major in animal science and agronomy.
His sophomore year of college in 1976 saw another important landmark when he married his high school sweetheart, Wanda. She graduated from a technical college in North Carolina with a degree in what was then the nascent field of computer science. McDowell remembers, “She achieved a 4.0 GPA and was sought after by some early tech companies. But we talked it over, and she decided to take the career path of wife, homemaker, and mother and has been superb at all of these roles. She has always worked by my side, harvesting crops, tagging newborn calves, processing cattle, and clerking sales.” Through the years, Wanda has also served on the boards of Halifax County Public Schools and Halifax County Regional Health Services, and been a Halifax County 4-H volunteer.
The McDowell family grew to include three children, all of whom are doctors in different specialties. Angela McDowell Collins is a veterinarian married to Jon Collins, another veterinarian. Bridget McDowell Brown is a dentist, married to husband, Derek Brown, also a dentist, and Michael Weston McDowell is an ER doctor, married to Amanda, an optometrist. Collectively they’ve given Mike and Wanda eight grandchildren, all of whom live nearby within Halifax County. McDowell notes, “We are truly blessed that our children have carried the work ethic and servant’s heart from agriculture with them.”
Returning to Locust Level after college, McDowell garnered experience with land management and saw, with tobacco quota cuts approaching, another opportunity for future viability and revenue in purebred cattle. “I decided to develop an Angus seedstock operation and began making connections, doing research, and implementing slight changes in management.”
Over time he seeded more land with permanent grass cover and instituted a wide use of over- and inter-seeding with forage systems; stockpiling fescue was also part of that operation. Steadily converting acreage to novel endophyte fescue became more important after livestock loss with fescue toxicosis. He also minimized tillage production to the point where today 95 percent of his acreage is in no-till or sod. Locust Level has 50 acres of alfalfa yielding 2.4 tons/acre; 145 acres of mixed grass hay yielding 3.1 tons/acre; 25 acres of annual hay yielding 2.4 tons/acre and 400 acres of pasture. Total acreage under operation is 1,200 with 250 acres rented and 950 acres owned.
He adds, “Recently, extensive stream exclusion, stream crossings, and rotational paddock grazing have been integrated into the operation. The pond has been rebuilt, maintained, and managed according to conservation guidelines for watershed purposes. Numerous wells and plumbing infrastructures are in place to protect water sources.”
These practices are all part of a comprehensive Farm Conservation Plan and Grazing Plan, developed with the help of researchers at both Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University. McDowell also earned his Beef Quality Assurance Certification & Trainer status and has been twice named Virginia Seedstock Producer of the Year. He became one of the founders and is now director for the Halifax County Cattlemen’s Association and is active in a number of local and state industry associations. Locust Level Farm has also hosted Virginia Angus Field Day, VFGC Grazing School, VCE Cow Calf College and SWCD Stockpiled Forage Field Day.
All of this hard work has paid off in high-quality, award-winning Angus heifers and bulls. McDowell has embraced new techniques for producing purebreds from commercial herds that include genetic selection, ultrasonic evaluation for yearling bulls and heifers, evaluation of genomic rankings, and embryo transfer programs with veterinary consultation.
He says, “Our veterinarian daughter and son-in-law have been at the forefront of our intensive AI and embryo transfer program. Having them in the family and contributing to the farm drives our herd health and success.” Locust Level currently has 120 head of purebred Angus cows, 50 head of purebred heifers, and 70 head of purebred sale bulls.
Locust Level’s crops are currently marketed through the cow herd and excess hay is marketed through the Halifax County Cattlemen’s Association’s Hay Producer List. Bulls are marketed through organized farm bull auction and sales in conjunction with two other breeders. LLF bulls are also marketed private treaty and females through a combination of private treaty, bull sales, and a spring consignment auction. A catalog is produced yearly.
McDowell is quick to say that his agricultural career has been aided enormously by his early off-farm professional experience in agricultural financing. He recalls, “Working for Dominion Farm Loan Corporation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I covered six countries as an agribusiness representative, while still working more or less full time on the farm. It was rewarding to help bring ag-financing to areas where lenders had not previously seen farms as favorable investments. I also made a lot of helpful contacts and friendships along the way.”
From 1987–2000, another role as owner/partner in Southside Fence Builders & Supplies increased McDowell’s base of useful knowledge. It was a retail outlet of fencing, cattle handling, and fencing equipment that employed custom fence construction crews working in two states. “This enterprise,” he notes, “was one of the first to deal with high tensile fencing and enabled us to greatly expand infrastructure of farm facilities at reasonable costs because we headquartered on our own land here.”
A long-term board member of Mecklenburg Electrical Cooperative, McDowell is currently involved in their ongoing initiative to bring broadband with superior fiber optics to the region, straight into people’s homes, allowing farm families in more remote areas access to internet-related educational resources. He says, “Cooperatives of this type serve the interests of their members first, unlike some public utilities. Let’s not forget that electricity gave rural America the chance to catch up with the rest of the country. And this is just the next step.”
Over the years McDowell also took advantage of the H2A law to allow migrants to legally work on Virginia farms on a seasonal basis. He notes, “We put a lot of effort into recruiting skilled labor from places where the workers had their own small farms and were clearly qualified to do excellent work. They became an invaluable component of our ability to succeed.”
McDowell has long been involved with the operations of the Red House Bull Evaluation Station and sales. He also volunteers at the Halifax County Junior Livestock Show and Virginia Angus Breeders Show at ODAC.
The McDowell family is a close-knit unit that pitches in to help out during farm sale dates, clerking paperwork or processing cattle. A few of the grandchildren are beginning their own 4-H experience. All sixteen of them take vacations together to places like the Tennessee mountains and South Carolina beaches whenever their busy schedules allow.
Mike McDowell says, “We just kick back, play board games, go out to eat together, and generally enjoy each other’s company.” They also all attend County Line Baptist Church, founded in 1771, where Mike McDowell is now the full-time pastor. He says, “In 2011 I felt the call to evangelize and preach about the love of God and his presence in our lives. I’m now an ordained minister and still farm full-time.”
As to lessons learned over his service-filled life, McDowell says, “Patience comes from longsuffering; rain always follows drought at some point, and spring follows winter. The aim is to stay calm during the challenging times and find peace and comfort in the knowledge that there will always be unknowns in farming. And most importantly, realize that living things are highly responsive to management. So, what we do matters. The care and effort we give to crops and livestock have a real and direct effect. Farming is life science.”
Michael H. McDowell was nominated Virginia Farmer of the Year by Rebekah Slabach, Agriculture Extension Agent for Halifax County. She comments, “Mike McDowell has successfully overcome challenges and intelligently adapted over time to make Locust Level Farms a leading Virginia herd of registered Angus cattle. He and his family have made great strides in improving cattle genetics and reproductive health and have grown the bull development marketing enterprise.
“Throughout their stewardship of the family farm they have instituted beneficial conservation practices, transforming the poor tobacco-era soil and waterways into productive forages and grazing systems. Instituting these methods has proven beneficial for present and future sustainability. Mike McDowell has also taken many opportunities to facilitate agricultural education and build grass roots and cooperative relationships within the community.”
As the Virginia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, McDowell will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply. McDowell is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a tractor for a year from MF Product, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI, and a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute edition 22 rifle from Reinke Manufacturing Co., Inc., the irrigation company, through its partnership with Henry Repeating Arms.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 30th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Virginia include: Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater, 1990; Russell Inskeep of Culpepper, 1991; Harry Bennett of Covington, 1992; Hilton Hudson of Alton, 1993; Buck McCann of Carson, 1994; George M. Ashman, Jr. of Amelia, 1995; Bill Blalock of Baskerville, 1996; G. H. Peery III of Ceres, 1997; James Bennett of Red House, 1998; Ernest Copenhaver of Meadowview, 1999; John Davis of Port Royal, 2000; James Huffard III of Crockett, 2001; J. Hudson Reese of Scottsburg, 2002; Charles Parkerson of Suffolk, 2003; Lance Everett of Stony Creek, 2004; Monk Sanford of Orange, 2005; Paul House of Nokesville, 2006; Steve Berryman of Surry, 2007; Tim Sutphin of Dublin, 2008; Billy Bain of Dinwiddie, 2009; Wallick Harding of Jetersville, 2010; Donald Horsley of Virginia Beach, 2011; Maxwell Watkins of Sutherland, 2012; Lin Jones of New Canton, 2013; Robert T. “Tom” Nixon II of Rapidan, 2014; Donald Turner of North Dinwiddie, 2015; Tyler Wegmeyer of Hamilton, 2016; and Robert Mills, Jr., of Callands, 2017; Paul Rogers, Jr. of Wakefield, 2018.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Locust Level Farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of August 5–9. The judges this year include Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, who was the overall winner of the award in 2009; John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; and David Wildey, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016.