WEST POINT, Miss. (AP) – Throughout 23 years of service in the United States Air Force, Clay County native Leroy Alford always had one plan - to move back to the land where he grew up outside West Point.
Now retired, the lieutenant colonel who served in Desert Storm, and was stationed as far away as Germany and Turkey, spends his time between his home in Maryland and his 90 acres of land in Clay County where he’s started to raise cattle and is working to become a certified organic farmer.
“There’s a peacefulness in being able to come back to home, (the) places that you grew up,” Alford said. “Being back in Mississippi, being back on your own place, makes it more enjoyable.”
Alford’s 90 acres is divided between about 50 acres of woods and 40 acres of fenced-in pasture where his Angus beef cattle roam. He’s owned the land since the late 1990s and has been clearing and improving it since. He retired from the Air Force in 2006 and began raising cattle in 2012. He currently has 10 cattle, including a calf born recently.
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Alford’s acres border his parents’ land - also about 90 acres of pasture and woods. His parents, Johnny Alford and Louise Saul Alford, have owned their plot since the 1950s. It was $33 an acre back then, Johnny said. He wanted a place both for his family to stay when he was overseas and that he could leave his children after he died.
“It’s a home for my family and when I’m gone, they still have a home,” Johnny said. “All they have to do is pay the taxes.”
Like his son, Johnny was in the military, though he was in the Army instead of the Air Force. He fought in both the Korean and the Vietnam conflicts, Leroy said. The family moved around a lot, but the land in West Point was home base.
Now his parents, who are well into their 80s, look after Leroy’s land when he’s in Maryland. They have plenty of help from neighbors, too, many of whom also raise cattle or grow cotton and soybeans.
Leroy has also had help from the U.S. National Resources Conservation Service and About Giving, a nonprofit that helps veterans, women and minorities attain education or business goals. About Giving has assisted Alford in the administrative side of running a small business.
“They helped me with the business plan,” Alford said. “They were instrumental in drafting, revising, providing comments about the business plan, and they’ve been instrumental in providing some business recommendations.”
But Alford’s more focused on the land maintenance side of things. That’s where the NRCS comes in. It’s been assisting him with various projects all over his property, from cutting down on erosion to improving the growth of grass so that his cattle can graze.
He’s plowed the pasture, breaking up the ground so he can plant clover seeds. Clover puts nitrogen in the soil, acting as a natural fertilizer and helping more grass grown, Leroy said. The more the grass grows naturally, the less food he has to buy for his cattle and the more money he saves on them.
Having the cows eat more grass has another benefit too - if the cows stick to grass rather than food containing added hormones and chemicals, he’s one step closer to becoming an organic farmer.
“That would make the cows more marketable,” he said. “You could probably get a higher price for the meat by pound if they are higher certified. That’s one goal. But … people can feel more comfortable knowing (the meat they’re eating is) not filled with hormones or a certain type of chemical. So that’s a goal also, to provide a product that people want.”
Right now, Leroy doesn’t have the infrastructure to adhere to all the requirements to being an organic farmer, but he hopes that within five years he'll be able to have grass - and by extension cows - free of chemicals.
That’s about when he plans to move his family back to Mississippi permanently, he said. He wants his two children - a 20-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son - to be able to get to the know the land like he did growing up and to explore and fish and hunt the way he did growing up. Eventually he wants to leave the land to them the same way his father plans to leave land to his own children.
“I think it’s important to keep the land in the family so you can pass it on,” he said. “The more you can preserve it and pass it on to the next generation, that would be a goal of mine.