A multigenerational trio works together to grow herbs, mushrooms and more on the Brown family’s Yalobusha County acreage.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Several miles outside the city limits of Water Valley in the county of Yalobusha stretches 400 acres of land that has been a part of Leonard Brown’s family over a century. Brown’s father sold whatever he grew on the farm; his mother made all her children’s clothes.
“I was in the eighth grade when I had my first store-bought shirt,” he said.
His childhood memories of his family farm are as clear as can be: a smokehouse; shelves lined with all manner of home-grown canned items, even beef; no refrigeration, but things that need cooling placed in a hole dug in the ground, and ice delivered once a week.
“We lived off the farm,” he said. “If anything was bought in town, it might have been peppermint candy. We did it all.”
And nearly two decades ago, Brown began growing herbs of the culinary and medicinal kind. He also grows fruits and vegetables. And who wants a farm without an animal or two, or more? At Brown’s Farm there are a couple of sheep, 30 cows, 10 goats, two mules, a donkey and an assortment of feathered fowl — peacocks, a pair of roosters, chickens and a duck. Chances are occasional dogs and cats call the place home as well.
“I have an uncle in Columbus, Ohio, who would come down here once a year,” Brown said. “He would talk about herbs and what ailments they were good for. I had no interest. Well, one day I got to feeling so bad, and I decided I was going to try what he said. Within 30 minutes, I felt like a new person. I was sold on the benefits of herbs.”
When Dria Price and Halima Salazar came into Brown’s life three years ago, they were stunned to discover the octogenarian was tending his farm all by himself.
Price, who lived in Oxford at the time, first met Brown at the Oxford Community Market where his herbs are a popular item every Tuesday. The 25-year-old has a master’s degree in nutrition, and she seems to have found her calling on the farm helping Brown grow organic herbs.
“Farming was not on my radar at all,” she said. “But my grandparents did farm in Missouri before moving to Chicago. My generation seems to have a loss of knowledge about farming.”
Salazar, 42, is originally from Nigeria and studied political science and business. But her passion is combining cooking and agriculture. Not only does she work on the farm, but she and her husband are living in a house they are renovating just down the road from Brown. It’s where she home-schools their children, 12-year-old Bella and 10-year-old Eduardo.
“When I first started coming to the farm, I told Mr. Brown I home-school my kids so I’d have plenty of time to help out,” Salazar said, laughing. “I should never have said that. Once you come to the farm, you never leave.”
Price nodded in complete agreement.
“I lived in Oxford when I first met Mr. Brown,” she said. “But my husband and I have moved closer to the farm over time.”
Work on a farm is never really done. Even when the trio sits at the cluttered dining room table in Brown’s house, especially on rainy days, they’re working. Perhaps they’re researching herbs, or making plans for new products and projects, like essential oils or infused cooking oils, or discussing the building of a climate-controlled house for growing mushrooms.
Brown grows oyster and shiitake mushrooms. “I just wanted to see could I grow them,” he said.
When they first took mushrooms to the market, they couldn’t give them away. But that has changed.
“People get upset if we leave and they don’t get their mushrooms,” Salazar said. “We rarely have any left anymore, but if we do, restaurants will buy them.”
Brown nods before sharing that his helpers handle the market without him a lot these days.
“They won’t let me go much anymore,” he said. “They said I’m bad to give things away.”
Though there’s no blood connection among the three, anyone just watching and listening from a distance would likely think they are a grandfather and a pair of granddaughters. In fact, Salazar often calls Brown “Abuelito” — that’s Spanish for grandfather. There’s clearly an abundance of admiration among them, but there are also plenty of verbal volleys of gentle sarcasm from time to time.
“I ain’t had no peace of mind since these two have been here,” Brown said.
One has to be in Brown’s presence only a short time before his sense of humor looms large and skips no one. He told a man once he’d found an automatic grass cutter that worked really well. The man got all excited and insisted on seeing this wonder — which turned out to be one of Brown’s cows.
Both young women shake their heads in consternation when people meet their mentor and ask what grade he finished. Truth is, Brown received his master’s degree from Tuskegee University in agricultural science education. He worked for the Alabama Extension Service in Montgomery County for nearly a decade before returning to his farm.
If you want to visit Brown’s beautiful acreage, know this: There are no visitors, only volunteers. If you show up, be prepared to sweat alongside Brown, Salazar, Price and anyone else who may have shown up. It’s a working farm, and the work is never done.
“He is the glue here,” Price said of Brown. “He knows every cranny of this land, and this farm is his life’s goal, to make it sustainable for when he is not here. It’s his legacy.”