From Milk to Meat, Billy Ray Brown Helped Make North Mississippi Food-Secure During the 2020 Pandemic
If you’re standing in Billy Ray’s pasture on Highway 334, cars honk as they pass. Not once, not occasionally, but every drive-by is a neighborly “hello” to Billy Ray Brown and his family of seven who run and own Brown Family Dairy.
Answering the beef shortage that resulted from the pandemic, the Brown family opened their new butcher shop in November 2020, which sits right at the front of their farm, easily visible from the road.
Standing on just a few of the over 3,000 acres of the Brown’s farming property, Billy Ray immediately welcomed me into his business and spoke openly of how life led them down the path to running Brown Family Farm. Billy Ray is son to acclaimed writer Larry Brown, who was born and raised in Lafayette County by humble means. Billy Ray did not desire to become a writer like his father, but had other ideas for how to craft his life story.
Brown Family Dairy is a truly local, family business. Billy Ray is joined daily by his wife, Paula, and five children. His kids help milk the cows in the mornings and evenings. Paula works as a special education teacher in Water Valley, then drives home to work in the new butcher shop in the evening. It takes the whole family to pull it off, including Billy Ray’s brother, Shane Brown, who runs the week’s deliveries and handles many of the business aspects of the farm’s daily needs, and his sister-in-law, whose milk soaps and bath products add variety to the shop.
“Anytime someone says my ‘milk is too high,’ I say ‘no, all milk is too cheap.'”–Billy Ray Brown
The Brown Family Farm farm boasts about forty head of dairy cattle that provide the product most people think of when they think of the Brown’s farm.
The farm follows many nuanced attentions to detail, such as the careful ninety-day breeding season and the fact that Billy Ray tries to check on each pregnant cow every day when she is close to calving. Problems can arise in a moment’s notice, and he wants to be there as much as he can. It’s not just his livelihood; these cows are close to him and his family, much like a family dog. Each one has her own name and story.
You can purchase Brown Family Dairy milk all around Oxford, Mississippi (Larson’s Cash Saver and Chicory Market to name just two), directly from the farm, or, if you’re closer to Memphis, the Browns come near you every week.
“I’ve been going to Hernando, for 12 years to the outdoor farmer’s market,” Billy Ray said. The regular season for the Hernando Farmer’s Market stretches from April until the end of October, every Saturday from 8 am until 1 pm. “I actually go year-round, and haven’t missed a Saturday in 12 years.”
We asked Billy Ray why he turned to dairy farming, even when his family didn’t have a background in it. “I worked for other farmers for several years, but I just wanted my own thing,” said Billy Ray.
“At the time, that was in 2008, nobody else was really doing it. The health department really didn’t know what to do with me, and it was kind of a mess. I talked to some folks down at Mississippi State … and everybody told me I was crazy as hell, that I wasn’t going to sell no milk. And I felt in my heart it would sell. It started slow, but it’s grown gradually. There’s a market for it. I’m still learning every day.”
In about four hours, Billy Ray and his family finish milking all of their cows and take in 150–200 gallons of fresh milk a day. They use batch pasteurization, which Billy Ray called “the old timey method” which is, essentially, bringing a large vat of raw milk up to 145 degrees, a process required by the Department of Health. Then, with the help of his children, they bottle the pasteurized milk straight out of the machine. They can bottle 135 gallons in about an hour and ten minutes.
Cattle and the Pandemic
“If you shut down a plant for seven days, you’re talking millions of pounds of meat that cannot get to the consumer,” said Billy Ray. “With the scare with the beef and the pork last year, that was really confusing to me, because the animals were there, but they could not get them processed.”
The beef crisis during the pandemic has been often cited as caused largely from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) regulations on proximity of workers in processing plants, coupled with the fact that many workers became sick with COVID-19. Family-run operations, like Billy Ray’s new butcher shop, are part of the answer, at least on the local small-scale.
“You know, I really think we need more of these,” Billy Ray said. “There’s a guy who came down from the Mississippi Delta,” Billy Ray said. “It’s pretty neat to see how far some come.”
We asked Billy Ray if the pandemic was the main reason he chose to start a butcher shop.
“The pandemic is absolutely why we started it,” he said. “It got so crazy that in Hernando [at the Farmer’s Market] when I was having a guy process [beef] for me, I would have, say, five or six hundred pounds of hamburger meat on my truck. And folks were in line, panicking because of the grocery stores [shortages], and I would have to give them only five pounds, even though they would say, ‘hey can I get two hundred pounds of ground beef,’ and I would say, ‘I wish I could give it to you, but what about the other people in line?’ so I’d give them five or six pounds till the next Saturday. So that is what sort of got us wanting to open the butcher store, just born out of necessity, really.”
The Butcher Shop
“I love the aspect of going to the Hernando Farmer’s Market, or people coming here [to our farm], and being able to talk directly to that consumer,”said Billy Ray. “That’s very important I think. We have a lot of people that come on Saturday morning, and that’s just part of what they do on Saturday morning. They come and talk and get some milk and it’s a whole social thing. They get to know you, and they get to know your family. It’s really special.”
The Brown Family’s new butcher shop is open Monday through Saturday, 1–7 pm, and features your standard cuts of beef—ribeye, sirloin, tenderloin, porterhouse—as well as pork products, like oversized bone-in pork chops, pork ribs, and mild and hot Italian sausage (the hot Italian sausage really spiced up my latest lasagna, by the way), and breakfast sausages. Shane and Billy Ray are happy to help put together a large order (in advance) for a party or cookout; just give them a call.
To contact for large orders and questions, visit their web site or call Shane or Billy Ray directly.
Shane Brown: 662-816-2929
Billy Ray Brown: 662-607-5090
943 HWY 334, Oxford, MS, 38655