By Andrea Abel
Photography by Andy Sams
The late afternoon sunlight casts a warm glow across the green pastures of Jeremiah Cunningham’s 90-acre Coyote Creek Farm near Elgin. As if heaving a collective, contented sigh at day’s end, birds chatter, wind whispers, hens mill about and cattle low. “Animals murmur prayers that wise men only wish they could say,” says Cunningham. “How fortunate I am to have this place to live.”
Born in 1936 and raised in rural Texas, Cunningham never lost his love of the country and farm animals. An Austin businessman for 25 years, he moved to the farm in 1996 seeking a more peaceful, affordable, semiretired lifestyle. “I got chickens as soon as I got here,” he says. “Fresh eggs are about one of the best foods on the planet.”
But working the land this time around required a new skill set for Cunningham, a towering man with a gentle face and burly, weatherworn hands. “When I first got here, the good news was that there’d been no chemicals put on the land for about fifteen years, so it wasn’t polluted. It’s just that nothing had been done . . . at all,” he says. To improve the soil, he applies compost tea regularly, and relies on the plants to do their job. “The roots of our grasses go down two, three, four, five feet. These roots bring up minerals that are good and rich.”
A run-in with cancer in 2000 was a huge wake-up call for Cunningham. “It changed my lifestyle drastically,” he says. It was a turning point that led him to a more plant-based, organic diet that includes only grassfed, pastured meat. And Cunningham’s course changed dramatically once again when longtime friend and Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey asked him to produce organic pasture-raised eggs for his stores.
“John said, ‘I want you to produce the best eggs in the world—we might as well call them the world’s best eggs.’ I call that a classification,” says Cunningham. “Not just my eggs, but your grandmother’s eggs—those were the world’s best eggs. Eggs from chickens fed grains that weren’t genetically modified and weren’t heavily doused with poisonous chemicals—those are the world’s best eggs.”
So in 2007, Cunningham purchased 5,000 Hy-Line chickens—a caramel-colored, creamy-tailed cross between a Rhode Island Red and a White Leghorn that is bred to lay well and withstand heat. Today, his flock includes about 3,000 pastured Hy-Line laying hens that produce what are now officially known as Jeremiah Cunningham’s World’s Best Eggs. The eggs are sold exclusively at 19 Whole Foods Markets in the Southwest region. He also raises over 40 head of grass-fed South Poll beef cattle, and owns and operates the first organic feed mill in Texas, specializing in chicken, goat, turkey and pig feed.
So much for semiretirement.
Sourcing organic chicken feed for his operation proved problematic from the very beginning. Shipping feed from Virginia and Pennsylvania was cost prohibitive, and the environmental impact didn’t sit well with Cunningham. There was only one logical thing to do: build a mill and grind his own poultry feed.
The operation quickly became a huge success—perhaps a bit too quickly. “The fact that it was the first organic feed mill in the state of Texas was risky,” says Cunningham. Without much marketing or advertising, buyers just came. Weekly capacity increased from 25 tons to 200 tons in about two years. “I started to semi-panic,” he continues. “Kind of like a relay, I carried the baton until I was just about out of my competence range.”
That’s when fellow farmer Susan Beckwith entered the picture. “Sue showed up through divine intervention,” Cunningham says. Beckwith now serves as assistant general manager of the mill, handling all milling operations, organic certification, feed-blend development and accounting.
Beckwith and Cunningham seek the closest possible organic grain sources for production. “By my guesstimation, we’ve increased organic cropland production by 2,000 to 3,000 acres, and it’s still growing,” Cunningham says. “We had a neighbor stop in here when we were first putting up the mill. Now he grows 110 acres of white milo for us every year.” And Cunningham recently assisted another farmer in planting flax—a crop that hasn’t been grown in Texas for 50 years.
“In early life, I did my share of grabbing and taking,” says Cunningham. “At 73, you want to do something for the good of humanity. For me, it’s helping to restore a rural, middle-class America.”
For more information on Jeremiah Cunningham or Coyote Creek Farm, visit coyotecreekfarm.org.