Womack Dairy Still Going Strong Through Good Times And Bad
Joy Womack remembers the day the cows danced on the family's dairy farm.
Back in August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused considerable destruction throughout the Greater
Baton Rouge area, including the Chaneyville community east of Zachary where Joy and Victor Womack own and operate the only commercial dairy farm in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Damage to DEMCO's power delivery system caused electricity to back-feed into the family's milking facility, burning up a compressor and energizing a ground wire.
"We had dancing cows that day because every time they would try to get some water or get some feed out of the trough, they would start jumping around like they were dancing," Joy recalled. "At the time, it wasn't very funny because we had a real problem on our hands."
A quick call was made to DEMCO's main office and co-op employee Phill Zito arranged for a crew to correct the problem pronto because he realized it was critical for the dairy to resume its full production schedule as expeditiously as possible.
"The cows have to be milked twice a day, every day," Womack said. "We were in trouble, but DEMCO got right on the problem and got our power back in no time. DEMCO has always been an asset to this community and we have a lot of equipment here that we use in our operation, so we depend on DEMCO a lot."
Womack Dairy was created back in 1951 when Victor's father, Virgil, moved his family to the Chaneyville community from the Hoo Shoo Too area in southeast Baton Rouge. (Acct. No. 80154533001)
The goal was to run a beef cattle ranch, but just a few years after the family relocated Virgil was laid off from his job at Exxon and later fell ill with lead poisoning. His wife, Teeter, was busy raising Victor and his two sisters but decided the family needed additional income with Virgil unable to work.
So, Teeter decided to do what many in the area were doing at the time and she started milking cows.
"Nobody could rope a cow and milk a cow like Teeter. She started with 15 cows and just took it from there," Womack said. "Whenever she wanted do something, nothing was going to stand in her way. It was going to happen."
That kind of single-minded determination must have run in the family. The late Teeter Long Womack was the daughter of Wes Long, a key figure in the early days of DEMCO who served as board president at a time when the fledgling electric cooperative was working hard to bring power out to the sparsely- populated farms, fields and small communities throughout the region. James Long, Teeter's brother and Victor's uncle, also served for a time on DEMCO's board of directors.
"Our family has been a part of DEMCO for many years and we've always supported the co-op just as we support all local businesses. We want to see our area thrive with a high quality of life for everyone," Womack said.
Just as DEMCO struggled in its formative years to establish itself as a viable economic enterprise, Womack said the challenges of keeping a dairy farm afloat can be quite daunting.
She and Victor, who are nearing 30 years of marriage, describe working "36 hours a day, eight days a week" as they manage an operation that includes dairy and beef cattle spread over 600 acres of farmland.
Also lending a hand are sons Vic and R.J. along with employees Lloyd Simpson and Roy Henderson. The workforce expands considerably when there's a big job to do such as corralling cows or chasing down strays that have broken through a fence. All it takes is a few phone calls to marshal as many warm bodies as it takes to do get the job done.
"Around here we all work together like a team," Womack said. "We all know each other and we all look out for one another. We're all family or either we're the next best thing to being family."
Victor, who was 3 years old when the family settled in the Chaneyville community, remembers working on the farm as a young boy with his sisters, Jo Ann Harp and Jenny Forbes.
It was real hard work," Victor remembered. "Back then, you didn't have a lot of the automation that you do now, and after milking then everything had to be cleaned and washed by hand. You had to tear everything down and it took several hours to get it done. Some of the farmers would go ahead and milk the cows by hand just to avoid having to wash everything down."
The Womacks, who supply product for Kleinpeter Farms, work hard every day but they don't necessarily consider what they do as work. It's more about following a passion, working the land and living a wholesome, down-to-earth family life. Joy remembers the day when the family became inextricably entwined with dairy farming.
The year was 1986 and the government was in the process of buying out dairy farms. Vic was just a year old and Joy was pregnant with R.J. Victor's father called a family meeting to discuss whether to sell out or keep the farm.
"Papa and Teeter were in the den and they called me in," Joy recalled. "They said the final decision was up to me because they wanted everyone to be happy and they knew that if I wasn't happy then Victor probably wasn't going to be happy. I told them I married a dairy farmer and if that's what my husband wanted to do then I would be happy with it and I would die a dairy farmer's wife. He loves working the land and he loves the farm and seeing him happy is what makes me happy. It's in his blood. So, we've been doing it ever since."
Victor chimes in with a wry smile on his face: "I think we'd have been better off if we had sold it."
Though dairy farms are becoming more scarce in Louisiana and other parts of the nation as smaller operations go out of business or get gobbled up, the Womacks have a positive attitude about the future of the industry.
Victor explains that while demand for milk may be shrinking in some markets, the demand for milk- based products such as cheese and ice cream is climbing. And Joy adds there's little chance her sons are going to grow disinterested in the farming lifestyle. Vic is pursuing a doctorate degree in animal and plant science while R.J. loves nothing better than to get his hands dirty in the soil.
"When he was 8, he already had a garden," said Joy. "He came inside and said, 'Mama come out here, there's something I want to show you.' I went outside and he had plowed up some dirt and he held it up to his nose. He said, 'Mama, that smells like a little bit of heaven."