Swamp Fox Farms
“Honey. Farm fresh eggs. Mayhaw Jelly.”
A rustic sign along the side of Highway 585 in rural northeast Louisiana directs visitors down a gravel drive to Swamp Fox Farms. If you speed by in a hurry, you are likely to miss it. There are no blinking lights or brightly colored commercial logos. The sign, like the place, is simple and unpretentious. Turn at the sign, and you will know you have arrived when you see the goats. Lots and lots of goats.
Owners Phyllis and Andy Thompson created the little country haven they call Swamp Fox Farms out of a desire to return to their rural roots. What started with some chickens and the sale of a few eggs here and there has evolved into a diverse farming operation with a business plan for continued growth. The farm is located on Phyllis’ family home place near Holly Ridge in northern Richland Parish. After her mother died, her parents’ acreage was divided between Phyllis and her siblings. Phyllis’ sister and brother-in-law live nearby, and adjacent property is farmed by another sister and her husband.
Although they both grew up in northeast Louisiana, Phyllis and Andy spent the early years of their marriage on the West Coast, where Andy worked for an international healthcare company in Seattle, Washington. Feeling homesick and missing family, Phyllis convinced her husband to move back to Louisiana, at least for a little while. They settled in next door to Phyllis’ mother to help care for and spend time with her, and at some point, decided to stay.
Andy’s family is from Winnsboro and he still has relatives in and around northeast Louisiana. Between them, Phyllis and Andy have six children—Phyllis’ four daughters and one son, and Andy’s daughter. Being here in North Louisiana allows them to enjoy their children and grandchildren, teaching the next generation about cultivating the area’s resources. This summer, their teenage grandson, Mason Hale, spent his vacation from school helping the Thompsons on the farm.
Although Phyllis’ parents raised chickens and cows and Andy’s grandfather was a farmer and cattle rancher, neither of them prepared for a farming career. Phyllis has degrees in psychology and education from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, with a minor emphasis and teaching certification in Spanish. Andy graduated from three different college programs, earning an accounting degree from ULM, a finance degree from University of Texas at San Antonio and a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Rollins College at Winter Park, Florida. He spent years in the business world, working primarily in the healthcare industry.
Phyllis named their farm after her husband, using the nickname that his college friends coined for him. “They called him an old swamp fox,” she says, and the name stuck. “He’s the idea man,” says Phyllis of her husband. Andy’s enthusiasm for the farming business, coupled with his business and financial background, has helped put Swamp Fox Farms on the path to future growth and success.
Having always had an entrepreneurial spirit, Phyllis acknowledges that this is not her first home-based business. She is well-known locally for her delicious and intricately decorated cakes. Though she still makes cakes for friends and family on occasion, she has passed that business on to her daughters, Amanda Free and Sarah Miller. Andy emphasizes his wife’s numerous talents, pointing out that she also makes jewelry, sings beautifully and is a published songwriter. For now, Phyllis plans to concentrate on keeping up with the farm and teaching. Phyllis has been teaching at Lee Junior High School for ten years and says she has no immediate plans to retire. Eight years ago, she implemented the Spanish program at Lee. “I love teaching and learning Spanish,” she says. “It is a beautiful language.” Her teaching job affords her time off in the summer months to focus on farming.
Phyllis says developing Swamp Fox Farms here on her family’s land is a natural fit for her. The timing is also right, the Thompsons believe. Known colloquially as the “farm to table” or “farm to fork” movement, there has been an increase in demand over the past few years for fresh local food products. Family-owned farms that treat their animals well and use sustainable, environmentally friendly practices have become more and more popular with consumers.
Realizing the growing market for fresh eggs, the Thompsons expanded their chicken population and began also raising ducks. While they have not yet settled on a number, more ducks are definitely in their business forecast. “We make more money on duck eggs than chicken eggs,” says Andy. Duck eggs are sought after by chefs for the rich taste they lend to recipes. The Thompsons raise Campbell Khaki ducks, a domesticated breed popular for their high egg production. Also, explains Andy, Campbell Khakis will not fly away when the seasons change like mallards and other varieties.
Not long after they began raising ducks, their son-in-law’s father gave them a goat, and that was the beginning of a yet another new product line for Swamp Fox Farms. They now have a herd of Boer goats, which are raised for their meat. While roasted goat may not yet be common on American household and restaurant menus, Andy says that worldwide, goat meat is the most devoured protein, surpassing beef and chicken. “The market for goat meat here is growing,” he says. They credit Mid-South Goat Masters, an organization the Thompsons are now an active part of, for spearheading marketing efforts locally. The Thompsons hope to eventually have around 400 doe goats and 4,000 chickens.
When not tending their animals, the Thompsons are busy planting and tending the mayhaw trees, the predominate crop at Swamp Fox Farms. Andy says that over the past few decades, Louisiana has seen a decline in the number of mayhaw trees in their natural habitat. Commercial and residential development of previously flood prone areas has reduced the area where mayhaws can naturally thrive. “Mayhaw trees are native to Louisiana,” says Andy. “Other places grow them, but they have to work at it really hard to make it happen. It’s natural here.” Interested in adding mayhaw berries to the Swamp Fox repertoire, the Thompsons attended the Louisiana Mayhaw Association’s annual conference. What they learned at that meeting, coupled with the support and enthusiasm of the members they met, convinced the Thompsons to invest in mayhaw trees. Within six months of that first meeting, the Thompsons were active in the Association, and Andy had been selected as a Director for the Northeast Louisiana region.
The Thompsons are continuing to develop their mayhaw farming operation, which they say is still in its infancy. “Right now, we’ve got about sixty trees in the ground and forty trees in buckets, waiting to be planted,” says Andy. “I have one hundred more ordered, and hope to have at least 200 trees by the end of the year or early spring. The goal is for Swamp Fox Farms to have a mayhaw orchard of 300 trees within the next eighteen months.
“The market for mayhaw berries is there,” Andy insists. He has customers already waiting on the berries they are cultivating, including the owners of Providence Foods in Lake Providence, Louisiana who make and sell mayhaw jelly. Andy says other Louisiana mayhaw growers have talked with representatives of Blue Bell Ice Cream Company about producing a mayhaw-flavored ice cream, an idea which Blue Bell has explored. “Before that becomes a reality,” says Andy, “they have to be sure the supply can keep up with demand.”
The Thompsons recently added honey bees to their farming mix with a dual purpose in mind. Not only do the bees produce honey, but they also pollinate the mayhaw trees, increasing fruit production. The kitchen of Phyllis’ former childhood home is now a veritable honey processing plant, filled with equipment used to extract and bottle honey. They note that there is so much to learn about raising bees and harvesting and processing honey. As with each new project, they try to start small, growing as they learn more about each process. Andy says that members of the Hill Country Beekeepers organization have been extremely helpful in getting them started.
“There is just a lot going on here,” says Andy of Swamp Fox Farms. “We are definitely staying busy.” Swamp Fox Farms has found a market for many of its products, such as okra, chicken and duck eggs, with several local restaurants, including For His Temple, Restaurant Sage and The Fat Pelican. They are also regular vendors at the Farmers Market on Tower Drive in Monroe each Saturday. The Thompsons say that overall, the new Farmers Market has been very successful and well-attended, and their sales there have exceeded their expectations. “In one day, we sold an entire year’s worth of goat meat,” Andy says. They also sold all of their mayhaw jelly on that first Saturday morning. Swamp Fox Farms will continue to participate in the Market throughout the season, bringing other farm fresh products including okra, watermelons and honey.
Together, the couple works extremely hard, toiling every day to make their farm a success. “We work seven days a week,” Andy says. “It is really hard work, and you can’t just take a day off.” The goats, chickens, ducks and crops demand daily attention, and it is very labor intensive. However, Andy insists that he would take this type of farming over the business world any day. “I am so much happier working here, even on those days when I’m outside in the heat, up to my knees in mud and goat manure, than I ever was sitting behind a desk in a suit and tie.” Phyllis agrees. “We love what we’re doing here, and we are having a good time,” she says.
Swamp Fox Farms is located at 828 Highway 585, Holly Ridge, Louisiana. For more information, visit their Facebook page at LaSwampFoxFarms or call (318)334-0277.