For the love of peat
Agriculture’s role in economy bigger than many realize
Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
I love to watch stuff grow. When things are going good, there’s just nothing like it. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else other than what I’m doing. Wesley Squibb
I love what I do. I love working the land. Nothing makes me happier than to climb on a tractor for 12 or 14 hours a day. Jeff Aiken
As a pale November sun sank toward the western horizon and acres of recently cut corn rolled away from the eye in the foreground, a small voice made its wishes clear. “Mihm mombine. Mihm mombine. Mihm mombine.”
Levi Squibb, 2, wanted back inside the “big combine,” a White Farm Equipment 8700 model that his dad, Wesley, had spent the day operating to harvest some of his 180 acres of feed corn. Little Levi’s interest (and that of older brother Weston, 8) was music to Wesley Squibb’s ears. A fourth-generation worker of the Squibb land in Bowmantown, the 37-year-old went in for the long haul in agriculture this year, purchasing 230 acres that adjoins his 200-acre homeplace.
The seven-figure investment “was a major, major deal,” says Squibb. “One where you don’t sleep for a few days. Our cash flow has got to reflect that.”
The “we” in “our” includes Rachel Squibb, who performs audit work for a local firm, and 7-month-old Caroline. Adding in leased land, Squibb farms a total of about 650 acres, running several dozen head of beef cattle, growing 18 acres of burley tobacco, producing that 180 acres of corn and another 300-plus of hay and straw.
Like his close neighbor Jeff Aiken, and another colleague nine miles to the southeast as the crow flies, Chris Renfro, Squibb represents a significant, often overlooked sector of the regional economy. Agriculture remains one of the area’s largest industries, but the number of commercial farmers is dwindling and the amount of land each must work to make a decent living has grown. Aiken and Renfro, both older than Squibb but likely younger than the average commercial farmer, each farm around 1,000 acres, some of it owned (passed down to them in both cases) and some of it leased from other folks who have abandoned farming as a livelihood.
They’re diversified, computer literate, neck deep in equipment and other expenses, and buried in regulations and paperwork. They work seven days a week and deal with sick animals, annoying middlemen, too much rain and not enough of it. The general public seems less familiar with farming than ever before, and thus less appreciative of and sympathetic to their challenges and priorities. They’re unlikely ever to see the days their fathers saw, when a family could enjoy a decent life farming a couple hundred acres – which is what Squibb was working a decade ago.
“I went from doing just 10, 15 acres of corn and we were picking it and feeding it to the cows to now, we’re up over 180 and we’re doing 300-some acres of hay.”
And like Squibb, Aiken’s wife works (as a nurse), helping supplement the family income even though he, his brothers Jack and Jerry, and nephew Justin farm 900 acres – more than the brothers grew up farming with their dad.
Of head, bushels, tons and dollars
Aiken and Squibb both believe the average urban Tri-Citian is probably unaware of agriculture’s impact on the economy. It is the largest industry in Tennessee, Aiken said. The Washington County (TN) Farmers Co-Op drew 350 to its annual dinner. Many millions of dollars in assets mean jobs for equipment dealers and other suppliers.
USDA county estimates from 2013 for Tennessee put Greene County first in the state in number of cattle and calves (73,000). Washington County is second in East Tennessee at 41,000 and Hawkins tied for third at 34,500 (they’re 8th and 11th in the state). The same three counties rank high statewide in burley tobacco production (Hawkins 7th, Greene 9th and Washington 11th), and in harvested acres of hay (Greene No. 1 and Washington 4th).
Tennessee’s 2013 annual report on agriculture confirms the local farmers’ contention that staying small is difficult. Between 2008 and 2012, the overall number of farms in the state dropped from 79,000 to 76,000, but the average farm size crept up from 138 to 142 acres. The number of farms with sales above $500,000 rose from 1,400 to 1,600, and the next highest class, $250,000 to $499,999, increased from 950 farms to 1,500.
“Cumulatively, there’s a lot of dollars that pass through this area as a result of farming,” Aiken said. Added Squibb, “It’s unreal how much impact around this area it really has, I think.”
Holding on to the family farm
At his homeplace on Sam Aiken Road, Jeff Aiken spoke of the many challenges – beyond the natural ones – that threaten to keep the number of family farms dwindling. Theyare part of what drive him to spend significant hours in the political and policy arena. He’s a member of the Washington County Farm Co-Op, but he also serves as vice president of the Tennessee Farm Bureau, the nation’s largest farm bureau and an organization with which he’s been involved for 14 years.
“Because of regulations and, I think, many people’s lack of understanding about what agriculture is doing, it’s important and almost necessary for folks to be involved in the political arena in some manner,” he said.
Aiken does the lion’s share of oversight of the Aikens’ 104 acres of burley, while his brothers focus on the 500 or so head of cattle. Market and regulatory transformations in tobacco have wrought huge changes in the past 10-15 years, lowering margins and raising the headache quotient. “In the past three or four years, you almost need a secretary to be a tobacco farmer,” he said.
Aiken isn’t convinced the trend will change soon.
“FDA now has control over regulating tobacco, and although they say those regulations will not be at the farm level, the companies will pass whatever regulations they put on them down to the farmer.”
The challenge extends beyond tobacco, he said, citing among other things a recent proposed EPA rule change involving water that could cripple many farms. “Regulations are probably the biggest concern facing agriculture today, especially for the younger folks that are trying to get started.”
He gets no argument from Squibb: “It seems to me like every year there’s more and more regulations. I don’t mind regulations, but some of this stuff they’re implementing, it’s getting to where it seems like you’re being swallowed up by it.”
There are also economic realities to contend with, some positive but most seeming to add pressure. Chris Renfro grows tomatoes down along the Nolichucky River (he also grows cantaloupe, shell corn, hay and raises cattle) and said “produce is more volatile than anything.” Corporate agribusiness tends to compress margins, although Renfro echoed Aiken and Squibb with regard to beef prices, calling them “very good.”
On the political front, Aiken did speak positively of two state-level changes this year that he thinks “will serve the agriculture community for years to come.” One was the annexation law that greatly curtailed cities’ ability to annex by ordinance and without the consent of property owners. For his part, Aiken doesn’t see the issue as “rural against urban.”
“It’s about protecting the property rights of a legitimate business. Too often, folks fail to realize that agriculture is a business. It’s not just vacant land waiting to be developed.”
Aiken also said clarification of the state’s “right to farm” law was a victory. As East Tennessee’s population grows and houses spring up where pastures were, more people experience what Aiken called “the good and bad” of having a farm close by.
“Folks enjoy driving down the road and seeing the beauty of those cows out there on the hillside picking the grass. It’s appealing to the eye, but along with that there may be odors, and there may be sounds, and those are going to be challenges that we’re already dealing with and we’ll continue to deal with as we become more concentrated.”
And that goes to what he described as “a huge disconnect with the general population as to what’s going on in agriculture. Folks are so far removed from it they don’t understand GMO crops. They don’t understand animal agriculture.” That lack of understanding, as farms get bigger but the number of people working them dwindles, can drive regulations that may do more harm than good.
What about the boys?
Though it may seem at times as though most of the deck is stacked against them, farmers tend to be a persistent lot. Squibb said his newly acquired debt was necessary but “is going to continue to be a challenge,” and he hopes “we’re in it for the long run.” Weston Squibb stayed out working with his daddy past dusk on one recent night (“his momma got a little mad because he didn’t get to get all of his spelling words in”) and Squibb hopes that if they want to, his sons will be able to farm and do it successfully.
“I hope we’re set up. I sure hope they want to. By us doing what we’ve done now, I feel like there’s definitely an opportunity there for them if they want to. I hope they do. I’m not going to push it, but I hope there’s an interest there. I’m going to have to have some help sometime.”
Aiken thinks there’s a good chance that commercial farming can remain viable in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
“This may be too sentimental of an answer, but what makes me think that it’s got to work is, folks have to have food. So as the population continues to increase and those working in agriculture continues to decrease, I like to think that there’s going to be more of a need going forward for folks like Wesley’s children to be involved in agriculture than ever before.”