Century Farms: A Slice Of History, Threatened American Century Farms have been owned and farmed by the same family for more than 100 years. In East Tennessee, farm heirs reflect on the land's history, keeping the farms going despite development and a tough economy -- and dreading the day they may have to sell.
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Century Farms: A Slice Of History, Threatened

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Century Farms: A Slice Of History, Threatened

Century Farms: A Slice Of History, Threatened

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Drive the back roads of lots of states - Kansas, Iowa, Utah, Michigan, Ohio -you'll see signs that say Century Farm. The sign is proudly posted on land that has been owned and farmed by the same family for more than a hundred years. But staying on for another century presents families with a lot of challenges, from the tough farm economy to the incessant push of development.

NPR's Noah Adams went to East Tennessee to talk with a few of the Century Farmers.

NOAH ADAMS: Get up on a hilltop in Piney Flats, Sullivan County, Tennessee, and if you squint a certain way, you won't see the highway and all the new houses spread out over the valley. You'll be looking only at grazing land.

(Soundbite of cows)

ADAMS: This is a hilltop on the oldest documented family farm in Tennessee. From before Tennessee was a state, before the country was a country, this land was bought with shillings.

Ms. SALLY MASENGILL-BELL: It has been in my family, by right of inheritance, since it was first begun as a farm.

ADAMS: Sally Masengill-Bell. The Masengill name goes with this land back to 1775. Sally Masengill grew up in town, in Johnson City. By that time, her dad had become a gentleman farmer. His wife wanted the sidewalks and town lights. He owned a ladies clothing store, but he still enjoyed running things out in the country.

Ms. MASENGILL-BELL: With his business being so high-pressure downtown, he would put his hat on the back of his head and say, I'm going to the farm - which was like saying, I'm going out for a vacation.

Mr. STEVE KING: It's kind of hard to think back 200 years and figure out exactly what kind of people they were.

ADAMS: This is Steve King. He can also look back to his forebears in the late 1700s.

Mr. KING: They had to be tough. They had to be fighters. Sickness and death and hardship and cold winters, you know. They encountered a lot of things that, you know, we'd just belly up and quit.

ADAMS: Steve King raises cattle in Sullivan County. His could also be a Century Farm. As yet, it's undocumented. In fact, it would be a Pioneer Farm, like the Masengill place. In Tennessee, that's more than 200 years in the same family.

Steve King has been spending time, especially when it's too cold for fencing work, in libraries and the courthouse.

Mr. KING: I just wish I didn't have to farm so much so I could do more research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KING: I don't know whether that's good or bad, but I'm enjoying it.

ADAMS: At the farmer's market in Blountville, Tennessee, I met a young woman who's also been assembling a file. Wendy Niebruegge's farm may soon qualify for century status, dating to 1909.

Ms. WENDY NIEBRUEGGE: My husband and I, when we moved back to Tennessee, we purchased a house that is in the subdivision bordering the farm, so our backyard backs up to one of the pastures. We put a gate in the fence; we bought a golf cart. And so now, we are on the farm.

ADAMS: Wendy Niebruegge has a freezer on the back of her pickup truck. She's selling all-natural beef. And those who track Tennessee's farm economy say, here's the future: If you want your family farm, you'll specialize, think green, and add value.

Ms. NIEBRUEGGE: Part of our pastures are organic, and those are the pastures that the chickens are free-ranging on because they are out all day scratching through the pasture, through the manure behind the cattle and in the creeks. And these are cattle - we're selling meat from cattle that were born and raised on our farm.

ADAMS: Near Johnson City - in fact, inside the city limits now - is Lone Pine Farm. This is where Sarah Walters grew up. She's watched the subdivisions creeping out all around her. Forty years ago, she saw Interstate Highway 26 come across the hills to take away part of her family's land right next to the driveway.

Ms. SARAH WALTERS (Owner, Lone Pine Farm): That was the biggest heartbreak. It was like - to me, it was like they were trampling on my ancestors.

ADAMS: And the city came even closer. With her mother's approval, Sarah Walters sold pastureland for a shopping center. She put aside some of that money for her grandkids' education, and managed to buy back 10 acres her family had let go earlier.

So what is down there on the land that used to be yours?

Ms. WALTERS: Cheddar's, Chili's, Barnes & Noble, and Sam's Club.

ADAMS: Do you go to those places?

Ms. WALTERS: Yes. We go to Cheddar's. And I almost say I never fail to walk over and look at the creek, because we chopped thistles in that meadow. Oh, my goodness. And I'd let those grandkids follow me around while I chopped thistles or sprayed them. And Don and I mowed that meadow and kept the fences up. But it's today. It's not yesterday. That's all you can do with it. It's today.

ADAMS: An hour's drive out to the west and a bit south takes you to Still Hollow Farm, home of Ann Birdwell and Jay Birdwell. It's a Century Farm that is now involved in agritourism. Your farm becomes an attraction, a destination. Visitors come, and they spend money.

Mr. JAY BIRDWELL (Owner, Still Hollow Farm): We was in the Grade A dairy business all - just about all my life. And I quit milking in '01 and was going to raise tobacco on a few years. And then the tobacco market kindly went to dwindling away - which leaves us with a whole lot of nothing. And this was her dream, of doing something like this. And it's worked right well.

Ms. ANN BIRDWELL (Owner, Still Hollow Farm): I saw an article on agritourism, and that's what spurred it on. But you have to realize my background is costuming and redoing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BIRDWELL: So I just said, this is it. This is what we're going to do.

ADAMS: Ann Birdwell left her college theater department job, and started dressing up the farm for weddings, for reunions and for kids - at $6 each by the busload and shopping. The old granary, which dates to 1860, is now an antique store and a gift shop.

The Birdwells, every day, delight in taking care of their two granddaughters, ages 3 and 1. They're sitting with us here at a picnic table. One of their sons lives on the farm; another lives in Florida. And Jay Birdwell Jr. is visiting this day from New York City, where 10 years ago, he went to work as an actor. Now, he's earning a master's degree in elementary education.

Mr. JAY BIRDWELL JR.: You know, New York is home right now. You know, my partner and I live in New York. And, you know, his family's in Long Island. And so, you know, we're all very close. Our families are close. We spend holidays down here a lot. So you know, we do as much as we can from the city. You know, I try to come down every two or three, four months. But you know, that's, you know - so it's hard being far away.

ADAMS: If you come to ask the questions about the last hundred years of a farm, you must also wonder about the next century. What happens when Jay and Ann Birdwell are gone? Their son Jay has talked this over with his brothers.

Mr. J. BIRDWELL: No, can't sell it. I mean, I'm sort of like, Mom, I'd rather cut off a left arm before I'd sell an ounce of dirt, you know? I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. J. BIRDWELL: I mean, I guess, you know, if push comes to shove; if there are like a medical emergency - we've talked about it, you know? You know, if there were some serious problems in the family, you know, that had to be taken care of, of course, you know, because, you know, we've always said this was Mom and Dad's retirement, you know? And if it gets to the point where me and my brothers can't take care of them, you know - then, yeah, we'd have to make hard decisions. But it would be a hard decision.

Ms. BIRDWELL: We told our boys, you don't inherit something when someone dies as much as you're born to it when you're born. They inherited this land the minute they were born. They grow that inheritance. But they will have a treasure.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

Ms. BIRDWELL: A treasure, hopefully.

ADAMS: Ann Birdwell; Jay, her husband; Jay, her son; on a Century Farm near Greeneville, Tennessee.

For NPR News, this is Noah Adams.

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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