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F eature Story

Tennessee Century Farms Program

By Rachel Holder

T he Tennessee Century Farms program is about more than just farmland; it’s about history, people, and a legacy that spans generations and families across our state. According to Tennessee Century Farms Director Caneta Hankins, the program was formed in 1975 in order to recognize and document farms that have been within the same family, and had continuous agricultural production, for at least 100 years.

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quote Many of these farms even predate statehood. Some of them were in operation when the Native Americans still farmed the land alongside them...

“These farms are among the most historic places in Tennessee,” says Hankins. “Many of them even predate statehood. Some of them were in operation when the Native Americans still farmed the land alongside them. They certainly contribute to the economy, culture, and the aesthetics in every county where they are located.”

There are currently more than 1,500 certified Century Farms in Tennessee, and there’s at least one farm in each of the state’s 95 counties. The farms help to document settlement in Tennessee, as well as to showcase the development of agriculture, agribusiness, and technology through the years. The program also highlights the people who farm the land by showing continuity and a perseverance unique to those who till the historic soil.

“They came, they settled, and they remained on the land,” says Hankins. “Many of them could have chosen to do other things, but they didn’t because their roots are deep. These people and the land they farm are important to our state’s economy and our overall well-being.”

Hankins also explains that perhaps one of the greatest features of the Century Farms program is that it documents the legacy these families are leaving for future generations—one of continuity, of course, but also of change. Being a Century Farm demonstrates the many ways in which farmers have had to change and overcome many challenges throughout their history, something many of the current owners know all too well.

“Being a Century Farm is about enduring hardship and the tenacity to persevere,” says Beverly Wall, owner of J & J Century Farms in Montgomery County. “Granny Wall [the founder of J & J Farms] raised twenty-four children on this farm, fourteen of which were her own. She worked all her life, even milking cows from a wheelchair when she was in her 80s. Handing down something like that is very meaningful.” Wall goes on to explain that the farm “serves as a reminder that our family members before us held on for dear life during hard times and wouldn’t give up.”

To the south in Williamson County, Stacey Givens, who owns Sullivan Givens Century Farm, also stresses the importance of leaving a legacy. “Our truest wish in this world is to see this small slice of working history preserved for future generations, not just our son, but also for those children in this area who would otherwise have no idea what a working farm looks like.”

“Developers call wanting to buy the farm on occasion,” says Givens, “maybe because we’re located about a mile from [State Route] 840. They may drive by and see this farm covered in houses or factories in their minds, but it never will be.” Thanks in part to the Century Farms distinction, Givens’s farm has been put into a permanent conservation easement protecting the farm from future development for purposes other than agriculture.

In Rutherford County, John L. Batey, owner of Batey Farms, is proud to say he’s been a full-time farmer all his life. So were his grandfather, his great-grandfather, his great-great-grandfather, and his great-great-great-grandfather who founded the farm he lives on today.

“When you’re younger, you don’t really think much about it,” says Batey, “but after all the changes I’ve seen in Rutherford County, it makes you feel fortunate that you’re still farming. And it makes me proud, too, to be surrounded by all this history. Civil War soldiers camped on our farm, we have our own cemetery on the land, and we have buildings and barns that are more than 200 years old.”

But perhaps Ronnie Erwin, who owns Pleasant Valley Farms in Maury County, explains it best, with the literary quote, “Do you remember in Gone with the Wind when Scarlett’s father is talking to her about their land?” he asks. “He said to her, ‘Land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.’”

For more information on the Tennessee Century Farms program, as well as application information and a complete listing of farms by county, visit tncenturyfarms.org.