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Where Does Your Food Come From?

Tennessee’s Department of Agriculture Takes Proactive Approach to Food and Farming

By Eric Dorman

Where does your food come from?

If you put this question to a group of people who live in metropolitan and suburban areas in Tennessee, you’re likely to hear the names of various grocery stores and markets. If you put the question to a room full of people from more rural areas of Tennessee, however, you’re probably going to hear something a bit more accurate:

Your food comes from a farm.

Tennessee has a robust agricultural scene, with more than 7,000 farms contributing nearly $75 billion to the state’s economy every year. The average farm in Tennessee is 155 acres, and our leading agricultural commodities range from cattle and soybeans to wheat and tobacco. Soybeans take the top row-crop slot, unsurprisingly. In 2017, for example, farmers in Tennessee harvested soybeans in record numbers: 50 bushels per acre across roughly 1.7 million acres, bringing in nearly $750 million in cash receipts. Tennessee also ranks in the top 20 states in America for corn acreage, fourth in the nation for meat goat production, and third in the nation for fresh-market tomatoes. In terms of local food, Tennessee ranks 15th in the country for farms selling directly to consumers, and according to most recent data, the overall value of local food sold from farms is nearly $60 million a year.

What does it take to keep this massive industry running smoothly? Well, quite a lot. Hard work, determination, grit, innovation, technology, sustainable practices, business acumen—the list goes on. Working behind the scenes to ensure that farmers have what they need and that Tennessee remains a hospitable place for farming and economic opportunity is the state’s Department of Agriculture, led by Commissioner Charlie Hatcher.

Charlie lives on the same property that his family has owned since 1831. He’s probably most known in Middle Tennessee as the scion of Hatcher Dairy, but what’s interesting is that Hatcher Dairy only started bottling milk in 2007 (his son, Charles, is president of the dairy), and on top of that, Charlie’s primary trade is as a veterinarian. He was actually the state veterinarian for a decade prior to his role as commissioner of agriculture.

“Most people are three generations removed from a farm these days, which is tragic,” Charlie said. “They need to educate themselves about it. Or we need to do a better job of educating them. We don’t do the best job of telling our story.”

Charlie wants Tennesseans to understand that their food—and not just their food, but so many of the things we use and appreciate every day—originates on farms. We rely on them, and they rely on us, a true symbiotic relationship between producer and consumer, between rural and urban.

The Department of Agriculture’s mission is “to serve all the citizens of Tennessee by providing options for responsible use of our agricultural and forest resources, developing economic opportunities, safeguarding food and fiber and ensuring equity in the marketplace.”

“Developing economic opportunities” is of particular interest to Charlie. The Appalachian Regional Commission has identified 15 distressed and 24 at-risk counties in Tennessee, which means that a significant number of Tennessee’s 95 counties are struggling in one way or another. There are a lot of factors in play here.

“Tennessee is not alone,” Charlie said. “One of the biggest problems in rural communities today is that, in many of these counties, the population is either static, or decreasing, since 1980. So you have whole town squares in these counties that are reducing in size…If we can solve that issue, we’ll be well on our way to improving those communities. But again, one the best ways and the most successful ways that we’ve been able to impact those communities already is by the Ag-Enhancement program.”

The Tennessee Agriculture Enhancement Program (TAEP) provides cost-share dollars to agricultural producers for the purpose of making long-term investments on Tennessee farms and in rural communities. The TAEP has been in place since 2005, but under Charlie Hatcher’s leadership, and in keeping with Governor Bill Lee’s focus on rural economic development, the program announced new options and changes “to better assist Tennessee farmers in diversifying, expanding and improving their farming operations.”

The changes were substantial, and based directly on the input of TAEP participants, with representation for all 95 counties in Tennessee. The changes and new options include everything from a new cattle herd program and online cattle genetics tools (in partnership with the University of Tennessee), to cost-share programs for hay equipment and increases to the maximum reimbursements for grain storage and poultry growers.

“We already know that for every dollar invested in [TAEP], you get a $6.09 return on the local level,” Charlie said. “So we know that’s probably our best tool.”

Here’s where some people ask the why question: Why spend so much time and so many resources on rural Tennessee? On agriculture? On forestry? Why direct so many taxpayer dollars to the soil and toil of Tennessee’s farmers?

To that set of questions, Charlie responds, “Agriculture is the number one, most important industry in Tennessee and the United States. America has a record of having the best and safest food supply in the world, and we want to continue that.”

In other words, let’s answer those skeptical questions with another question:

Where does your food come from?

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