Tennessee agriculture has deep roots. In fact, many families across the state have been stewards of the same land for more than a century, passing it down from one generation to the next.
The Tennessee Century Farms Program was created in 1975 by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture to preserve and honor these historic farms. Administered by Middle Tennessee State University, the program currently recognizes farms in all 95 counties, with more than 1,800 certified farms statewide.
One of those honored operations is Batey Farms in Rutherford County. Founded in 1807 by James Bass, Batey Farms was initially a Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grant, which meant the land was given by the government as a reward for hardships and service during the war.
“Cotton was the biggest crop they were growing at the time,” says John Batey, who runs the farm with his daughter, Katherine, and son-in-law, Brandon Whitt. “They used to have cotton gins on the farm and everything was horse-powered.”
As the years changed, so did Batey Farms – it hasn’t grown cotton since 1974, for example. Today, the farm’s main commodities include hogs, corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, alfalfa and hay. It sells branded meats – sausages, brats, bacon and beef – and has a pick-your-own strawberry operation in the spring.
John says that over time, the advances in technology and market trends drove change on the farm, especially with the implementation of electricity.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes, like going from horses and mules to almost self-driven tractors,” he says. “In the late ’30s, electricity really helped move things along, and even just in the last 40 years we started implementing hydraulics.”
Batey Farms honors its heritage by highlighting historic aspects throughout the farm.
“We still have 200-year-old original log cabins on the farm that we’ve saved in the past six years,” John says. “We also have a family cemetery. The ones who were born here were also buried here. We know where our roots come from and where they are.”
Katherine, John’s daughter, adds that the farm’s history is inspiring, especially for her children.
“As a daughter, wife and mother, I find it gratifying that my children’s footsteps taken on the farm are on the same ground as past family members,” she says. “As I work on the farm, it is hard not to think of prior generations and what the future holds for the next generation.”
Robert Elliott & Sons Farm
In Robertson County, Robert Elliott & Sons Farm is another operation with historical family pride. In operation for more than 200 years, the farm has a rich heritage in Angus cattle. Today, the family breeds cattle and sells to five different states, and also grows about 16 acres of dark-fired tobacco. The farm is operated by the sixth and seventh generations, Joe Elliott and his brother, William, as well as Joe’s son, Lake.
“We’ve been keeping records on our cattle since 1958,” Joe says. “As a certified century farm, it shows we’re sustainable, which means taking care of the environment, producing a wholesome product in a humane way and making a profit. In the registered seedstock businesses for cattle, the average person lasts about seven years. We’ve been doing it for 85 years.”
He echoes John Batey’s sentiment regarding technology, emphasizing the need to adapt to stay profitable.
“You’ve got to change or you will cease to exist,” Joe says. “We have always embraced new, proven technologies.”
Joe adds that to be a successful cattle farmer, you have to be a successful grass farmer, and they use a lot of different technologies for grass and weed control and forage production.
“We pride ourselves on that,” he says.
The Tradition Lives On
Both Batey Farms and Robert Elliott & Sons Farm are examples of the many notable farms across the state. To learn more about Tennessee century farms or submit an application to be part of the program, visit tncenturyfarms.org.