On most fall mornings, the Donnell Century Farm in Jackson bustles with groups of wide-eyed children picking pumpkins, taking hayrides and happily getting lost in a corn maze.
Rose Ann Donnell started hosting families and school groups on the family’s 1,000-acre farm because she wanted to “educate the public about agriculture.”
“There are so many people who have never been in a barn, and so many people don’t understand where their food comes from,” she says. “We need to become the ambassadors of agriculture.”
Legacy and Learning
A desire to teach more people about agriculture is also why Donnell and her husband, Billy, registered their farm with the state’s Century Farms program, which was established by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture in 1975 as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration, and in recognition of those farms that have continuously operated within the same family for 100 years or more.
“It’s amazing how many kids have no idea where their food comes from. I think if you want people to value your farms and agricultural land, your green space, you have to help educate them,” says Laura Stewart Holder with the Middle Tennessee State University Center for Historic Preservation, which now oversees the Century Farms program. “We need to help people understand that without these farms, they wouldn’t have the food they eat. That’s a really important part of life – whether you live in a city or you live on a farm.”
The Donnell family settled their West Tennessee farm in the early 1800s.
“They came from North Carolina because they were looking for good cotton-growing ground,” Rose Ann Donnell says. “We still grow cotton on our farm today along with corn, soybeans, hay and Angus cattle.”
Billy Donnell is the fifth generation to farm the land, and son Andrew, who also works on the farm, is the sixth. Rose Ann Donnell says her hope is for their grandchildren to continue the tradition and keep the farm in the family.
Sowing Sacrifice and Reaping Rewards
“The Century Farms program recognizes the dedication and contributions of the families who have been such great stewards of these farms,” Holder says. “Some of them have been in the same family for over 200 years, since before Tennessee was even a state. It’s really important to recognize those founders and those families, and all the work, effort and sacrifice they have put in to maintain these farms.”
Bruce Bacon, owner of a 115- acre hay and steer Century Farm in Washington County knows firsthand about the dedication, and sometimes sacrifice, associated with farming. Bacon’s great-great grandfather Robert Bacon founded the farm in the late 1800s, and it was eventually passed down to Bacon’s father, who grew tobacco and corn and raised dairy cattle.
“I remember Mama and Daddy using horses to pull the plow. We didn’t get a tractor until around 1952. They bought a tractor, mowing machine, disc, plow, all brand new for a total $2,800,” Bacon says. “Mama and Daddy milked by hand though, so they could never go anywhere. We never did go on vacations until we got milking machines. Sometimes Daddy would take us to Florida; he had a sister down there. But Mama had to stay home and milk. That’s the way it was.”
Bacon says he’s thankful technology has made farming more efficient for his children and more appealing to his grandchildren.
“I just like to see these family farms stay where they need to be,” he says. “Housing is taking over, and these days there’s always two or three farms down here for sale. But I want to keep this farm in the family name. I’ve got four grandkids, so they’d be the seventh generation. I just want to keep holding on.”
Holder says while Tennessee is growing and developing rapidly, it’s important to recognize the state’s agricultural and rural roots.
“When leaders are planning for cities to grow, expand and develop, it helps if they recognize some of these important historic sites that we still have and incorporate those into their planning for growth,” she says.
“Agriculture is not only a big part of Tennessee’s economy, it’s a part of the landscape of our state.”