Seven generations make a life on the land in Bedford County – Shelbyville Times-Gazette

Tracy Vannatta stands with financée, Vida Haynes, in a soybean field. Forrest the farm dog stands with them.

T-G Photo by Terence Corrigan

Tracy Vannatta is the 7th generation of his family to run their farm in the unincorporated community that bears his family name — the Vannatta Community.

The Vannatta family established the farm here in 1850. The line of succession was James, George, William, Pete, Tracy’s dad, Bobby, and now Tracy.

Most family farm owners today are in their sixth decade of life, nearing retirement age, with no one in line to continue farming. This is not the case with the Vannatta family. Tracy’s two sons — Tyler and Drew — are planning to take over as Tracy eases out.

Grow to survive

As the years have passed, the Vannatta family has adapted, making changes as needed to survive and, as it turns out, even prosper.

A half century ago, the Vannatta farm was about 600 or 700 acres and the family started adding to their holdings. Over the years, as neighboring farmers got older and began to retire, the Vannattas bought more acreage. Today the farm has 1,500 acres in crops, some of the land owned outright, some leased.

In some cases, the Vannattas bought land to stave off encroachment of residential development. In one instance, a half-dozen years ago, the threat arose right across the road from the main farmstead (Bobby’s home). A developer was planning to buy a prime piece of ground and put in a road connecting Unionville-Deason Road to Eady Road and sell off lots for homes.

“My dad (Bobby) asked me ‘what do you think?” Tracy said. “I said ‘Well, would you rather wake up one morning and see a bulldozer cutting a new road across from the front of your house or wake up owing a million dollars?'” The Vannattas bought the land.

Changing crops for changing times

When the farm was founded, 11 years before the Civil War, the Vannattas started out like most farms of that time as a subsistence operation. They grew or raised almost everything they needed: chicken, sheep, pigs, cows and horses. In the early days, the Vannattas grew enough corn to feed their livestock with some left over to convert to a liquid asset: whiskey.

In the early 1930s the Vannattas had the first cotton gin in their part of the county. In the 40s, 50s and 60s they grew crimson clover.

In the 1950s the Vannattas established a dairy that continued operating into the 90s.

In September 1987, Tracy said, recognizing the dwindling prospects of the dairy business, especially the smaller, family owned operations, the Vannattas got into the chicken business. “We knew dairy was going to fade out,” Tracy said. “We were looking for another source of income to take up the slack.”

At one time, the Vannattas had a dozen chicken barns, providing the Tyson packing plant in Shelbyville. Today, that aspect of their farm is down to five barns. Rather than invest $450,000 each for new, state of the art chicken barns, Tracy and his sons have begun divining, trying to predict what crops will pan out in the coming years.

Tracy sees as the best chance for future success marketing food directly to consumers. It’s been observed that farm profits are low because farmers buy their supplies and equipment at retail and sell their products at wholesale — middlemen taking profits on both ends of the equation.

“We’re eventually going to be landlocked and land’s too expensive,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out how to up the income — melons or strawberries or direct sale of beef to the consumer.”

A new crop

The Vannatta’s first move to adapt was planting 10 acres in hemp (16,000 plants) this year to be sold for CBD oil. CBD oil is being used to treat anxiety disorders and to ease pain. How much the Vannattas can sell it for, the price per pound, depends on how rich the plants are in CBD oil. Tracy figures their plants are averaging a pound each but he won’t know their oil content until it’s time to harvest.

The shuttered chicken barns have turned out to be an asset for the hemp operation. The barns are well ventilated and are being repurposed as drying sheds for the hemp crop.

High yields, changing farm techniques

Tracy Vannatta at the helm in his John Deere office, a combine.

T-G Photo by Terence Corrigan

Experience and knowledge, combined with perfect weather have the Vannattas on course for a record harvest year. In his first corn harvest of the year his yield was 205 bushels per acre. Tracy thinks they are on track for an average yield of over 200 bushels per acre — a record for their farm.

Last year’s winter wheat crop — the on-farm average – was 95 bushels per acre. “That’s really good no matter what state you’re in,” Tracy said.

The Vannettas have wealth in their soil, high quality dirt, which Tracy describes as “silty loam,” highly prized by crop growers.

They have also shorn up their bottom line by converting to “no till,” which, Tracy said, “Saves soil and saves oil.”

“We used to plow in the fall, disc three times in the spring, then run over the fields with a cultimulcher and a planter,” he said. They made five passes over the ground just to get a crop planted. With no till techniques, it takes just one pass to get crops planted.

China trade war? Political headwinds?

Although the storyline in national media is that President Trump’s tariff/trade war with China is threatening farmers, Tracy said, the USDA’s Market Facilitation Program has covered most of the losses farmers have been hit with from the dispute. The federal government injected $14.5 for direct payments to farmers to ease the pain. “It’s getting us right back to where the market would be if we had not had the tariffs,” Tracy said. “It’s really been pretty smooth.”

Residential development vs farming

As the demand for housing increases in Bedford County the rising price of land and cultural conflicts interfere with farm life.

People who move into a farming community often object to the smells from farming. When a farmer spreads out chicken manure, his formerly urban neighbors often complain about the unexpected and unpleasant olfactory assault. “I don’t like either. It stinks,” Tracy said. “But it’s got to go somewhere.”

The cultural encroachment goes both ways — even with something as simple as the placement of a mailbox.

With the new homes come new mailboxes. In Middle Tennessee, it’s popular to encase mailboxes in brick monoliths. “They’ve all got these huge brick mailboxes right on the edge of the road,” Tracy said. “Here I come with the tractor.” When he encounters one of these mailboxes and there’s oncoming traffic, Tracy is faced with a dilemma. “Do I stop? Do I have time to go around?”

“Mailboxes, one foot from the road. That’s the way it is in the city,” he said. “Out here you can tell the folks that know farming because their mailbox will be at least three feet back from the road.”

Tracy Vannatta stands with financé, Vida Haynes, in a soybean field. Forrest the farm dog stands with them.

Tracy Vannatta at the helm in his John Deere office, a combine.


« »