Preserving a Future in Farming

Dave Waters of River Ridge Farms
Ask the farmers at the typical feed co-op or coffee shop if they'd willingly give up some land rights, and you might just offend somebody. At least, that's the conventional way of looking at things.  Ask farmers if they'd like to see their land stay in the family and see their community stay whole, you might get a different response.  "My goal, my dream, is that this will never have to be sold," said Dave Waters earnestly as we gazed over part of the 300+ acre family farm he's trying to preserve.
Cattle rotationally graze expansive pastures

Family and neighbors who once parceled out pieces of land have now started piecing it back together and trying to keep it green.  Family and community have meant a lot to the Waters family, especially in the past year when a broken leg from a farming accident kept him unable to do his normal share of work.  Waters noted that his wife, Verlinda, labored too hard picking up the slack with their cattle, hog and poultry business.  But extended family also helped, and others even pitched in to sell goods for them at the farmers markets during the most difficult times. 

Many people believe our current system of food production is in need of mending.  The American Farmland Trust says the United States is losing an acre of farmland per minute.  It notes that between 2002 and 2007, an area of farmland the size of Massachusetts was lost to development.  So now concerned citizens, rural and urban, are trying to preserve prime land like this Southeastern Tennessee farm for growing food and maintaining natural spaces.  Most land trusts work as a patchwork of state and regional groups.  1,700 different groups are listed in the directory of the Land Trust Alliance, which advocates for farmland conservation.

The Land Trust for Tennessee has supported dairy farmers, families and outdoorsmen in their efforts to keep wide open spaces protected.  "There's just a benefit to everybody from having open spaces" stated Tricia King, Project Manager for the Tennessee Land Trust's Southeastern Region.  "The general public benefits because we all benefit from clean air, clean water, from having a balance to land being paved over."

When Dave and Verlinda Waters became responsible for some of the acreages where his family had once farmed, they determined that they wanted to preserve the way of life.  Dave grew up helping milk the dairy cows and remembers when his family grew tobacco, yesterday's typical Southern cash crop.  The Waters have been spending their retirement from traditional work in a new venture of small, sustainable farming methods. Although their sons both have careers off the farm, they support the family in preserving the lands for agriculture.  After his father's death, Dave's mother wanted him and his sisters to take a more active role in land management, and some extended family still call the area home.  Friends and neighbors who ask to hunt on some of the wooded acreage during deer season must promise in return to help for a few hours with farm labor.  Through the land trust project, the public also has a small stake in what happens on the farm.

The Waters worked with the Land Trust for Tennessee to place their 150-acre parcel on the Tennessee River into a conservation easement.  Dave explained, "It's got a conservation easement so it can only be farmed, it will never be turned into a subdivision or lake lots or anything."  The Waters worked with King, whom they had met through a farm market.  King said their project was unique because the waterfront included the historic Washington Ferry that was used during the Civil War.  A marker notes that the public site on the river is on the National Register of Historic Places

Cool season grasses emerging
Adjacent fields are being worked organically, with oats, crimson clover and Australian winter peas just starting to grow in this cool season.  The Waters use mob grazing to rotate cattle around various small pastures and practice sustainable techniques like those taught by the Rodale Institute.  King said the site's historic significance made it a good candidate for not only a conservation easement, but for a USDA program that compensates the landowner for giving up development rights.  The result was that the Waters received some funds to use as downpayment in rescuing a neighboring 150-acre farm from being sold into development.  Local residents were also able to support this effort via the Land Trust.  More often, landowners donate their development rights and receive tax breaks in return. 

Pastured hogs rooting on a rainy day

The Waters are enthusiastic about farming sustainably, so as Dave puts, "All of those restrictions, that's the way we were doing it anyway," and he didn't feel he was giving up too many land rights.  A couple of places were designated where the family could build houses if they wish.  They would need special permissions to build other structures like barns outside designated farmstead areas, and they have to follow certain conservation guidelines.  The easement would not allow for industrial-level farming such as a feedlot or large chicken houses.  King noted that even when families choose no decision about the future use of land, they're making decisions passively.  For instance, conflicts between heirs can lead to forced sales and unbridled development.  King explained, "It's really just another way of saying what you want to happen to your land,"  and she noted that conservation easements work basically the same way as any other deed restrictions, with families retaining ownership.  If families sell the land, it must continue to be used for farming and/or conservation.  "When people make this private decision to preserve family property, everybody benefits."

King said that aside from the benefits of conservation, the community gains economically by preserving a local business.  She pointed out the agriculture is the second leading revenue source in Tennessee.  "In terms of economic development, the more working farms we have, the better, because they do contribute so much to the state's economy."

Family farm along the Tennessee River

Waters offered a tour of woods, water and fields planted with the cool season grasses.  He also introduced me to a sow raising piglets in the warmth of a barn, perhaps the last litter until spring.  His wife Verlinda currently raises poultry and goats on yet another patch of land, calling their ventura River Ridge Farms.  To say they stay busy is an understatement.  They are certainly hospitable and hopeful about their community.  Verlinda says, "Our farm is open, we welcome visitors, just call first."

Grass-fed beef and top turkeys

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