By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

mwaters@heraldandtribune.com

Tennessee’s governor stood under a colossal “Washington Farmers” sign on Depot Street Friday morning. Though he was surrounded by local farmers ready to hear what Governor Bill Haslam came to Washington Farmers Co-op to talk about, the Knoxville native told the group he was there to here from the farming community itself.

“If you came to hear a speech, you’re in the wrong place. When you tell people you’re the governor, people either think you know nothing or they think you know everything. The truth is you know a little bit about a lot of different things but you don’t know as much as you’d like about hardly anything,” Haslam said. “Agriculture is still incredibly important to our state. I say it all the time, but these are the people who are providing jobs in rural areas. State wide we’re doing pretty good. Right now the state has the lowest unemployment rate in the history of the state. But there are pockets where that isn’t true and it’s primarily in our rural areas. Agriculture plays a big role in that.”

Haslam spoke on two of the state’s newest movements such as the broadband initiative to provide internet and phone services to rural areas and

the IMPROVE Act, which is an increase on gasoline and diesel taxes designed to fund improvements on Tennessee’s highways and bridges.

The most important topic, however, involved ways to generate interest in agriculture.

Haslam cited the state’s discontinuation of the estate tax after a farm’s owner is deceased as an initiative to aid the declining number of farmers.

“Three years ago we did do away with the estate tax which means when you die your farm’s not subject to a death tax,” Haslam explained. “One of the things we were seeing were farms weren’t going from one generation to another because the whole family’s asset was in that farm. When they died and passed it on, they owed money and some of the time had to sell that farm in order to pay the tax.”

According to the the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the average age of farmers has continued to increase throughout the last 30 years. For Dustin Pearson, a local stocker operator from Gray who was in attendance during Haslam’s co-op visit, the continued loss of farmland doesn’t help the agriculture business.

“If you look at the land prices in East Tennessee, and especially the Tri-Cities area, it’s $15,000 to $25,000 an acre. We don’t have the acreage of land any more. It’s being cut up into subdivisions. I asked a builder once, ‘You’re taking all this land for houses?’ and he said, ‘well people need a place to live.’ I said, ‘Yea, but if they don’t have food to eat, it’s not going to matter.’”

The USDA census data found that from 2007 to 2012, there was a 20-percent drop in the total number of beginning farmers in the U.S. But Pearson, who was a younger member of Friday’s crowd and is a member of state agricultural boards, is part of the farming population that is trying to continue his line of work.

“I’m out there being vocal as a younger person. I enjoy being in agriculture. I love what I do so I try to be an advocate for it,” Pearson said. “This is to make it known. We are so far removed. They like to say the top of the industries in Tennessee are agriculture-based as far as dollars brought back into the state. But then again, they don’t do nothing to address the aging farmers and who’s going to fill their shoes.

“I grew up in it. But I grew up in it in the same sense that I’ve got brothers and cousins that didn’t want no part in it because of the work it took. I was the only one left. I loved it so much—I’m still staying in it.”

Now Pearson is looking at future generations and what could be ahead for his sons and the path they choose—which might not include agriculture.

“Now with two boys of my own—they’re with me all the time on the farm—they aren’t going to have much choice until their 18 whether they’re going to farm or not,” Pearson said. “Right now I wouldn’t tell you that I want them to go into it because you can work a whole lot easier and make a whole lot more money.”

That’s not to say that the farming profession is one to be taken lightly. For folks like Pearson and many other standing in the parking lot of the co-op, the work ethic and various job titles involved in agriculture prepares you for various kinds of work, no matter the field. 

“That’s a feather in your cap at these job interviews,” Pearson said, “because not only do you have a work ethic, but you’ve been exposed to a lot of different mechanical issues—financial issues.’

“We’re weathermen. We’re bankers. We’re mechanics. We’ve got to be able to do everything.”

Haslam continued his tour through East Tennessee on Friday, stopping in at The Grainger County Tomato Festival and at Jake’s Big Red Barn produce in Rutledge, Tennessee.