Middle Tennessee century farmer fights to preserve family land in changing world
Space to live and breathe
ColumbiaDailyHerald | USATODAYNETWORK–TENNESSEE
Farmer Sam Kennedy III patiently surveyed the vast field where hundreds of sheep grazed peacefully at Kettle Mills Farm, the land tended by his family ancestors for 210 years in the Hampshire community in Maury County.
After a long day of herding sheep into the pasture, Kennedy look a moment to watch the burnt orange sunset on the horizon. As the quietness of dusk blanketed the farm, sheep and their eager lambs, chewed on fresh green grass before the chill of fall turns to winter frost.
The collective chews of 750 sheep resembled the methodical sound of locusts, only softer and gentler, a calming sound, resulting from a day’s hard work, according to Kennedy.
“Shhh,” Kennedy said, “listen to that. This is my favorite part of the day. The animals are content. They are where they are supposed to be, enjoying the land.”
Each day Kennedy drives his red pick-up or ATV across 800-plus acres to ensure the animals are fed and all is well.
During his daily drive, he often stops at the family cemetery, where generations are laid to rest on a grassy knoll that catches every sunset and sunrise. The cemetery is located past the Duck River, which borders the property, a symbol of constant, steady motion throughout the changing generations on the farm.
“If you give to the land, it will give back to you,” he said.
Sam Kennedy IV feeds sheep at his family’s farm, Kettle Mills Farm in Columbia. Sam, who is 6 years old, is in line to become the eighthgeneration owner of Kettle Mills once he comes of age.
His 6-year-old son, Sam Kennedy IV, one of his three children, trudges through the grass, climbing in and out of his father’s pick-up, enjoying the amenities that growing up on a farm brings — climbing headstones in the family cemetery — or hiding behind them — hanging on fences, leaping over tall grass and petting plenty of sheep with a guardian dog at his ankles.
Those are the experiences Kennedy is proud to pass down to his children, much like his own experiences growing up visiting the farm when his grandfather and his namesake, Sam Kennedy Jr., owned it.
Fresh air, starry nights — and the girl across the street — are just some of the memories that living close to the farm emblazoned upon Kennedy’s heart as a child. After serving in the Navy and the Naval Reserve around the world from Europe to Africa and in between, he found his way back to the farm in 2010 with a mission of carrying on his family legacy, preserving his family’s land in Southern Middle Tennessee.
“How can children build their imaginations if they don’t have the stars to look at each night,” Kennedy said. “I grew up with a love for nature and the land. That’s part of our family culture, something that has always been a part of me.”
Kennedy represents 95% of farmers in Tennessee who own family farms — land that many families are trying to preserve and make profitable amid inflation and rising production costs, while farmland dwindles in highgrowth areas in Tennessee, like Maury County.
Tennessee loses approximately 60,000 acres of farmland every year, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. In Maury County, farmland decreased by 6% between 2012 and 2017, according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.
“This has always been a dream that I think my father and grandfather have instilled in me I think,” Kennedy said. “I heard my grandfather tell tales, and I watched them on Kettle Mills my whole life. We never thought we’d be able to [sustain the land] as a living.”
His fondest memories are being able to “run wild” on the open land, building dams in the creek, building forts and later learn meaningful work each summer in high school and college.
When his family sold most of their land to a neighbor, the Morrow family, Kennedy was able to buy much of it back for the purpose of raising sheep and cattle to sell its meat to area stores such as Whole Foods.
A highlight for the Kennedy family this year is when Kettle Mills Farm was named in April as the Century Farm of the Year by the Maury County Chamber and Economic Alliance. The criteria of the designation is for a farm to be in the same family lineage and in consistent agricultural operation for at least 100 years.
There are currently more than 2,100 Century Farms in Tennessee with 19 certified Century Farms in Maury County, according to the Center for Historic Preservation housed at Middle Tennessee State University. Spread throughout Maury County, over 1,500 farms are in operation, according to the USDA.
Running family farm ‘not for the faint of heart’
Kennedy said the odds of him and his wife Rachel being able to run the family farm is “incredible.”
He admits that farming for profit is “a difficult task,” especially finding new ways to keep the farm prosperous for decades to come.
But through innovative farming techniques, much study, trial and error and experienced gained, Kennedy, an avid reader and researcher of new methods, has found some new ways to approach raising his primary product — sheep and cattle.
Rhedona Rose, executive vice president of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, keynote speaker at the Maury Alliance Farm City Breakfast shared that farmland in the U.S. has been shrinking for the past 20 years.
Land loss has become prevalent as more and more residential and commercial development reaches high growth areas. The fastest growing land use is America is urban development, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In the 20 years between 1997 and 2017, the U.S. lost 54 million acres of farmland, which is approximately the size of Minnesota, Rose said.
“You don’t have to drive far out to see that land once used for corn, wheat and pasture for cattle has been developed. We have lost that land forever to homes,” said Darrell Ailshie, agent for agriculture and natural resources for the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension campus in Maury County.
Maury County is made up of approximately 227,179 acres of farmland, which is 57.9% of its landmass, according to 2017 data.
“In Maury County, we have seen a tremendous amount of growth, and there is pressure on families to leave the production side and look at other uses for the farmland.
“It’s economics. It’s hard to pencil out a profit for farming,” Ailshie said.
Kara Williams, director of Maury County Chamber of Commerce, who heads the chamber’s century farm program, said maintaining a family farm over generations is “not for the faint of heart.”
The organization has been honoring farmers through the Century Farm of the Year award for over 25 years.
“It’s a hard business. Prices and the cost of maintaining workers, like everything else, goes up year after year,” Williams said. “I have found that with most of our honorees, they want to be the best stewards of the land as possible, give back to their neighbors and improve the community. I consider them to be the first environmentalists.”
Finding new ways to create prosperity on family farms
Ailshie explained that many family farms add agritourism to its operations in addition to or in lieu of traditional farm operations by providing the public with “an experience through the fresh and local movement.”
“In order to keep the family farm together, families are getting creative by producing revenue through agritourism from Airbnbs to drawing people to the land for an experience whether it’s a hayride, a picnic, educational programming, shopping or being with the animals. They can see the cows in the pasture and meet the farmer who raises them. They can see where their food comes from and reconnect with the land.”
Kennedy has joined the agritourism movement by providing an Airbnb on the property, where visitors can experience waking up on a farm with wide open spaces to roam.
He has also implemented new and innovative ways to make the farm production side of the business profitable such as using the method of “planned rotational grazing” in raising his sheep and cattle, which eliminates the need to purchase feed like hay, thus reducing “off-farm inputs.”
Planned rotational grazing allows Kettle Mills sheep and cattle to rotate grazing spots on the land, promoting vegetation to grow back naturally on each plat as the herd changes locations.
“It mimics how the animals would really graze in the wild, how herbivores behave in a grassland environment. Once the vegetation is gone, they move to the next location to find more abundant food and to stave off predators,” Kennedy said.
It could take up to six months or more for vegetation to grow back on a certain plat of land, Kennedy said, but in the meantime, the animals are happily grazing on other parts of the property.
“The method keeps costs low and makes the farm less susceptible to inflation,” Kennedy said, which is key in sustaining profitable production.
Heart calls Kennedy back to farming roots
After serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Kennedy’s dream was to return to the family farm.
“The quality of the farmland defines the quality of life in a community,” Kennedy said. “Clean air and water and the space to live and breathe depends on the agricultural community.”
He followed in his grandfather’s footsteps in many ways, such as embracing farm life and marrying the girl across the street. Grandfather Sam Kennedy Jr. married a Finney, whose family also owned land in Hampshire. The couple went on to operate the combined farms as well as serve as owners and publishers of The Daily Herald newspaper until the 1990s. Their son, Delk Kennedy, Sam Kennedy III’s father, who spent most of his life working as a lawyer, is now carrying on the family’s dual legacy in media as owner and host of WKOM radio in Columbia.
When Sam Kennedy III returned from the Naval Reserve, he married Rachel Vest the daughter of cattle farmers next door, much like his grandfather’s matrimonial path.
“We grew up together. It’s a story as old as time,” he said.
The couple operates the farm together. While Sam herds sheep, Rachel might be feeding the new lambs by bottle, he said.
Being a farmer is one of the only professions that brings you closer to God — the creation and the creator — Kennedy said.
“There’s a spiritual aspect of being a part of the creation daily,” he said, in which sunsets, green grass and blue skies are a daily enjoyment that never get old.
Family history builds firm foundation
The Kettle Mills Farm, of the Anderson, Delk and Kennedy family, began in 1810 when Richard “Kettle Dick” Anderson (born in 1777 in North Carolina), purchased 2,000 acres in Hampshire along the Duck River, which would lead to almost eight generations of farmers.
In 1882, Richard Anderson Kennedy, the grandson of farm patriarch Richard “Kettle Dick” Anderson, built the first successful dam across the Duck River and a mill on the west bank. The mill operated from 1882 to 1956 and was vital to the prosperity of the families in and around Hampshire, leading to the development of two general stores, a family dentist, a post office and other businesses.
“That’s where it all started,” Kennedy said. “Pre-World War II, this was a thriving community that is gone now. It’s like the song ‘Song of the South’ by Alabama … My grandfather was one of eight, and the war came and every single one of them left, girls and boys, and my granddad and his sister were the only two who came back to Maury County.”
Now Kennedy and his wife own about 870 acres of the original land.
“There’s a weight of ‘don’t mess it up,’” Kennedy said. “I feel like there are dead ancestors pulling strings for us because of the odds of us being able to do this.
“In 100 years, we will wish we had more farms, not subdivisions. I want to preserve Maury County and fight to keep Maury County as beautiful today as it was for the last 100 years.”