On October 19 and 20, 2016, our LMT class of 2017 went to Robertson County, Tennessee and the focus of our two days there was agriculture. Some people might be surprised by the focus on agriculture considering that Robertson County is bordered by two different interstates, I-65 and I-24. Also, Robertson County is only thirty minutes away from Nashville. Further, Robertson County is within a days’ drive of fifty percent of the United States’ population. However, agriculture is and always has been very important to the county’s economy and culture. There are 1,008 farms in Robertson County covering 209,000 acres. Robertson County, Tennessee’s claim to fame is that it is known as the “Dark Fired Tobacco Capital of the World” or the “Dark Patch.”
OUR TOUR OF ROBERTSON COUNTY FARMS
As we toured various farms throughout the county, we learned how advanced farming has become in the 21st century. Tobacco farming is very labor intensive. It takes 200 to 250 man hours to raise and harvest one acre of tobacco. Increasingly, farmers are becoming scientists, engineers, CEO’s, accountants, and the like. They have to wear many different hats in order to utilize today’s technology, computers, genetically modified seeds and plants, and advanced planting and harvesting methods. Today’s farmers have to have more education and business savvy than ever before. Some farms even utilize fully autonomous tractors that do not require a human operator. These tractors are computerized and controlled by GPS and satellites. Gene editing is coming too.
Growing populations around the world requires fewer farmers to be able to produce more food, clothing, shelter, and fuel than ever. The average farmer is around sixty years old, and they aren’t getting any younger. Also, it is estimated that one hundred acres of farmland is lost per hour in America. Furthermore, it can cost millions of dollars to start up a farming operation when you include costs of the land, the equipment, the labor, the insurance, and getting your products to the marketplace. Very few individuals can just wake up one day, and say, “Hey, I want to be a farmer.” It simply is not possible. We need to conserve our farmland and to protect our farmers. If we cannot feed ourselves as a country, then we will be in serious trouble as a nation.
Farmers are conservationists by nature. They must preserve and protect the air, water, and soil in order to survive in today’s economy. They also have to be fiscally conservative. Farmers have to weigh production costs versus prices for their crops. Prices for row crops and cattle are set by the futures’ market. So, farmers have to measure their input costs versus their yields, which can be unpredictable due to weather, disease, and other uncontrollable factors. Farmers sometimes use GMO’s or genetically modified organisms in their farming. GMO’s cut down on needed chemicals and therefore they help to protect ground water, streams, creeks, rivers, and lakes. Farmers want better products, but they also want clean air and water, and good soil. They don’t just want it, they need it. Remember, it takes 100 years to regain one inch of lost topsoil.
Think about all of the products that come directly from America’s farms. The cotton sheets on your bed. The clothing and shoes you put on your body. The breakfast you eat in the morning. The fuel you put in your car. The materials that make up your home or office building. It is really amazing when you stop and think about it.
OTHER INDUSTRY & ASSETS
Although agriculture is a huge part of the Robertson County economy and culture, the county and its eleven municipalities are very diverse and are really exploding with growth. Employers included Electrolux, Macy’s, Bath Fitter, Martin Rea, Hail & Cotton, Johnson Electric, Kyowa, Lowes, Atwood Mobile, Hatch Stamping, Airtech International, and Stony Creek Colors.
Our class visited Stony Creek Colors. Stony Creek Colors was founded by Cornell graduate, Sarah Bellos. Bellos was named Entrepreneur of the Year for developing a bio-based dye manufacturing process that uses no oil and no chemicals to produce a natural indigo dye for jeans and other clothing. Bellos has expertise in the areas of farming, chemistry, finance, business, marketing, research, just to name a few.
Other assets of Robertson County include: Realizing Robertson’s Future, Red River Preserve, a Retire Tennessee certified community, a Red Carpet Award airport, and the Robertson Education Initiative. The Robertson Education Initiative was fascinating. The city and county donated $3 million dollars a piece to build the campus of Highland Crest College. The land was donated. Students can take classes from Vol State and Austin Peay at Highland Crest College. This initiative made possible the first college for the county. This would not have been possible without a public and private partnership between the city, the county, individuals, and two colleges. It is amazing what you can do when no one cares who gets the credit.
The challenges for Robertson County mirror many of the same ones as those in other Middle Tennessee counties. Educators fight the perception that private schools are better than public schools when the reality is that Robertson County has very good public schools. Transportation is another issue that is being addressed along with workforce development. Employers sometimes have a hard time finding workers that are qualified for today’s high tech job market, which is part of the reason for the public/private partnership to build Highland Crest College.
Our class was really impressed with the people Robertson County. We learned a lot about farming and agriculture in the 21st century. One thing all of our speakers impressed upon our class was to get to personally know a farmer. They all encouraged us to go up to a farmer in the field and ask them some questions about their operation. We were told that if we did so that we would learn a lot, and the farmer would be glad to share their knowledge with us. Remember, if you know your farmer and then you will know your food.
See you next month when the 2017 LMT Class visits Clarksville/Montgomery County where the focus will be on the military!