The state Department of Agriculture is renaming one of its divisions, and in the process restructuring it under the hopes of better helping agriculture- and forestry-related businesses grow and prosper in Tennessee.

The Agriculture Advancement Division of the department will now be known as the Business Development Division.

A press release issued from the department this week indicated the newly reconfigured and rebranded division will “prioritize agricultural economic development by increasing profitability and viability of farm and forest businesses, which are vital to Tennessee’s rural and overall economy.”

The Business Development Division‘s areas of focus will include both farm-direct marketing and international commercial promotion. The division will also administer crop and livestock subsidy programs.

Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher said the division’s primary strategic emphasis is fortifying ag and forestry’s economic roots in rural Tennessee counties.

“With this renewed focus on business development, we will work to expand opportunities for agricultural innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship — areas that are crucial to any state’s future success in the agriculture industry,” Hatcher said.

Keith Harrison, a long time veteran of state agriculture department marketing and outreach programs, will lead the division.

Upon taking office in January, Republican Gov. Bill Lee declared that stimulating rural economic growth is a central priority to his administration. One of Lee’s first official acts as governor was to assign all state agencies to develop initiatives to improve how they serve rural communities.

“Despite such growth and prosperity, Tennessee’s rural citizens face challenges unique to their geography that often require a unique response,” Lee declared in his first executive order, issued Jan. 29.

News Release from Tennessee Tech University, April 5, 2019:

Link: https://www.tntech.edu/news/releases/18-19/day-on-the-hill.php

State leaders learned more about Tennessee Tech University’s Rural Reimagined Grand Challenge, an initiative that will accelerate rural innovation and collaboration across the state, at the recent Tennessee Tech Day on the Hill at the state capitol.

Tennessee Tech representatives carried the message of the grand challenge, which is an effort with ambitious but achievable goals that harnesses the capabilities of a campus while inspiring imaginations.

Rural Reimagined focuses on developing and supporting success throughout rural areas in Tennessee that can be replicated to help rural areas throughout the country and the world.

Tech President Phil Oldham shared his excitement for the work that was led by faculty leaders and more than 50 other work group members to shape the priorities and actions of the university. Tech’s director of its Center for Rural Innovation Michael Aikens says the university will focus on harnessing all academic disciplines to transform rural living.

“Rural Reimagined is a grassroots effort, and is squarely in line with Gov. Lee’s visions for rural transformation,” said Aikens. “It is important the legislature know about our goals for reimagining the rural landscape, so that they can assist with support, awareness and action in the communities they represent.

“Having the legislature on board with Rural Reimagined sends a message to their constituents and communities that they are committed to helping and improving their rural areas,” Aikens said. “Support from the legislature will legitimize both Tennessee Tech’s efforts and Gov. Lee’s call for action in rural areas.

Besides legislators, Tech officials were also able to interact with other public figures, medical doctors and student interns, helping energize the Tech students who are currently interning on the hill.

“We were able to have discussions with our student interns about development of a student advisory board for the grand challenge,” said Aikens. “It is our hope to establish a diverse set of student voices on this board. We think it is critical that political science majors have a seat at the table.”

Tech has already been assisting rural areas with career readiness certification; a remote area medical clinic; a small business development center; a cybersecurity education, research and outreach center; a STEM mobile unit for K-12 student success; water quality research to monitor and protect natural resources; and, archives of rural history.

For more information on Rural Reimagined, go to www.tntech.edu/grand-challenge.

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, April 2, 2019:

Link: https://www.tn.gov/agriculture/news/2019/4/2/local-farms-creating-unforgettable-memories-this-easter.html

NASHVILLE – With spring in the air and warmer weather within reach, farms across the state are offering exciting activities for the upcoming holiday. From riding ponies to getting pictures with the Easter Bunny, you can spend a whole day of family fun making memories that last a lifetime.

According to mental health professionals, holidays can be a time of stress. The thought of cooking and planning activities can be overwhelming.

However, local farmers are stepping up to the plate this Easter holiday. Tennessee farms are providing the ultimate stress relief that is sure to entertain the whole family.

“At our farm, there are no mad dashes — just a day filled with nonstop Easter egg hunts, farm-wide scavenger hunts for older kids, and, of course, pictures with the Easter bunny!” said Jimmy McCulley of Amazin’ Acres in White County. “We encourage you to bring your camera to capture the amazing memories with farm animals, the bee line zipline, the jumping pillow, milking a cow or goat, racing ducks, and more!”

One farmer has been planning events for years. “At Falcon Ridge, our annual Easter egg hunt provides families the opportunity to enjoy a day on the farm,” Bart Gilmer of Hardeman County said. “Our visitors can hunt eggs, get a picture with the Easter Bunny, visit the Petting Zoo, and much more without the work of planning an event.”

Don’t have kids and on the hunt for an adult Easter adventure? Look no further. “It’s time to find your inner child and get hopping to Lucky Ladd Farms for Nashville’s famous Bunny and Brew – Adult Egg Hunt,” said Amy Ladd of Lucky Ladd Farms of Rutherford County. “We will have live entertainment, fun lawn games, pre-hunt lite bites, and all-you-can-drink brew and coke products.”

Don’t get stressed — hop on over to the farm this Easter and let the farmers do the planning. The sounds of laugher and joy of all ages will fill the air making for life-long memories.

Go to www.PickTNProducts.org or use the free Pick Tennessee mobile app to find a farm near you. Follow “PickTNProducts” on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to learn more about current seasonal recipes, products, and activities.

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, March 18, 2019:

Link: https://www.tn.gov/agriculture/news/2019/3/18/grant-program-announced-for-specialty-crops-.html

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is accepting applications for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP).

“The SCBGP supports specialty crop producers through funding for research, education, marketing, and innovative projects,” Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher, D.V.M. said. “Tennessee is an agriculturally-diverse state producing a wide range of specialty crops that can benefit from participating in this program.”

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture administers the grants, which are authorized through the USDA. SCBGP funds are granted to enhance production and competitiveness of specialty crops, including fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, tree nuts, floriculture, and other nursery crops.

Universities, institutions, cooperatives, producers, and industry or community-based organizations may submit a proposal for funding. The program aims to support projects that directly affect multiple Tennessee producers and have a positive, long-lasting impact on Tennessee agriculture.

Previous grant funding assisted the Appalachian Region Wine Producers Association’s efforts to designate two American Viticultural Areas in Tennessee, emphasizing the distinction of grapes grown there. The University of Tennessee used grant funds to compare lettuce yield and quality using drip and overhead irrigation on biodegradable mulches.

“The SCBGP has allowed us to address real issues for Tennessee producers,” Dr. Annette Wszelaki, Plant Sciences Professor at the University of Tennessee, said. “From production practices to food safety, the SCBGP has given us the opportunity to provide demonstrations, solutions, and education to our specialty crop growers statewide.”

Eligible individuals and organizations must submit proposals using the 2019 project template. The project template, performance measures, and information required to apply are available online here.

Proposals are due by April 4 and should be submitted by email to tn.scbg@tn.gov. First-time recipients have a funding limit of $25,000. Early submission is encouraged.

For more information about the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, email tn.scbg@tn.gov.

New governor looks to spur country-style commerce

In one of his first official acts after taking the oath of office as Tennessee’s newest chief executive, Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order mandating that state agencies do a better job serving country folks.

The order directs state agencies to take steps toward improving rural economic opportunities, especially in areas deemed “economically distressed.”

“This administration recognizes that Tennessee’s economic growth and prosperity has reached historic levels,” reads Lee’s order, issued Jan. 29. “Despite such growth and prosperity, Tennessee’s rural citizens face challenges unique to their geography that often require a unique response.”

“Educational attainment and labor workforce participation are continuing to lag within our rural communities,” the order states.

Of Tennessee’s 95 counties, 80 are deemed rural by the state. Those around the Upper Cumberland designated “economically distressed” include Jackson, van Buren, Clay and Fentress, as well as Bledsoe, Grundy and nine others in the state.

Lee’s order notes that Tennessee has among states with the highest percentage of distressed counties in the country. The governor observed during a press conference soon after taking office that much of what the state does in the way of corporate recruitment and business project development “automatically happens in urban areas because the vast majority of economic development is occurring in our urban areas.”

“My administration will place a high emphasis on the development and success of our rural areas,” Lee said. “Our first executive order sends a clear message that rural areas will be prioritized across all departments as we work to improve coordination in our efforts.”

Lee’s pledge to focus on rural issues isn’t without precedent. One of the executive order’s mandates is that all 22 state department formally sum up progress they’ve made as a result of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Rural Task Force initiatives.

Their assessments, due by the end of May, must include “a comprehensive description of the department’s initiatives adopted or funded in the last four years to specifically address challenges unique to rural communities.”

Lee’s executive order declares that by June 30 all agencies must provide “recommendations for improving and making more efficient the department’s service of rural Tennesseans.”

Enticing Hinterland Tourism

Lee’s tourism development commissioner, Mark Ezell, says he’s “bullish” on tourism in Tennessee. Tourism’s scope and potential as a driver of economic activity has “community-changing ability” for small towns and rural populations, he said.

Ezell replaces Kevin Triplett, who served in the role under Haslam. He’s no stranger to rural commerce, having worked as a brand development executive with Purity Dairies prior to taking over as the state’s top promoter of Tennessee travel, leisure, entertainment and recreation.

Ezell calls himself “a brand builder.” He says Tennessee is already a “remarkable product.” The goal of his agency now is to get people to visit Tennessee, spend money, then “do that over and over and over again.”

“What is great about tourism is that the size is big and the growth is massive.” Ezell said. “Tourism drives economic impact. Over $20 billion is the new number that we will achieve with growth of over seven percent — beating the national average.”

Tourism bolsters local quality of life throughout the state and has great capacity to do more, he said. “Tourism pays hundreds of millions of dollars for the critical services that help all Tennesseans have a good job, a good school and a safe neighborhood,” he said.

During budget hearings before Gov. Lee in January, Ezell expressed a desire to raise the visibility of seemingly out-of-the-way Tennessee towns and counties endowed with visitor attractions. One of his priorities will be to encourage more travel off the beaten path in order to help share the wealth of tourist dollars flowing into Tennessee.

“Because so many of these counties are rich in scenic beauty or natural resources or adventure tourism opportunities or agritourism, this is a key development piece for us,” he said.

Ezell said his office will try to help rural communities take better advantage of the Adventure Tourism Act “that promotes rafting and kayaking and biking and rock climbing.” The Department of Tourist Development can also lend towns and counties technical and financial assistance in planning and promoting recreation-oriented infrastructure — which is often one of the top ways business and community leaders in economically underperforming regions say the state can help them, he said.

Thirteen of the 15 distressed counties have indicated to the new administration that expanding tourism is their No. 1 priority, said Ezell. For example, Jackson County’s top long term goal is to “leverage the Roaring River and other scenic rivers in the county,” said Ezell.

‘People Relocate Where They Recreate’

Appreciating the benefits of expanding recreation-based tourism is a perspective that makes a lot of sense to Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce. He says he often encounters transplanted Upper Cumberland entrepreneurs who tell him “our outdoors are why they moved to our area.”

“I am proud that Tennessee recognizes the value of tourism,” he said. “Rural communities with recreational opportunities benefit beyond the dollars spent on tourism and retirees. People relocate where they recreate, and that includes business owners.”

“In the case of Sparta and White County, tourism has substantially contributed to industrial growth and attracting workforce as well,” added Bullock, who points to Jackson Kayak as the best local example of what leveraging nearby recreation potential can achieve in the realm of business and industry development.

Not only is world-champion kayaker Eric Jackson’s company White County’s largest employer, but it regularly helps attract major kayaking events that splash visitors’ dollars around the area.

Just this spring alone, the Upper Cumberland is playing host to two major paddle-sport competitions — the U.S. Freestyle National Team Trials at Rock Island March 16-17, and the inaugural Pan-American Kayak Bass Championship from May 28-31 in Cookeville. The latter is billed as a first-of-its-kind in the world, and will bring more than 100 of the most elite kayak bass anglers from around the globe to Center Hill Lake.

Strengthening Farming, Forestry

Tourism may be a little more flashy and seemingly open-ended in terms of capacity for growth, but farming, ranching and timber-harvesting are still backbone industries in much of rural Tennessee.

That’s especially true around the Upper Cumberland — and in particular the “Nursery Capital of the World,” Warren County.

“Warren County boasts more than 160,000 acres of farmland, with more than 300 nurseries operating in McMinnville and the surrounding vicinity,” according to an economic assessment published last year by the Upper Cumberland Development District. “In 2012, nursery sales totaled $17,691,000, making Warren County the top nursery stock crop producer in the entire country.”

Nevertheless, like in rural areas across the state, farming in general has been diminishing in profitability.

“Agriculture is undoubtedly important in Warren County, however with the industry on a steady decline for the last fifty years, farmers have been struggling to sustain locally owned agribusinesses,” the UCDD report states.

Lee’s new agriculture commissioner, Charlie Hatcher, said his department will be looking to “facilitate or create an environment that is better for farmers or ag businesses” across the state, especially in counties and communities where farming has played a significant role in the local economy

“We are at a time when we know that farm income is down 50 percent,” Hatcher said during Lee’s state budget hearings. He added, “We know that government is not the answer.” Even so, he said “whatever money we have available for cost-shares and grants we would like to use” to make it easier to make a living on the farm.

Gov. Lee is hinting that he might like to see farmers in distressed counties receive “premium scoring” on applications for agriculture enhancement funds and farm-enterprise grant requests with the department.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is in the process of forming an internal task force to counsel the agency on rural economic development, said Hatcher. The task force will advise on “all commodity groups throughout the state,” he said.

In addition, the agency will host an online “suggestion box for ag ideas” to promote outreach and communication with farmers, rural communities and ag-focused businesses and entrepreneurs, said Hatcher.

PRESS RELEASE from the State of Tennessee, Jan. 25:

LINK: https://www.tn.gov/ecd/news/2019/1/25/commissioner-rolfe-appoints-sammie-arnold-as-assistant-commissioner-of-community-and-rural-development.html

Arnold will lead TNECD’s efforts to promote opportunities across rural Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe announced today the appointment of Sammie Arnold as TNECD’s assistant commissioner of Community and Rural Development.

Arnold, a native of Dyersburg, Tenn., has been with the department since 2013 and most recently served as assistant commissioner of Strategy and Legislative Affairs.

“With 80 of Tennessee’s 95 counties deemed as rural, our commitment to these areas of the state is a top priority for our department. In just three short years, the number of high-quality jobs in rural counties increased from 50 percent to nearly 65 percent, and we remain focused on continuing this growth,” Rolfe said. “Sammie’s wealth of knowledge of the state is matched by his genuine ambition to help expand opportunities across rural Tennessee, and I look forward to seeing the great things that will be accomplished under his leadership.”

Earlier this week, Gov. Bill Lee issued his first executive order, requiring all state executive departments to issue a statement of rural impact and provide recommendations for better serving rural Tennessee. It is the first step by the administration to accelerate plans to address the 15 Tennessee counties that are designated as distressed.

TNECD offers a number of programs and grants aimed at assisting rural communities to build assets and prepare themselves for industrial recruitment. Since 2017, the department has provided more than $34 million in funding to rural communities throughout the state. In addition, companies have invested $3.5 billion and committed to create more than 17,000 new jobs in rural communities over the past two years.

In 2018, TNECD landed 127 projects representing nearly 21,000 new job commitments. Of those projects, 54 percent located in rural counties, an increase from 45 percent in 2014.

“I am tremendously thankful for this opportunity. As a rural Tennessean with deep small-town roots, I am incredibly passionate about supporting our rural communities and protecting their way of life,” Arnold said. “Governor Lee has asked us to be aggressive in developing creative solutions to help our rural communities that are struggling. My team and our department are up to the task.”

Bygone days and ways live in memories alone

Standing atop Center Hill Dam or Hurricane Bridge today, it’s easy to forget that homestead activity and rural enterprise once flourished along the hillsides and throughout river bottom lands now submerged under the lake’s expansive waterline.

But across Tennessee during the great federal dam-building decades of the 20th Century, old manners and modes of living were drowned out and washed away as reservoir waters rose behind hydroelectric impoundments that still serve as monuments to modern engineering and industrial technology.

Prior to the dam’s construction, which was completed in 1948, much of the area around the Caney Fork “was subject to intensive family-type farming of money crops, such as corn and tobacco, which involved hillside plowing with mules,” notes the Army Corps of Engineers’ Center Hill Lake Master Plan. However, since the dam’s completion, “farming in the Center Hill Lake area has steadily declined.”

Center Hill Dam under construction on the Caney Fork River in DeKalb County, 1949. (Tennessee State Library Photo Archive)

Local historians and aging residents who lived through the events recall that it was a time of gloom and upheaval for many.

“By the end of 1948, all of the homes and farms were cleared out, torn down and covered with water,” wrote the authors of “Under the Lake,” a 2016 coffee table book of historic images, remembrances and genealogy from the region prior to creation of Center Hill reservoir. “People who had lived there in their lifetime would never be able to see their homes again.”

DeKalb County historian Thomas G. Webb, who wrote a book about local history for the Memphis State University Press that was published in 1986, recalled that by the end of World War II “most of (the inhabitants) had accepted the idea that they had to leave their farms, homes, schools and churches.”

“A few, however, were bitterly opposed to moving and remained in their homes until the dam was completed and the water was literally in their front yards. Some in the Center Hill area relocated in DeKalb County, but many moved to other counties, and the county lost 4,000 people between 1940 and 1950,” Webb reported.

Rosemary Ponte of Cookeville, whose family owned property where today sits the Appalachian Center for Craft, said it pains her even now to recall that “very sad time” when families in DeKalb County were forced off their homelands.

“I still feel bad about it,” said Ponte, who was born in 1931. “They took so much more land than they needed. I just hated to see the people so displaced like that, after generations and generations of their families living there.”

Recreation an Unanticipated Boon

It may seem surprising now, with Center Hill Lake a prominent recreation destination in Middle Tennessee, but leisure and sporting activities weren’t considered important to the dam-project planners.

The Center Hill Lake Master Plan even notes that “recreation was not originally an authorized function of the project” — although surrounding lands were later acquired from property owners and “recreation facilities constructed to assure unencumbered access to the lake for the general public.”

In the beginning, though, they scoffed at the idea of recreation.

“The first few years that Center Hill Lake was backed up after the lake was there, they didn’t even want to talk about recreation,” said Carl Halfacre of Baxter, whose father worked on construction of the dam. “‘If you mentioned recreation to the Corps of Engineers, they would insult you.” They would say, “That dam is for flood control and hydroelectric power — we don’t furnish recreation.’ The Corps didn’t feel it was their job to spend millions of dollars so people could have a good time.”

Nevertheless, by the middle of the 1950s, people did indeed start showing up to fish and boat and swim on Center Hill Lake, said Halfacre, who in 2014 retired from serving as managing ranger at Edgar Evins State Park for nearly two decades. At about that time, picnic areas and campgrounds started popping up, he said.

Webb noted that some who lived in the area in fact began anticipating recreational benefits even before the dam was finished.

“Those who hoped to benefit from the increased tourist trade looked forward to the completion of the dam,” he wrote.

So if you’re one of the more than three million people who annually takes advantage or accesses Center Hill Lake’s vast recreation opportunities, you might do well to spend a moment and reflect on the reality that many people gave up homes and lifeways for the lake to exist — and many would for the rest of their years suffer broken-heartedness and resentment as a result.

“There used to be a lot more life down below the water’s surface — and it was more than just fish,” said Ria Baker, one of the authors of “Under the Lake.”

Prospects brighter for giant provider of wood, food and forest shade

As it often turns out, for better or worse, the future just ain’t what it used to be.

But in the realm of hardwood forest health, that actually ought to be a big win for the tall, dark and handsome black walnut, which is certainly no stranger to the wooded hillsides, valleys and ridges of Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region.

Not so long ago, though, it looked like dismal days indeed lay ahead for the opulent heartwood of the eastern U.S. heartland. A tiny twig beetle was casting a long and ominous shadow out over the horizon, potentially menacing the survival of many millions of black walnut trees across their native range.

Given the appalling pandemic that befell and felled the American chestnut, and the ongoing disaster unfolding as a result of the emerald ash borer’s baleful spread, anxiety among forest health experts soared back in the early years of this decade when a malevolent blight called thousand cankers disease, or TCD, was discovered in the Knoxville area.

Thousand cankers disease is described by scientists as a “disease complex” that is native to the western United States. It is an arboreal ailment that scientists say results from  “the combined activity” of a fungus (Geosmithia morbida) spread by the walnut twig beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis).

Walnut twig beetle

A disease that primarily affects black walnut trees, TCD gets its name from a pernicious propensity to inflict numerous small ulcers or “cankers” on trees. If proliferation of the cankers brought on by the beetle’s “overwhelming attacks” goes unchecked, it will kill the tree.

Of particularly worrying concern when the twig beetle and TCD was detected in Tennessee was not only that the pestilence had not yet been observed east of the Mississippi, but that the Volunteer State essentially constitutes the very core of black walnut country.

“Tennessee is roughly in the middle of the native range for black walnut trees,” said Steve Powell, the state’s chief entomologist. “So when it was found in 2010, it was really unfortunate.”

Tennessee’s Division of Forestry estimates there are 26 million mature walnut trees growing throughout the state’s countrysides, and another 1.3 million in urban areas, representing a combined standing economic timber value of $2.84 billion.

Forest Fears Festering

The sinister dread primarily bugging scientists, conservationists, loggers and forestland owners after the discovery of thousand cankers disease in east Tennessee was that black walnut trees were facing a crisis similar to that currently witnessed with emerald ash borer, which is now in more than 60 Tennessee counties. EAB is a bonafide “catastrophe” for ash trees wherever it appears, according to Vanderbilt University biological sciences professor Steve Baskauf.

“The emerald ash borer has been expanding its range throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada at a steady pace and there is currently no way to stop it,” Baskauf wrote in 2015. “All attempts at quarantine or creating ‘firebreaks’ have failed. The only real question is when the EAB will arrive in an area. It’s like a giant steamroller slowly rolling down a hill towards your house. You can see that it’s coming and you know that when it gets there, it’s going to smash your house. But there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

Fortunately for black walnut trees, though, TCD isn’t EAB.

While TCD has in fact ravaged black walnuts in the Western United States, those trees are not native to that environment. They were historically introduced from the Midwest and Eastern U.S.

“The pioneers took their black walnuts out west and planted them,” said Alan Windham, a plant pathologist with the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. “They had black walnuts in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado — usually planted along streams and rivers.”

Windham said it appears now the black walnut’s devastating susceptibility to TCD in the West looks to be greatly exacerbated by natural environmental stresses as a result of the drier climate out there, which greatly inhibits a tree’s ability to fight off and survive the condition.

No Place Like Native Home

The wetter Eastern U.S. climate is, by contrast, more to the black walnut’s liking than the arid west.

Trees here appear much more capable of fending off the disease — and even recovering after a TCD infection sets in, which is uncommon in the West, said Windham.

“When TCD showed up here, there was an assumption that the same thing would happen here that happened there — that it would be very damaging to the species,” Windham said. “But here we are, more than seven years later, and it really hasn’t moved much from the initial location in Knox County. The good news is that we have had a totally different experience with thousand cankers disease in the Eastern United States than what the scientists who had followed it out West were perhaps anticipating.”

While black walnut trees are not as plentiful in Tennessee as in some states, especially further north, they nevertheless play a crucial role in forest ecosystems and wildlife habitats here. Demand for the delicious nuts, among both humans and fulltime forest-dwelling fauna — like squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and bears — is robust.

And like sapling shoots invigorated with the spring, walnut timber prices are reaching ever upward. Demand for the exquisite, richly-grained black walnut wood, especially for decorative veneer, is “extremely strong right now,” said University of Tennessee extension forester David Mercker, who tracks Tennessee timber prices as part of his job.

“It increases almost on a weekly basis,” he said.

And that has been the case for a while now. “The loggers and mills just can’t get enough of it,” Mercker said.

Jonathan Boggs, who manages a woodland resource consulting firm based in Dickson County, said that while it’s true walnut trees are currently fetching premium prices, don’t assume you’re in for a tidy and effortless payday just because you have one growing out on the lawn in the subdivision where you live.

“Believe me, I get two or three calls a week from somebody that’s got a walnut tree in their front yard and they’ve been hearing the same thing that everybody is hearing, that prices are real high,” said Boggs. “The reality is that it may be worth something if you’re willing to cut it down yourself and take it to a mill. But you’re probably not going to get a buyer to come and cut a single tree — or even a few trees — out of your yard. It just isn’t going to be feasible for them to do that.”

Boggs added, though, that if you’re a logger or a landowner contemplating a timber sale, a 25-foot walnut log that’s at least 24 inches on the small end might yield $10 a board foot. “There could be 500 board feet in that tree, so in all reality it could bring $5,000,” Boggs said. “But most yard trees aren’t going to have that quality or board feet in them.”

A forest-grown black walnut tree is “going to have better characteristics” than an urban tree — like “not having any low-hanging limbs,” he said. “They self-thin themselves in the woods.”

Going for Nuts

For some rural landowners and freelance foragers, the nuts are basically just another crop to harvest when they start dropping in the fall.

The two Upper Cumberland black-walnut buying-and-hulling stations in 2017 were Jackson County Farm and Garden in Gainsboro, and at local rancher Brent Hewitt’s place near Morrison in western Warren County. Both sell their walnuts to the Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Missouri.

“The flavor of black walnut is very rich and robust, very distinctive from English walnut,” said Brian Hammons, the company’s third-generation president. “Chefs are increasingly intrigued with what that flavor will do in their dishes. So they are using it more and more all the time.”

Hammons’ grandfather, Ralph, launched the operation in 1946 after he tracked down a used nut-cracking machine for sale in Tennessee and hauled it back to his hometown in the Ozarks, whereupon he started buying walnuts from whoever wanted collect them and bring them in to him.

Today, the Hammons company buys 20-30 million pounds annually. Last year they bought black walnuts from more than 235 hulling stations across 15 states.

Jacob Basecke, vice president of marketing and sales at Hammons, said 2017 was “a really, really strong year in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio.” Hammons purchased about 731,465 pounds out of Tennessee.

“The 10 year average is about 475,000 pounds, so it was up last year,” Basecke said.

Hewitt, whose hulling station is located about 10 miles west of McMinnville, said he’s been rolling in black walnuts ever since he got into the business five years ago. Like all Hammons-backed stations, Hewitt paid his clients $15 dollars per hundred pounds in 2017, post hulling. Five years ago the price was $13, he said.

“This was a good year,” Hewitt said. Although it could have been even better were it not for some frost-loss, he said. “I done almost 200,000 pounds. That’s about the same as the year before,” he said.

In fact, he actually took in a few hundred more pounds in 2017 than 2016. “I lacked just 306 pounds from having 200,000 pounds this year,” Hewitt said. “Last year I think I lacked thirteen-hundred.”

For Jackson County Farm and Garden, this year in fact wasn’t as good as last, said store manager Alana Pippin. They hulled 95,000 or 96,000 pounds, she said. In 2016 they did 103,000.

“The always say you’ll have a good year, then one bad, then a good one and then a bad one again,” she said. “Some years it’s good, some years it’s not. This was kind of an off year, so hopefully next year will be better.”

Black walnuts are actually alternate bearing, Call it “alternutting,” if you like. They tend to produce noticeably larger average crops every other year.

A lot of people bring in harvest hauls from neighboring counties,  and often those taking particular advantage of the black walnut buy-up are families and individuals of modest means, Pippen said.

“People will drive pretty far to come down here,” she said. “And a lot of times you can tell that they really need the extra money.”

“Under the Lake” is a book published in 2016 about life in the Caney Fork River Valley prior to construction of Center Hill Dam. Pictured above are the book’s authors (from left to right): Judy Taylor Fuson, Carol Denson Williams and Ria Baker.

Seven decades have passed since Center Hill Dam construction

This coming year will mark the 70th anniversary of Center Hill Dam’s completion and subsequent submersion of the Caney Fork River Valley above it.

Undeniably, many modern benefits accompanied the lake impoundment, from hydroelectric power production to flood control to numerous forms of recreation.

So it’s easy — perhaps too easy — to overlook the heart-rending historical reality that for hundreds of families living in the area, the coming of the federal government’s new dam meant doom for their old ways of living. Along with displacement, the rising of Center Hill Lake’s waters came at the price of washing away all but the memories of the only life many former inhabitants had ever known.

When the dam closed off in the fall of 1948, once rich farmland and forests were inundated, thus “completely changing the face of the northern and eastern sections of DeKalb County,” local historian Thomas G. Webb wrote in a “Tennessee County History Series” book published by Memphis State University Press.

Fortunately, three DeKalb County women — Judy Taylor Fuson, Ria Baker and Carol Denson Williams — have endeavored, with assistance from Mr. Webb, to record for posterity the remembrances and manners of life that existed in the valley before it was deluged.

Their 2016 coffee table-style book, “Under the Lake,” is a painstakingly assembled compendium of history, anecdotes, images, maps and family genealogies. It preserves and pays homage to a bygone epoch that gave begrudgingly away to the 20th Century surge of modern resource development.

Construction on Center Hill Dam, 1946

Williams, a retired school teacher of 30 years, said she, Baker and Fuson pored over property maps of the entire lake in an attempt to catalog all the families that owned land and were forced to move. Thousands were dislodged from throughout the region, particularly in the fertile farming areas areas close to the dam, she said.

“DeKalb County population in 1940 was 14,588 yet the following census, in 1950, recorded the county population at 11,680 showing a 2,908 population drop after the dam project was completed,” the authors write in “Under the Lake.”

It’s hard for people today to grasp the scope and process of removing all the people who used to reside amidst the fingers, branches, ravines and coves of what is now a lake in excess of 60 miles long covering nearly 19,000 acres, with more than 400 miles of crooked shoreline.

“That is a massive amount of land,” said Baker, formerly the town mayor of Alexandria. “We’re not talking about just taking a 500 foot strip for an interstate or whatever. And it wasn’t like they were saying, ‘We’re gonna to cut your farm in half and take just so many acres.’ No, it was, ‘We’re going take your whole farm and you’re going to move — we’re going to cover your house up or tear it down, and we don’t care if your grandmother lived there forever’.”

The process of picking up and clearing out was exceptionally difficult for the elderly, who were “really hurt” by the prospect of leaving forever behind family hearth and heritage, she said. Often they never recovered.

“So many people, the older people especially, were just broken,” said Baker. “This was their home, it was their lives. It would probably have happened to anybody in those circumstances, but it was just such a mass of people here. Of course, it also happened everywhere a dam went in.”

Williams said many were in denial about the inevitability of what was happening.

One man reportedly didn’t believe the water was going to submerge all his property, so he “neatly stacked all his belongings up under a bluff overhang.” Baker said. “They finally had to go get him and pull him out — he wasn’t going to leave.”

“A lot of people knew it was coming even before the Second World War, when (government agents) came and started surveying,” said Williams. “But when the war came they had to stop. After the war was over they started full-force. Some people kept saying, ‘Oh no, this is not going to happen.’ In the end, though, it did.”

If you’d like to inquire about ordering a copy of “Under the Lake,” visit the Facebook page maintained by the authors: DeKalb County, TN, Caney Fork River (@nowunderwater).

Great grazing here in the Upper Cumberland country, but good fencing needed

When people think of elk, what probably comes to mind is the American West, and in particular, the Rocky Mountains.

But elk, which are one of the largest native land animals in North America, were in fact historically abundant throughout much of the Eastern United States. Prior to their reintroduction in small enclaves by state and federal wildlife managers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, wild elk hadn’t roamed Tennessee’s woods in great numbers since well before the middle of the 19th Century.

“Early records indicated that elk were abundant in the state prior to being settled by European explorers and colonists,” says the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s informational web page on elk restoration. “As these settlers moved westward the elk population declined.”

“The last historical record of an elk being sighted in Tennessee was in 1865 when one was reported to be killed in Obion County,” according to the agency. There was not “one specific reason” for the depletion of the animals, although “over-exploitation by man” and “habitat destruction” played significant roles in their demise.

Self-sustaining herds of wild elk in Tennessee exist today only in a few remote tracts, like Land Between the Lakes, Smoky Mountain National Park and the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area in Campbell County.

But even though elk have had a pretty rough couple of centuries in the Southeastern United States, rearing them in captivity on marginal farm and ranch land is both feasible and potentially quite lucrative.

At least two ranchers in Middle Tennessee are currently raising elk, and have been for years.

Dow Armistead runs a small herd of elk — along with sitka and fallow deer — on his property near the Caney Fork River in eastern Smith County, where his family has owned land in the area for generations — “I’d say 100 years or better,” he told the Center Hill Sun.

“I’d love to see more people doing this,” Armistead said of raising elk. “They’re not the easiest things in the world to take care of, but they aren’t the hardest either.”

With a little general knowledge of raising traditional livestock added to a little basic research, anyone can probably figure it out without much difficulty, Armistead said. He’s also happy to talk to people about the basics, and doesn’t mind people pulling off the road to admire his animals along St. Mary’s/Stonewall Club Road just west of the Opossum Road turnoff.

There’s certainly money to be made selling the the animals for genetics, meat and antlers, said Armistead — who works a regular job in commercial construction. But his primary motivating interest is simply in observing their grace and grandeur.

“A lot of times I come here to feed them and end up just sitting or leaning up against the fence and watching them for a while,” Armistead said.

Installing and maintaining the eight-foot-high fencing to keep the animals penned in is the most costly and labor-intensive element of the operation, he noted. Armistead’s farm consists of about 60 acres of hilly forest and scrubland, and the elk meander about on a little more than half of it.

Not Too Tame

Often when they see him, Armistead’s elk will amble down and see what he’s up to — and often there’s a snack in it for them when they do. Armistead supplements their grass diet with an occasional bucket of grain and provides them additional hay in the winter.

Armistead said he doesn’t like them getting affectionate with people, though. Even unintentionally, a several-hundred pound animal can do serious damage to the human body in short order. That’s especially true of a mature bull that’s wearing a massive, dagger-pronged antler rack.

“They can be dangerous if they get too friendly,” said Armistead.

Herb Fritch owns Two Feathers Elk and Bison Ranch in Hickman County, where he runs about 300 elk on 400 acres. Fritch has been raising elk, buffalo and other somewhat unusual livestock since the late 1990s. His operation was formerly near McMinnville, and before that he raised exotic animals near the Caney Fork River along Smith Fork Creek.

The most lucrative aspect of raising elk in the United States is the market in “trophy antler genetics, buying-and-selling semen from the champion bulls,” Fritch said.

But as with Armistead, Fritch said just having the opportunity to regularly behold and appreciate the singular majesty of an elk herd is for him what offers the deepest sense of personal fulfillment — more than the economics of the enterprise.

“I love just looking at these magnificent animals as much as anything,” said Fritch, a retired Nashville health-care industry entrepreneur. But being the largest elk breeder in Tennessee, “at some point you have to sell something somewhere,” he added.

Call of the Wild

Autumn is an especially rewarding time to own elk, which are noted for the eerie, hollow-sounding high-pitched whistle, or “bugling.”

In an effort to trumpet their desirability to available females within earshot, bulls give vent to the otherworldly whine during rutting season. Bugling also serves to warn away male interlopers — or let them know a fight awaits if they plan to stick around.

Elk are in fact quite vocal beyond just their distinct bugling. They’re actually “among the noisiest ungulates, communicating danger quickly and identifying each other by sound,” according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Newborn calves will bleat out shrill squeals and squalls that are individually recognized by their mothers, and adult males and females alike utter a variety of barks, chirps, mews, pips, grunts and snorts that make up an elaborate lexicon of audible elk talk.

“Elk also use body language. For example, an elk displays dominance by raising its head high,” according to RMEF.

Southern Things to Think About

Keeping domestic elk in the South “does have its challenges,” Fritch said. “They have heavy coats, so they can deal with the cold weather — but the heat can be an issue.”

It’s essential to keep a lot of shade available in their pasture ranges, he said. Armistead said his “really like to roll around in the mud during the warmer months.”

Likewise, parasites can be an issue of greater concern here than in northern climes because winter temperatures often don’t drop low enough for long enough to naturally disrupt the lifecycle of dangerous parasites.

“You really have to pay attention to parasites down here,” Fritch said. “The other issue you have to be aware of is ticks. It can get to the point of having to bring an animal down if you don’t stay on top of it.”

“There is a bit of a learning curve,” he said. “The main two things you have to deal with to get started is the fencing and the handling facilities to work the animals.”

If you have multiple bulls pastured together, bulls will fight during the rut. “That is not good – you can lose animals that way,” he said. So it’s necessary to either separate the bulls or removed their antlers at the end of the summer.

“Beyond that, the rest of it is not too different than keeping dairy cattle,” said Fritch. “There are certain nutritional requirements, but that is not to hard to learn and get a handle on.”

The North American Breeders Association maintains a useful FAQ page for anyone interested in learning more about raising domestic elk.