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Our Farm, Our Family

By Greg Howard, Spring 2016

I grew up on a small farm that has been in my family since 1832, just below the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. As a young child, I remember watching my father come in from the summer evenings dusty from the fields. We harvested hay as many small farmers did in our area, and when the day came that I was strong enough to drag the heavy bails, I, too, came in dusty from the fields. It wasn’t until after I left the farm, after two years in college and seeing the urban aspirations of my generation, that I began to appreciate my family’s farm, and began to understand all for which it stands.

           To me, a farm is something very much more than land. It is a collection of memories, of longings, of love, and of prevalence through tough times and hard soil. My ancestors were born on the land and are buried on the land. I was raised on stories - or legends, depending on who’s telling them - that seem to cling to the land like the roots of an old pecan tree; stories of those who relied on the land as a way of life, and who cultivated the land to feed those around them.

          My grandmother, Mary Swanson, filled my head with stories of her father, Thomas Edward Hemphill. Hemphill, who, by relentless laboring, plodded his way with the mule and yoke, then eventually with the tractor and plow, grew the farm from 50 to 700 acres. My great, great grandfather’s straw hat straw hat still hangs at the base of the attic steps where he hung it just days before passing away.

          Dating back even further to my great grandmother’s mother, legends are told of a peaceful coexistence with the Cherokee Indians. This woman, whom I knew from stories as “Maw Hemphill”, traded garden foods, fabrics, and various odd jobs with the first peoples, including an exchange that would see the foundations and stone chimney of my childhood home built by Cherokee hands. Maw Hemphill would later see her loyal friends sent to the Trail of Tears, forced from the farm they called their home.

          I now observe my father, Greg Howard Sr., fighting to keep alive the family farm. Together, my father and I run a small natural egg business, GrEGG’s Eggs,  that supplies eggs for both the Chattanooga and Atlanta areas. Though we are not plowing the land by mule and yolk as my great grandfather did, we are continuing the work of those before us by providing our community with wholesome food. The small farm of my family, and those like us, are a dying breed.

          Just a quick glance over our national records shows the disintegration of the small family farm. According to a census taken in 1862, over 90% of Americans were farmers. As time went on, and our great nation found itself at the doorstep of the roarin’ 20’s, the percentage of Americans working on farms dropped to a low of 30%. Now, according to the American Farm Bureau, we live in a day and age where farm and ranch families comprise only 2% of the total U.S. population. In a country founded by the sweat of the farmer, it is the people like my family, and the local farms that surround us, that keep this tradition alive.

          For small local farms, it is impossible to compete with the scope of the massive agribusiness corporations which saturate local convenience store produce sections. However, with the rise of the Organic and Natural markets, small time farmers have begun to make a comeback.

          America is starving for its agricultural heritage. Consumers not only want to know how their food will benefit their bodies, but from where their food is grown. The consumer delights in knowing that their food sourced from small farm operations, tended by local hands, and delivered with the freshness and quality they have come to expect.

          As evidence of this, the number of farmers markets has grown by 67% since 2008, according to the USDA. Also, in the culinary industry, local food has topped the National Restaurant Association’s Top 10 Consumers Trends list since 2009.   

          I am proud that my family and I are members of the 2% still farming. It is through the support of those who recognize the importance of buying locally-grown products as well as seek out farm-to-table restaurants that sustains the mission and legacy of small farms, and help to keep us rooted in family tradition.