As a fourth-generation farmer, William Starnes Davidson Jr., also known as “Billy” Davidson of Hawkins County, feels farming isn't a choice, it's a blood-borne way of life.
Since the age of 2, when the lifelong land steward was photographed on a 1953 model tractor (still in use on the farm), he explained, there's never been any doubt he would follow in the agricultural path paved by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him.
“It's just a passion,” he said.
The Davidson family farm and country store are over a century old and reside with the original farm house or “big house” as Davidson refers to it, on approximately 600 acres of land (300 of which are rented) in Rogersville, Tenn.
The farm is historically known for its tobacco and cattle. Around 60 acres of tobacco are cured and graded in compliance with a contract with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Another 30 acres, however, are dedicated to the growth of produce like blackberries, peaches, sweet corn, beans, squash, watermelons and pumpkins for retail sale in their unique old fashioned, on-farm store.
“We'll have all the different types of watermelon and heirloom beans will come in at the start of the harvest with the blackberries,” Davidson said. “We'll go from the blackberries to the peaches. We’ve got a white cling-free peach [that will come in] around the middle of July.”
The store itself, which opens for the summer season the first week of July, has become a historical landmark in light of the family's rich, rural Appalachian heritage. Originally opened by Davidson's great-grandfather, Michael Starnes (M.S.) Looney in 1902, it was as a general store for the local farming community and stage stop for passers- through. In the store's early heyday, Looney often bartered with his customers due to hard economic times; chickens and eggs were most often used as a form of currency for purchase of items. A ledger book filled with customers' names and purchases is still displayed at the store - names like J.F. Goodson (coffee mogul and founder of JFG Coffee) can even be read amongst its pages.
The walls of the store are likewise decorated with relics of the past; farming equipment once utilized by the family and pictures of many of Davidson's ancestors, including Looney are captured, smileless and thin with the tool of their trade in hand.
“It's full of history,” Davidson said of the store, pointing out who's who in the photos. His grandmother, born in 1900 ,was one of Looney's nine children who married a Davidson and continued the family farming tradition.
The store, closed in the 1930s because of the Great Depression, went mostly unused for 70 years until Davidson's late father, William Starnes Davidson Sr. or “Bill,” restored and reopened it to sell produce when tobacco demand was low.
“Farming is [about] managing risk,” Davidson explained. And, in the cyclical plight of farmer versus mother nature and the marketplace, history often repeats itself. From the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 30s to the recent economic downturn to the late freeze last year which wiped out an entire peach crop, farm income is variable and can go from “feast to famine” in a few hours.
Davidson, who holds a Bachelor of Science in agriculture with a concentration in animal science from the University of Tennessee, has reduced some of the risk by holding “grazing contracts” with local cattle farmers, feeding and watering their stock of cattle for a guaranteed price per pound they gain, regardless of the market. He also credits his late father, a supervising engineer during the development of Eastman Chemical Plant in Kingsport, with the introduction of a more environmentally-friendly type of irrigation to the farm which conserves water by pumping it from pond to sand filter to riser to crop row.
Outside one full-time and between 2 to 20 part-time workers during harvest, Davidson's immediate family runs both farm and store.
“We get out and hustle every day,” Davidson said. “We try to go to church on Sunday, then spend Sunday afternoon counting cattle.”
“The kids were young when we started it [selling produce]. Now 16-year-old daughter, Katie, and 19-year- old son, Will (who has a son of his own now, aptly named Liam), enjoy helping with the entertainment or 'agritainment' side of the venture, which includes everything from hay rides for the children to the 'pick-your-own' pumpkin field in the fall. Davidson's wife of 22 years, Debbie, keeps the books, recording the farm's overall expenses and income.
The Davidson Farm was voted the best “Pick-Your-Own-Farm” in East Tennessee three years in a row. As for the family, “we just try to plant enough to fill the needs of the store,” Davidson said, his personal mantra (and that of his ancestors) being: “Farm 'till you die or go broke trying.”
The Davidson Farm is located at 993 Carter's Valley Road. For more information, visit www.thedavidsonfarm.com or call 423-765-8258.
Fresh from the Farm is a weekly summer series featuring farmers and producers from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. To suggest a local farmer or producer, email Sunday Stories' editor Carmen Musick at firstname.lastname@example.org.