Earl Jones has always been a farmer - if not in body, at least in spirit.
“I always wanted to farm. I grew up in a farming family: my grandfather, Luther Weaver, owned a few acres and although my father (Owen Jones) worked for the WPA and on the Manhattan Project and later at Eastman, he bought land to farm. I learned farming by working with my grandfather, my dad, and by hiring out to nine farms,” Jones said.
“Not everyone could afford their own farm, so tenant farming was a good way to learn farming. Then when you could afford it, you bought land, then a cow or two, then some used equipment.”
He milked his first cow when he was 4 years old, had to stand on a box to put the harness on a horse, and bought his first cow when he was a freshman in high school. He worked and studied hard, joined the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and was named an FFA American Farmer, a high distinction usually given to special few.
“I remember going to Kansas City for the national convention,” says Jones. “Up until then I had never been out of Tennessee. I had a new navy blazer, and we heard President Eisenhower speak.”
He continued to farm for others on nearby farms until his grandfather, who had a farm, passed away.
“Some of that land passed down through the family to me, I married my high school sweetheart (Jane) in 1954, and started farming. Our farm - the Lazy J - was actually parts of three farms,” he explained. “I grew tobacco, corn and wheat, and started a herd of Guernsey cattle.”
Along the way, he decided to capitalize on an opportunity by purchasing a custom hay bailer when the owner moved away.
“I went to Farm Credit, a bank that is owned by farmers and who lend to farmers, to get $1,500 to purchase the bailer, and left owing $3,000! Turns out I needed a few other pieces of equipment, too,” he recalled.
That relationship has been a long and productive one of over 60 years.
Making the most of a 24-hour day, Jones farmed and also worked at Holston Defense for 32 years. Four daughters were born into the family and soon became active in 4-H, showing registered Guernseys at fairs from Blountville to Nashville - even attending the National Livestock Show in Madison, Wisc.
“Income from the winnings at those events went toward college tuition - minus a little for something fun, like a new pair of shoes! Growing up on a farm was a great learning experience, with lots of hard work and fun thrown into the mix,” remembers Nylene Jones, the oldest daughter. “My sisters and I learned to 'drive’ the tractor and farm truck when we were very young and our feet didn’t even reach the pedals! Daddy would put the tractor or truck in gear and then we ‘drove’ as he loaded the hay bales from the field. Sometimes teenaged boys from the community would come to help, but lots of times it was just Daddy and us girls.”
And though the main products of the farm were hay, oats and cattle, there was always a big garden, a larder full of canned vegetables and fruits, fresh milk, eggs, and a freezer full of beef, pork or chicken. The girls helped plant tomatoes, beans, corn, cabbage and potatoes in the spring, then gathered each in the summer when they learned from their mother how to can and freeze.
“My sisters and I still raise our own gardens - and help Momma and Daddy with theirs,” Nylene said.
Jones raised tobacco for 54 years and the girls helped with the planting. The money from that tobacco that was planted and then sold in the fall helped put the girls through college. Unfortunately, Jones’ health began to decline and, in 2005, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He underwent numerous chemotherapy and radiation treatments throughout the fall and winter months.
“But when spring came,” says Nylene, “his whole outlook changed as the weather warmed up and he could once again get out on the tractor in the sunshine and fresh air. I truly believe that fresh air and sunshine, along with prayers and God’s grace, contributed to his going into remission six years ago!”
Two weeks ago, Farm Credit bestowed upon Lazy J Farms the Heritage Award, "in recognition of 60 years of farming and working with Farm Credit.”
There are fewer cattle now and the farm is smaller, but the daughters are grown and three of them have homes on the farmland. One daughter lives in Bristol, “but she wants to move back here," says Mrs. Jones.
It’s quite obvious that the family is happiest when they’re together at home on the farm.
“Growing up on a farm is a heritage I cherish," says Nylene. “ The lessons my sisters and I learned from our parents are very precious. Farming involves a lot of hard work and often the payoff doesn’t cover the investment when it comes to finances. But the payoff in memories made, life lessons, learning experiences and time with family is priceless.”
The Fresh from the Farm series features 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.