Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Remembering and Celebrating a Rural Heritage: The Tennessee Century Farms Program

By Dr. Kevin Cason

The popular 1960s television comedy Green Acres introduced viewers to New York lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas who longed for a simpler way of life. As a result, he purchased a farm and moved there to live off the land, despite the opposition of his socialite wife Lisa. To express his appreciation of the rural life Douglas declared in the opening theme song: “Green Acres is the place to be. Farm living is the life for me. Land spreading out, so far and wide. Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside!” While the song provided a memorable tune for television viewers, the love of the countryside and farm living is something that still resonates with people. For many Tennesseans and other Americans farming has been an important part of their lives.

One program that recognizes this rural heritage is the Tennessee Century Farms program. The Tennessee Century Farms program honors farms that have remained in the same family and have had continuous agricultural production for 100 years or more. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture established the “Family Land Heritage-Century Farms” program as a way to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. To gain recognition as a Century Farm, farmers filled out applications that told the history of their farm and provided documentation proving continuous ownership. A county agent or county historian then certified their application. After officially certifying the farms, special ceremonies were held at regional, county and state fairs to recognize the Century Farms where farm families received a certificate and a plaque. In 1979, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture loaned 637 farm files to the Tennessee State Library and Archives for microfilming. Eventually, the microfilmed files became State Record Group 62 and part of the Library and Archives microfilm collection.

Cartwright-Russell Farm, Smith County, Record Group 62, Tennessee Century Farms Microfilm Collection.

In 1984, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture asked the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University to administer the program and maintain the Tennessee Century Farms collection of applications and photographs. Under the guidance of staff at the Center for Historic Preservation, more farms have been added to the collection each year. Over the years, the Center has produced publications, exhibits, and a website to recognize the program.

Commissioner of Agriculture Edward S. Porter with Century Farms certificate and sign, October 1976. Tennessee Market Bulletin, Vol. XLIX, No. 10

Today, people can still apply to be a part of the Tennessee Century Farms program. In order to apply for the Century Farms designation, a person must fill out an application that is provided by the Center for Historic Preservation. In addition, the person must have documentation that shows the continuous ownership of the farm within their family for at least 100 years. Another requirement is the farm must be 10 acres or more of the original farm owned by the founder. The farm also has to produce at least $1,000 in revenue annually. The application then has to be certified by either the county agent or the county historian. On review of the application, the Center for Historic Preservation issues a letter and certificate officially designating the property as a Tennessee Century Farm. In addition, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture issues a yellow outdoor sign to further distinguish the family farm.

Townsend Farm Landscape Scene, Giles County, Record Group 62, Tennessee Century Farms Microfilm Collection.

Across Tennessee, the yellow metal Century Farm signs can be seen prominently displayed on many rural landscapes and historic buildings. The signs serve as a reminder of the important agricultural legacy of farm families who have continuously owned and farmed their land for at least 100 years.

For more on the Tennessee Century Farms Program see:

  • The Tennessee Century Farms website: http://www.tncenturyfarms.org/
  • “Family Land Heritage-Century Farms Collection, 1975-1978.” Record Group 62, Tennessee State Library and Archives. (Microfilm only collection).
  • Carroll Van West, Tennessee Agriculture: A Century Farms Perspective. Nashville: Department of Agriculture, 1986.
  • Caneta Skelley Hankins and Michael Thomas Gavin, Plowshares and Swords: Tennessee Farm Families Tell Civil War Stories. Murfreesboro, TN: Center for Historic Preservation, 2013.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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