Thursday, September 2, 2010

Strawberry Plains, Tennessee: Curtis Blake, Blake Dairy

I forgot to mention what a shock it is driving into Pigeon Forge, Tennessee from the Smoky Mountain range: it is a shock. The lush wilderness disappears into another kind of wilderness altogether...an 8 lane neon tribute to extreme tackiness and tourism. Trav made me turn around and drive as slow as possible so he could take pictures... we fit right in with all the tourists that way. (On the other hand, Dolly Parton has created thousands of jobs and dumped tons of money into services for her home community of Pigeon Forge, enabling the town to survive economically). A tour guide we saw described "the 3 miles of neon-powered lunacy that is Pigeon Forge."
We met up with Curtis Blake, his children, and his mother, Donna, in Strawplains, TN on their dairy farm. They are a holdout in Knox County where 100 dairy farms used to exist; in the last 60 years it has dwindled down to the Blakes and 2 others. Curtis is the second generation who is running the farm and he believes that part of the reason for the severe drop in the dairy business is the terribly low milk prices farmers have been getting for the last few years.
Curtis also told us about some unforseen building costs he is facing personally; in 2003 the government offered a deal to farmers who needed to upgrade their lagoons in order to comply with EPA standards. The government promised to pay 90% of the cost but then backed out and Curtis has had to take out a huge loan to finish the construction he had already started. In addition, a new barn was built recently, but the contractors did not understand the nature of cows and many alterations had to be made.
Curtis is an interesting case in that he decided to change the farm into a dairy farm, a risky business, after years of the land growing other crops. They are now milking 120 cows and have the pastures broken up into 15 2-acre paddocks.
The Blakes are considering bottling their own milk and opening their farm up for agritourism as a way to add income as well as educate folks about what farmers do. It's a wonder to Curtis that many folks not living around farms don't seem to know about how food is grown before it reaches the shelves at the grocery store. Many farmers have made the comment, word for word, that "people think food comes from the grocery store! Kids think chocolate milk comes from brown cows."

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