Q&A: Catherine Via, No-Till Farming Pioneer
Cattle grazing in an open field while a farmer in overalls carries a pitchfork over his shoulder into a red barn might be the picturesque scene that pops into our heads when a family farm is mentioned, but that belies all the hard work and scientific basis that truly exists on farms today, according to Catherine Via of Crockett County.
When Via and her husband, Ross, began farming in the Bells community of Crockett County, they were pioneers in no-till farming technology. Today, the Vias still use scientific practices on their 1,300-acre cotton, soybean, grain and hay farm with a cow/calf operation.
“Our herd is an Angus/Hereford cross, and we practice TLC, or tender loving care, with both our animal and crops,” Via says. “We don’t want any part of our operation abused, the land, animals or resources available and so treat them how we would our children or grandchildren.”
She and her family live in the Bells community of Crockett County. The sixth generation is now coming out to play on the farm, while the fifth and fourth generations work hard to ensure it stays in the family. Via, who also serves as director of adult and continuing education for the Crockett County Board of Education and at-large director for the Tennessee Farm Bureau board, says the main issue to address today is educating the public about the importance of agriculture.
Q: How did you get involved with farming?
A: I was born in a log cabin on our small, 262-acre farm in Savannah, Tennessee, where my family grew timber, cotton, corn, cattle and hogs. I learned early on how to pick cotton by hand and feed the hogs and cattle. We still have that place, and it holds a real special place in my heart. When I married Ross, I transitioned from the hills of Hardin County to the flatlands of Crockett County. Our daughter Candi is now involved in our operation, which makes the fifth generation, as Ross’ great grandfather started the farm, and the sixth generation already loves coming out and helping on the farm!
Q: How has agriculture changed in the years you’ve been involved?
A: A lot has changed, but number one I think technology has propelled agriculture into the 21st century. Biotechnology, veterinary practices, equipment, all of it has really helped keep agriculture viable and ensure we can continue feeding the world. Secondly, we live in a global market, a worldwide economy where at the touch of a button you can know anything you wish to learn. Another change has been the environmental regulations have become much more complex, which is good for conservation, but we need to make sure they are based in scientific fact, not emotion. That brings me to the fourth big change, which is politics are much more involved than before, and sometimes that hinders what we as producers can do as we follow our best practices on the farm. But I would have to say the biggest change I’ve seen is that the majority of the population is quietly apathetic regarding the source of their food and fiber or they don’t understand what farmers really do on their farms. A farmer is a scientist, chemist, agronomist, businessman and much more, and when people don’t understand what happens on the farm and are given an incorrect fact, that hurts the agriculture community, so education is key today more than ever.
Q: Do you think it’s important to share what you do with those not involved in agriculture?
A: Absolutely, it’s important! I did some research: In 1930, 65 percent of the population lived on a farm, in 1960 that went down to 35 percent and today only two percent live on a farm, yet we still manage to feel the world. Each farmer feeds around 149 people and that’s awesome when you think about it. Another thing is that, here in the United States, we only spend ten percent of our annual income on food, other countries spend much more than that, up to 50 percent in some countries. We have a lot to be grateful for in this country, and a lot of that is because of farmers. Those are things we should incorporate into conversations and presentations on agriculture to people not involved in the industry.
I have spoken to several groups and written articles in local papers in a rebuttal against what consumers were feeling about meat and animal agriculture. I think it is very important to be proactive, not reactive. I’m on the board of trustees at Union University, and that has given me the opportunity to share some scientifically based farming practices with those in liberal arts there who don’t understand crop or animal production – the real story of agriculture. In Jackson, the disassociation with agriculture is much more prevalent than in Bells, and with people almost four generations removed from the farm, it is critical to help people understand what agriculture is really all about.
Q: How do you incorporate your off-the-farm job to help spread a positive message about agriculture?
A: We have been very fortunate all these years to have a great relationship with our county education board of directors, superintendant and education system. We have 300 kindergarteners come out every year to three farms in the county for three days of Farm City education. They ask great questions and are a good group to target. The first question we always ask them is where does your bread come from, and invariably the answer is Walmart, so there is obviously need for education! Our Farm Bureau and I personally also take Ag in the Classroom curriculum to teachers that can’t make it to workshops and follow up to make sure they know how to incorporate it into their classrooms. We also utilize the FFA and 4-H in the county, getting them to come to meetings to speak, involving them in the Farm Days. My goal is to one day have not only the kindergarten out to the farm, but also older students, to see what they remember and have learned since coming as five and six-year-olds.
Q: What do you want readers to know about farming, and, more particularly, your farm?
A: The main thing people need to know is that American agriculture is fundamentally necessary for the America economy, even world economy. It’s viable, based on best practices and scientific principles in both crop and animal production and the goal is simple, to feed the world safe, affordable, abundant food. Each farm and farm family is unique and different, but we all share the common bond of agriculture and when an individual voice can’t be heard, we need to gather together and speak as one voice for agriculture. Organizations like Farm Bureau can help educate, but we, the 2 percent, have to let the world know what we do, how and why we do it.
On my farm, we’re preparing for the sixth generation of Vias to carry on the proud tradition of farming. That’s true of most farms, so everything we do is to ensure our grandchildren will be able to continue on this same land. Our goal is to provide healthy food and fiber and to be proactive in a positive way to help agriculture stay viable and vibrant in Tennessee and the United States. We in the industry are coming together in one unified voice in support of animal agriculture. We do care and are competent in practicing good animal husbandry.