July 2013
Farm & Field

Elkmont’s Maples Farm

Tommy Maples is the seventh generation to live and work on Maples Farm. He and his family live in the house his great-grandfather built.  

Where Farming Has Always Been a Family Business

If you stop the average American on the street and ask them how many of the farms here in the United States are still owned and operated by families, the answers you get would surprise you. You may get answers ranging anywhere from 2-70 percent. Most are shocked and many will not believe it when you tell them, of the 2.2 million farms dotting our country’s landscape, 97 percent are still operated by families - individuals, family partnerships or family corporations - according to the American Farm Bureau. In our country, most consumers are so removed from the farm that they are under the impression corporations own most farms or believe them to operate in a factory setting, which cannot be further from the truth.

At the Maples Farm in Elkmont, farming is a family business and always has been. Currently, there are three generations working on the family’s registered Angus cattle farm. The Maples family is well known for their cattle across Limestone County and Alabama.

  Sara Maples is pictured bottle feeding a calf. She will be a freshman in college in the fall at Mississippi State. “I am majoring in Agriculture Information Sciences. I feel, since I have already experienced agriculture in my everyday life, it will help me decide my future job and help with schooling.”

William and John Maples were granted land on February 11, 1818, before Alabama was even a state. Prior to Alabama becoming a state in 1819, north Alabama was inhabited by the Chickasaw Indians and was part of the Mississippi Territory. The brothers worked the farm together until William sold John his portion and went to Mississippi. The farm has been added to over the years. Their success can be credited to hard work and selecting good animals for their herd.

According to Billy, "One of the main reasons we have been able to keep the farm in the family is that family members have typically given other members of the family who are interested in staying on the farm a first chance to buy their portion if they are moving."

Tommy is living in his great-grandfather’s house and his son Ben is living in his great-grandfather’s house working the same land their forefathers have worked over the last 195 years.

Originally, the Maples Farm was a row crop operation, just like the majority of farms in north Alabama. It was not until 1937 that the Maples bought into the cattle business. Billy’s father Mack bought four heifers, one at a time for $50 each, and in the first 1.5 years had purchased 10 heifers total.

They still have descendants from the original herd on the farm today.

When Mack bought his first cows, his friends and neighbors thought he was crazy. After all, Limestone County was cotton country. At that time, it seemed like a waste to have land being used for anything other than cotton.

Billy grew up working on the farm and showing cattle with 4-H. He had the State Championship Steer in 1948 and the money he made off his steer is what allowed him to establish his herd and start paying his way through Auburn. Billy finished up at Auburn in 1958 and, after a brief service in the military, came back to the farm in 1959 in a partnership with his father Mac. During this time, they focused on row crops and continued growing their cattle herd.

The Maples Family, Nancy, Dianne, Billy, Tommy and Dave, was named the Outstanding Young Farm Family in 1963.  

The diversification of the Maples Farm allowed them to endure 2 rough years for cotton growers - 1967 and 1968. These 2 years caused a lot of growers in the area to rethink their crops and during this time the Maples went from having five families sharecropping to having two families hired to work on the farm. The beef cattle operation was something the Maples Farm was able to fall back on. The row crop operation was still a major component of the Maples Farm, but Billy enjoyed the livestock more than the crops.

Billy and his wife Nancy’s kids Dave, Dianne and Tommy were all involved in the operation growing up. Like their father, they showed in 4-H and were very successful with their steers. Their friends were interested in what the Maples kids did and started coming out to the farm wanting to learn. Before long, kids from town even began coming out. Nancy enjoyed having the friends come to the farm.

"You really get to know your children’s friends, and as a parent, that is a good thing," Nancy said.

"The good thing about living on the farm is you get to spend a lot of time working and playing together. It is farther out from town, but the memories you have make up for that," Billy added.

Currently Billy and Tommy are responsible for the day-to-day work on the farm and the grandchildren work when they are home from school. The grandchildren Ben, Josh, Will and Sara are the eighth generation to live and work on the farm. Ben has recently returned home from college at Western Kentucky and is the agri-science teacher at Tanner High School; he now works daily alongside his father and grandfather. Josh, the second child of Tommy and Melanie, is working on his master’s degree at Mississippi State University and, though he is not on the farm on a daily basis, still appreciates his rearing on the farm.

"Though I have lived away from the farm for nearly 5 years, it will always be the place I call home. I look forward to every opportunity to visit even though I know that visit will entail early mornings and long afternoons working with the cattle," Josh remarked.

Family is always involved in the work on the farm, regardless of whether they reside there or are there for the weekend. But it is not dreaded work, it is time well spent with family. Sara, who is bound for Mississippi State this fall, shares the same sentiments.

"I wouldn’t trade growing up on a farm for anything. It has taught me the value of working together as a family," Sara said.

The Maples Farm has grown from four heifers in the 1930s to 350 head of cattle today. Like most farms, it has taken time and a lot of hard work, but family has been the core of their operation since its beginning.

Family farms across the nation are not only growing healthy and quality food for our world but are also instilling values in our nation’s youth. Values like responsibility, appreciation of the land, compassion and good work habits. All of our nation’s farms today are producing the food and fiber fueling our nation, and 98 percent of our farms are operated by families just like the Maples, growing food and growing strong families. n

Anna Leigh Peek is a freelance writer from Auburn.