Please, Don't Tread on Me: A Case Study of a Dairy Farm in the Appalachian South

by Amer Awad

For the most part, the autarchic work force found in the U.S. is one based on industrial or post-industrial occupations, law, factory work, secretarial work, service occupations and the like, which are autonomous in nature for the individual and which rely little on familial or communal assistance. In the mountains, the small farm agriculturalist plays a substantial part in the economy and, contrary to the rest of the U.S., relies heavily on the family and on the community for existence. However, due to the decline in small-scale agriculture, the structure of the family as well as communal reciprocity and other cultural values are being threatened in southern Appalachia.

In general, small farms in America have been decreasing dramatically in the recent years, and this trend is also finding its way to the Appalachian South (Beaver 1986). The Appalachian South, although large in area, has insufficient agricultural resources to support its rising population (Ford 1962:87). For example, in Alleghany County, which is located on the northern tip of North Carolina, utilization of land is constrained so that "only 21 percent of the farmland is harvested cropland; 28 percent is cropland used only for pasture; 25 percent is woodland; 20 percent is non-cropland; and four percent is in houses, ponds and roads" (Byrd 1988:3). A possible reason for the lack of cultivated land is the mountainous topography of the Appalachian South. Numerous hills and mountain sides are sloped at extreme angles. As a result of the awkward layout of harvestable cropland, modern farming machinery cannot be used productively and efficiently. So, many plots of land throughout the area are not being farmed. The result is a characteristic that is shared among most agriculturalists in the Appalachian South: small farming households (Ford 1962:87).

In addition to topographical constraints on cropland, there is competition from other sources for the harvestable or pasturable farmland that does exist. One of these sources of competition is the in-migration of outsiders that began in the 1960s when older wealthy individuals, mostly from Florida, stereotypically called "Floridians" or "Floridiots," built summer vacation homes in the Appalachian South (Beaver 1986). The summer migration of people took a turn with the back-to-the-landers movement of the 1970s. These back-to-the-landers were mostly young college-educated urbanites who wanted to retrace their natural roots and "had a vision of an intimate relationship with the bounteous mountain environment that could be achieved through economic self-sufficiency and separation from mainstream society" (Beaver 1986:120). Their basic philosophy was to sustain themselves off their own land using their own labor. So, among the back-to-the-landers the farming tradition was carried on and agriculture remained a viable and popular occupation. The most recent competition for land stems from in-migrant, "wealthy second-home buyers" who often live on their newly bought farmland (Keefe 1997:17). They are not utilizing the cropland for agricultural purposes because most do not come from a farming tradition and they lack the skills to do so. With land being bought by non-farming outsiders, there is less cropland being used for agriculture. Also, due to land speculation and the increase in second-home buyers, land prices and property tax rates have risen dramatically. As a result, the Appalachian residents are unable to hold on their family plots and the younger generation is unable to afford a homeplace of their own (Clark 1975).

Another factor figuring in the decline of agriculture involves changes in the business of farming. Traditionally, small farmers in Appalachia had beef cattle, dairy cows, and harvested many different types of crops, such as tobacco, corn, and wheat. In recent years, Christmas tree farming, which yields its profits every fifteen years, has gained popularity as a source of income and has secured a strong place in the region's economy. However, Christmas tree farming is becoming unpopular in the eyes of many Appalachian neighbors. Local farmers are concerned with the Christmas tree farm industry's style of harvesting and maintenance which relies on poisonous pesticides that are believed to pollute the natural water supply and destroy the soil. Although there is no concrete evidence associating the Christmas tree insecticides with health problems, residents believe and some are fully convinced that the pesticides lead to multiple sclerosis, lupus, and breast and pancreatic cancer. Furthermore, many farmers fear that in the near future, those lands that are being used to harvest the trees will be stripped of all nutrients and lose any ability to support other crops. This nutrient loss could be caused by the pesticides or the manner in which these trees are planted and the stumps they leave behind. With the intensive agricultural techniques employed by Christmas tree farmers, erosion of the land could also become a problem. As the land erodes, necessary proteins and nutrients are lost. So, in a sense, farmers may themselves be destroying the land and contributing to the decline of agriculture in the county.

Another cause for the decline of agriculture in the Appalachian South is the lack of incentives to stay in the small farm occupation. Aside from the loss of cropland, agriculture is being financially challenged by rising production costs, stringent government regulations, rising interest rates, increasing costs of machinery, as well as, decreasing farm size, decreasing value of goods sold, and the use of employed help (Beaver 1986). For example, dairy farming in North Carolina has been placed under strict government supervision. It is so strict that many prosperous Applachian dairy farmers are willing to leave their family's ancestral farming tradition to rid themselves of counterproductive government bureaucracy. Also, the price for liquid milk, which is determined by the North Carolina Milk Commission (and which is based on the price of cheese in Wisconsin), has not changed since the 1970's. In addition to stringent government policies and low milk prices, the costs for cow feed, farm equipment, and equipment maintenance have tripled in price in the past 20 years. Unless farmers are willing to compromise leisure time and income and take on the risk of expansion, they will indirectly be forced to leave dairy farming as an occupation. Incentives to continue farming seem in short supply.

Appalachians are described as independent, family and community oriented, egalitarian and having a strong sense of place (Keefe 1997). All these characteristics, however, are being challenged and threatened with the decline in number of small farms, the basis for Appalachian traditional culture and history.

An aspect of Appalachian culture that many small farmers identify with is their independence. Historically, survival was determined by "the ideal independence of the individual member of the society..." (Beaver 1986:152). Small farmers had no one to answer to and they dealt with whomever they wished. With today's increasing governmental regulations, this sense of independence is being challenged. With the new o200 regulation, dairy farmers now have to be certified "Animal Waste Operators" in order to operate a dairy farm with a herd of cows exceeding 100. They are being told how, when, and where to dairy farm. They are no longer in complete control of their family farm and many feel this loss of control will only increase with time. Their loss of independence will have consequences for their sense of identity.

Socially, in Appalachia, family is the most important fundamental institution (Keefe 1997). This includes direct, extended, and fictive kin. With the decline in cropland and small farms, however, kinship ties are being challenged. Economically, small farms in the Appalachian South would be virtually non-existent without family labor. The family is the fundamental basis of small farms, and children are an essential part of the labor force. "Children at a very early age were taught to focus their attention on the maintenance of family solidarity" (Crissman 1994:12). In most Appalachian families, children become active participants on the family farm at the age of five. Their participation includes household chores and responsibilities. In small farms, this responsibility may extend beyond the household chores. In the beef cattle or the dairy farm industry, these kids could be asked to round up the cows for feeding or milking. As they mature, family responsibilities increase (Keefe 1997).

Today, many young people are being forced to leave their community in search of an occupation other than farming. In many instances they end up moving to work in a factory outside their own community. To prevent this, many agriculturally-based counties in the Appalachian South are more than willing to accept industrialization. Corporations are being invited to build their factories in the rural communities in hopes that the younger generation will stay in the region and kinship ties will not weaken.

The invitation of the new industrial order will inevitably cause changes in the economic and political scene. As corporations gain influence in the economy, their political influence increases. As a result of corporate dominion, the small farmer loses economic and political influence. In addition, the Appalachian value of egalitarianism will decline. New classes will emerge and social stratification will escalate due to industrialization (Beaver 1986).

As discussed earlier there are many causes and effects of the decline in small agricultural farms in the Appalachian South. All of these can be seen in dairy farming. In the Appalachian South, dairy farming has been a popular economic and family tradition but it has been declining dramatically in the past twenty years. Culturally, the dairy family maintains and represents many traditional Appalachian values.

The Appalachian dairy farming family will in the near future go through more drastic changes with the introduction of new government policies, more industrialization, more outsiders buying land, and less political influence. The dairy business relies eminently on the land, family, and community for its survival. Changes in these things may cause dairy farming and its way of life in the Appalachian South to become an agricultural "past" time.


This winter when I was searching for an ethnographic summer field school on the Internet, I came across one being held in the Appalachian mountains by a professor at Appalachian State University. Never having visited the mountains of the east coast, I had my presumptions or stereotypes about what the culture and environment was going to be like. Thinking that I would have to reside with a hillbilly family on a treacherous mountainside where bears, snakes, and other wild animals live, I emphasized when applying that I could endure anything Mother Nature might dish out. I honestly thought that life out here was going to be the most rigorous adventure I would ever endure. I was greatly mistaken.

I came to find after my arrival that rural life in the Appalachian mountains is not much different from rural portions of my home state of Texas. My classmates and I were all assigned to stay with different families residing in Alleghany County, NC, bordering Virginia. I came to live with a very popular and prosperous dairy farming family, the Phantoms (a pseudonym).

As I came to find out through the literature I was assigned, small agricultural farms in Alleghany County and in the entire Appalachian South play a significant role in the economic, political, and social arena. After listening to numerous conversations living with my host family, I came to find out that dairy farming has gone through drastic social and economic changes in the recent past. These changes affect everything from the family to communal reciprocity to the survival of dairy farming. I decided to study the effects of all these changes in agriculture in the Appalachian South using the Phantoms as a case study to better understand the transition in general.

Since agriculture is an embedded feature of Appalachian culture, it was always on the forefront of most conversations I heard among residents in the county. This is especially true for dairy farmers who are having to deal with the new North Carolina waste management program called the o200 regulation. I met numerous dairy farmers as well as ex-dairy farmers during the month I lived in Alleghany County. They were aware of the many ramifications and changes that might take place with the current decline of small farms. However, finding the time to do formal interviews was a task. If you were to spend a day in the life of a dairy farmer, you would quickly realize that time is always pressed and schedules never kept. Dairy farmers are very busy, working seven days a week for most of each day. So, the data I collected were mostly informal. The only people I formally interviewed were the adult members of the Phanton family, George and Jane.

To get a better understanding of small farm culture, I volunteered to perform as many farm chores as possible or in my case as time allowed. I had the chance to not only observe the milking process but to participate in milking on several occasions. Other chores in which I participated included feeding the calves, rounding up the cows for milking, and working on a new barn which the Phantoms were building. I attended their church services as well as a week-long Bible school program. By going wherever the Phantoms went, I was able to network and make many connections. Through them I was able to meet with members of the Soil and Water Conservation Office as well as the Agricultural Extension Office. Both of these government funded organizations work with the small farm industry in Alleghany and surrounding counties.

The Phantom Family

The survival of almost any type of small-scale farm depends on the family. Although many small farming families employ a hired hand or two, the bulk of the responsibility for the success of the farm is placed on the family itself. The family provides the farm with labor, a 24 hour watch, loyalty, work on holidays, and, last but not least, a skilled and able work force. Children participate at a young age. Their only limitations are their small frames. If a child can operate a tractor, then more likely than not they will be given the opportunity to drive it. Every member participates in one way or another.

The Phantom family consists of four members. George is the father and head of the household; Jane is the mother; George Jr. is the 14 year old son; and Mike is the 11 year old son.

Growing up on a dairy farm, George knew how to run one. After high school he had no ambition to continue his education and instead chose to continue farming. Although his twin brother continued his education and got a Masters degree in mathematics and his mother urged him to continue as well, George says he felt "why run from something I love." Dairy farming was his ambition and his desire. George works seven days a week, 365 days a year. He does not have time to take any lengthy vacations, although he says he would love to. Nowadays, he has a 15 hour work day every day. He is undertaking several new projects including building a new barn, an investment he feels he can profit from, and building a new lagoon (manure pit) that fits the specifications of the new North Carolina waste regulation, the o200. His responsibilities to his family and farm are neverending. He feels that there are not enough hours in the day to actually enjoy it fully.

When he first entered the dairy business he was planning to retire within twenty years, but the leveling off of profits has prevented that. At this point, he says he will be lucky to get out of it by the age of 62. He plans to slow down when he reaches the age at which he can collect Social Security. This business has tied him down, but he knew the ramifications before he pursued it as a career. George finds it very hard lately to stay in a good frame of mind, milk prices being what they are. He thinks that there is no incentive for the younger generation to stay in the business. Nevertheless, he hopes his boys will keep the tradition alive. It will help him and Jane tremendously in their later years.

Jane Phantom did not grow up on a dairy farm, but her family did have a dairy cow for all their dairy products. She loves the lifestyle because she never knows what she'll "be doing from one minute to the next." In an interview, Jane describes how her mother was very ill for many years and almost died giving birth to three children after being told that she wouldn't be able to give birth. Yet, despite all her discomfort and hardships in life, Jane's mother always managed to help milk the cow and see that the family and the farm were taken care of. Jane's effort in her family is very much like her mother's. Her work schedule does not look much different than that of George. She participates in the milking twice a day seven days a week. On average she then runs errands into the near-by town twice a day to take care of business, bills, or food shopping. Also, as if all that were not enough, she tends to the house and its chores. Her chores and duties may change throughout the day, but her responsibility to the family is always the same. She remains a mother and a wife devoted to her children and husband.

George Junior is an ambitious fourteen year old farmer who as a child was taught the skills of the trade. He too puts forth many hard and intense hours on the dairy farm. At this moment, while his father tends to the new barn, Junior milks with his mother every morning and afternoon and in-between works with his father in the new barn. Despite the fact that the future of dairy farming looks risky, Junior shows ambitions to become a dairy farmer. He knows how to use every piece of farm equipment and has learned the working dynamics of the farm. He realizes that the farm is very dependent on the entire family's participation, so he does not slack behind on his farm chores or his responsibilities. He isn't your typical mainstream American teen; instead he is a farmer's child. He may well pass the tradition on to his children.

Mike may look and talk like an eleven year old sixth grader, but wait until you see him handle a fullsize diesel truck. Like his brother he puts forth many hours in the family business. His knowledge of the dairy farming industry is increasing as the years pass. The tradition, knowledge, and heart to become a very successful dairy farmer is in him. He usually wakes up one hour later (5 am) than his parents and older brother to feed the cows after they have been milked. After that, he is alongside them for the rest of the day. His tasks vary. They're usually given to him by his father and like any other dairy farmer, the task is subject to change at any moment. He has no desire to continue a formal education beyond high school. I asked him what his ambitions or goals were for the future and he replied differently than what I expected. He said he will be a dairy farmer until he's 21. After becoming legal age, he said he wants to be a truck driver delivering parts for an up and coming company in the town near his home. When I asked him why he didn't want to become a dairy farmer forever, he replied, there is no sense in being in the dairy business today with the way milk prices are. Mike also finds it insulting that the state is placing how-to regulations on a farming tradition that has worked successfully long before the government stepped in.

The farming family throughout the United States, especially in the Southern Appalachian region, is being put through trying times. With no incentive to stay in the agricultural industry, families will be looking toward industrialization as a savior. The strong kinship ties which are existent today may not survive in the new age.

Dairy Farms in Historical Perspective

Before the middle of this century, many Appalachian households were principally agrarian. Most every resident had a subsistence garden, meat source such as hogs or chickens, a local source of drinkable water, and in most cases a dairy cow. At the time, dairy products were not very often sold in outside markets. An efficient and affordable method to preserve the milk was not available to people, most of whom lacked electrification. Most people produced their own milk and made their own butter. If you were a neighbor without the resources to produce milk, you simply traded for some. This exchange was, in most cases, not based on cash, rather it was an exchange for other goods. People with special skills capitalized on them. As the population grew, people began to specialize in certain trades. Since the demand for dairy items increased concurrently with the rising population, dairy farms were established.

The majority of dairy farms in Appalachia were small by today's standards. The average farm in the middle of the century had approximately 20 dairy cows. It must also be kept in mind that while they were milking 20 dairy cows twice a day by hand, they still had a subsistence garden and cow silage they had to attend to. Cow silage is fermented dry course food like cornstalks. Feeding the dairy cows only hay or just letting them graze the fields is not enough. Their production of milk would be inconsiderable in comparison to when they are fed silage. Silage contains nutrients and proteins necessary to have a fully productive dairy cow that can produce large quantities of milk. The life of the dairy farmer is hectic and strenuous. Only those with the skills and the physical stamina to adhere to the burdensome undertaking of dairy farming excelled at it. Today, with hi-tech electrical equipment, milking the cows per se has become easier; however, since dairy farmers have been raised in a hard working tradition, they compensate by milking more cows. In other words, the life of a dairy farmer is still arduous.

Over the past twenty years, dairy farms in Alleghany County have declined in number dramatically. In Alleghany during the 1960s, there were 108 to 120 dairy farms milking 8,790 dairy cows. In 1996, the number of dairy farms dropped to 35 and dairy cows to 4,600 (NCDA Dept. of Statistics 1996). Many believed that this rapid decline in dairy farms correlates with the nationwide decrease of small agricultural farms. Nonetheless, beyond just losing the farm, radical social and economic changes have come about.

Today the Phantom family own over 170 dairy cows and milk anywhere from 130-150 dairy cows twice a day. Their daily schedule is unlike anything I've ever experienced and it's constantly changing. George and Jane both grew up on family farms, which is why they are accustomed to the hard work. George's family source of income came from dairy cows. His father entered the occupation when George was around six or seven. George's life is better understood as told in the first person:

The earliest I can remember was anywhere between 1958-1960. I can remember The Snow of 1960. That winter everyone was sick, my father, mother, my brothers, except for Eddie, and me. It was a hardship for everyone during that time. The cows had to be milked and farm chores had to be done regardless of the situation. I was brought up hard. I worked and didn't get paid. I wasn't neglected but I didn't quite get a whole lot. My father would take me and my brothers to the neighborhood general store called Southern Supplies. He'd buy us each two pairs of jeans, two flannel shirts, and one pair of shoes. That was it. That's all we got for the whole year and you better believe we took care of our clothes. One pair was for school and church and the other for work. After school everyday I would change ' cause there weren't any replacements until the next year.

Before my father milked cows in 1958 or 1959, he used to raise chickens and sold them so that fried chicken could be made of them. We didn't have modern equipment like today. When we used to cut corn, we did it by hand. We used to process corn through a stationary cutter and I remember one incident where I got popped in the face by an ear of corn when my brother fed it through the stationary and it accidentally got caught in a rotating belt.

At my homeplace, my whole family used to share a bedroom upstairs, except for Timmy who was crippled at age 13 due to polio. Me and my older twin, Phil, shared a bed, my parents slept on a bed, and my older brother, Paul, would get a bed to himself. It would get really cold during the winter, and all of us sleeping in the same room under electric blankets made the cold bearable. Before we slept, during the cold evenings we would use a wood stove to get the living room warm. I remember getting into discussions with my brothers to see who had the unpleasant task of plugging in the electric blankets. No one wanted to leave the warm living room and wander off into the hallway where the temperature dropped.

The first time I started to drive a tractor I was eight and it was during that 1960 snow storm. I had to clear the driveway of snow. It snowed 10 to 12 inches every Wednesday for six weeks straight. It was unlike the blizzard of 1993 where three feet of snow was dumped all at once. It was trying times but as a family we overcame any hardships that came our way.

I have run my own dairy since 1975. I knew after graduating high school in 1971 that's what I wanted to do. I married my neighbor, Jane, in 1978 and together we were able to expand our dairy farm. Without her help I wouldn't be where I'm at today. She's made it much easier. Before, I had 35 to 40 dairy cows; today I run an operation of around 170 dairy cows. My wife and my two boys, George Jr. and Mike, are my greatest assets and without them I probably wouldn't be able to be where I'm at, especially with these new regulations.

Communal Reciprocity

Although farmers in the Appalachian South are very independent, they rely heavily on communal reciprocity. Most farmers are said to be down to earth. That is why when something happens to a neighbor, for example, feeling the wrath of Mother Nature, they come to assist. Since farmers have an independent tradition they do not form unions. The word union to many farmers is an insult. Neighbors and the community handle any form of assistance. From simple chores around the house to financial loans, most farmers are there for each other.

George would on occasion help put cows in a neighbors barn if they were unable to do so. He also expects the same from neighbors if he is unable to tend to his cows. For example, George engages in a lot of reciprocity with a fellow dairy farmer, Lewis Smith. They have been taking turns bailing each other's hay for the past three years. If George was ever going to the cattle market, he wouldn't mind sharing space in his truck for Lewis' cows if he had room. They have traded help many times. They have traded trucks, helped spread manure, borrowed tractor loaders, and hauled cattle for one another on numerous occasions. Many times it was for free, but they would sometimes place a small dollar amount on the service performed.

Lewis isn't the only neighbor George relies on. George has had many different neighbors trade favors with him. If someone is in a "bind or torn up" they would ask each other for help and neighbors were more than happy to oblige. On one occasion George sold his tractor and was left with only one. If that one was to ever break down, he knew he could go to his neighbor Lewis for a loaner. "You don't put value on friends like that," says George. George was always more than willing to do the same for others. When money was owed to one another, they never asked for it. They knew they wouldn't forget to repay debts. Fred Bullock is a good friend and farmer to George. George would never hesitate to ask Fred for a favor. When Fred's wife was ill and was scheduled to have surgery, George chopped corn for him for three days. Fred offered George money, but he refused and would never accept any. Favors might be returned up to four or five years later, but they will never be forgotten. Another time in 1986, George's brother was in an accident and almost cut off his leg on a PTO shaft of a tractor. Barbara Brown heard the accident called in on a scanner and she was first to arrive at the scene with a blanket. In his brother's time of need, neighbors came to help. Lewis helped George's brother milk his cows while others helped George by milking his cows while he was visiting his sick brother.


In conclusion, the future for dairy farming in the Appalachian South does not look very bright. This lifelong tradition is on the verge of extinction if the milk rates continue to drop the way they have. Many people wonder "Why?" I've heard everything from governmental conspiracy to God's will to modernization. Regardless of the reason, more fundamental aspects of the society other than the dairy farm itself will be lost. Families are nuclearizing, and as a result, strong extended family ties will diminish. With so much of Appalachian life revolving around the family, it will come to them as a shocking change when the only time the extended family gets together is at annual reunions. That trend has already begun with George's brother, Eddie, who has migrated to Wisconsin to take up dairy farming. His ambition to become a dairy farmer in the area where he grew up went unfulfilled.

The day may also come when the residents of the Appalachian South don't even know who their next door neighbor is. With this in mind, how are they supposed to make it through the "rough times" if their family and communal ties are severed? They have depended on each other so much for survival. So much of Appalachian culture revolves around the community and family that without it, identity deteriorates. This same identity gives them cultural pride and a sense of well-being. The positive trait of southern hospitality will also be diminished. Economically speaking, small farms in most rural counties account for much of the economy's success. With large corporations moving in, rural communities will begin to rely heavily on them for economic stability. If, however, those businesses were to fail or move to a different area, the community could be devastated. Small farms may not produce as much revenue as other industries, but left alone they can be a stable source for a sustainable economy.

Dairy farmers of the Appalachian South are a dying breed fighting for the continuance of their traditions and culture. With the latest governmental regulations lowering milk prices, it is all working against the farming industry rather than supporting it. Rules that were made to protect the people are actually destroying them. From produce to beef cattle, small farms are on the decline. Will we depend on other nations to provide us with food or will large agribusiness take over? Perhaps the government has ideas about getting into the farming industry. Remember small farms produce the majority of agricultural produce and, as George Phantom puts it, "Agriculture is the heart beat of America."

References Cited

  • Beaver, Patricia D.
    1986 Rural Community in the Appalachian South. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

  • Byrd, Thomas M. (ed.)
    1988 North Carolina Agriculture: From the Mountains to the Sea. North Carolina: The North Carolina Association of County Agricultural Agents.

  • Clark, Mike
    1975 Voices from the Mountains. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

  • Crissman, James K.
    1994 Death and Dying in Central Appalachia: Changing Attitudes and Practices. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

  • Ford, Thomas R. (ed.)
    1962 The Southern Appalachian Region: A Survey. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press.

  • Keefe, Susan E.
    1997 "Appalachian Americans." In Many Americas: Perspectives on Racism, Ethnicity, and Cultural Identity, Gregory R. Campbell (ed.). Dubuque, IO: Kendall/Hunt.