Roots and resilience
At a century-old North Carolina farm, a legacy of unity and adaptation endures.
Pleasant Garden, N.C. — While much of America's cultural compass is currently guided by Twitter feeds, entertainment news, and estranged families, the Coltrane family's values and mores have changed little in the past two centuries. They remain steadfast in their responsibility to their family, community, and land.
Now, like millions of Americans across the country, they are presented with unforeseen economic challenges. But, the Coltranes believe their long tradition of working together, adapting to unexpected challenges, and passing down their knowledge to the next generation will pull them through.
"This land has been in our family for over 200 years," says Branson Coltrane with a thick Southern drawl, sitting on the tailgate of his truck in Pleasant Garden, N.C. His weathered face softens as his piercing blue eyes look intently over the cornfields, tin barns, John Deere tractors, and the hundreds of mooing cows dotting the fields.
"That is what gives us this love for farming," Branson says. "It's the struggles our family has faced to keep this land. Every dollar I've ever made has gone back into this farm. If we want to survive, we have to keep expanding."
Since he and his dad, Roy, started the dairy with just a few cows in 1956, the farm has grown to 800 acres and 1,200 head of cattle. Unfortunately, the Coltranes are not immune to the recent economic turmoil, and when the price of milk crashed in 2009, they were forced to borrow money to cover their operating expenses, something they had worked their entire lives to avoid. While Branson's face shows the strain of his new liability, he believes the values his father ingrained in him will pull the family through. He knows this isn't the first time the Coltranes have faced hard times.
"In the Great Depression days, life was about surviving," says Roy Coltrane, wearing faded overalls and a green flannel shirt. He sits at the kitchen table in the quaint house he built for his wife, Margaret, on a winding country road in Pleasant Garden more than 70 years ago. Margaret sits next to Roy, her fingers laced with his.
Roy's father, brokenhearted after his wife died during childbirth, passed away himself four years later, leaving Roy to lead the family at 21. The Great Depression was unkind to farmers like Roy, but he fought to take custody of his four siblings and to keep the farm. To make it work, the entire family pulled together. Roy's sister Irene dropped out of eighth grade to raise her younger siblings and take care of the household responsibilities.
"Irene was more like a mother to me than a sister," says Ethel Coltrane Whitaker, the youngest of Roy's siblings, from the porch of the home she and her siblings grew up in. The one-story white house is immaculate. Old photographs and antiques fill the inside of the house while beds of colorful pansies and rosebushes bloom outside. A black-and-white picture of the family posing in front of the house with a horse and buggy sits in the living room, reminding them all of a very different time.
Ethel looks down at the enormous Bible spread across her lap. "My mama and daddy bought this Bible over a hundred years ago," she says. "All the births and deaths of our family members are recorded here." Her delicate finger points to the year Irene died.
All of Roy's siblings, his son, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now live on the family farm. Despite the demanding nature of their work, there is still a simple rhythm to their lives. They have an unwavering commitment to one another. Every afternoon Branson and his wife eat lunch with Roy and Margaret. The breaking of steaming biscuits and fresh garden vegetables is more than a meal – it's a way for the family to constantly reconnect.
"I think one of the things that's kept us together is that we make time for each other," says Branson. "When I got married over 45 years ago, my father-in-law told me I [had] better be at his house every Sunday for lunch. Nearly a half century later we are still having Sunday lunch together. That's real important."
Looking at the neatly planted cornfields that stretch for miles against the autumn sky, it's hard to imagine the responsibility that goes with maintaining the land. To keep the farm going, everyone contributes. Branson and his daughter-in-law, Amy, are up by 4 a.m. every day. They begin their days at the calving barn, a giant tin structure the size of a football field. They work in a seamless rhythm nearly 365 days a year. Branson, who says he loves the stillness of early morning, drives an old all-terrain vehicle (ATV) as he shuttles between the plastic stalls where the calves are corralled, while Amy pulls out huge baby bottles for the lowing herd.
Adapting to change
Adapting and working together have allowed the family to triumph over the adversity they've faced through the years. The Coltranes, like millions of Americans, have learned that succeeding means constantly adapting to unexpected challenges. Roy's initial challenge was keeping the family together. For Branson it's been keeping a family-owned dairy profitable in the face of corporate competition. Today's economic volatility, along with rapid changes in dairy technology, have required Branson's son, David, to pick up where his father left off.
"You can't even compare where the dairy business is now to where it was when we started in the '50s," Branson says, as he washes the calves' bottles in an industrial washing machine he recently purchased. "To survive now, you have to know the latest technologies and constantly be ready to update."
His challenges are far different from those his father, Roy, faced. When Roy started farming, it was with a team of oxen and a plow. He still recalls his first tractor, which he got in 1947. "That tractor just did not have enough horsepower," says Roy, with a mischievous smile as he pulls at the gray stubble on his face. "I stuck with my team of oxen and didn't use the tractor."
Branson now has tractors with 200 horsepower. "They do so much more work," he says. But with the added work also comes significant expense. Each tractor can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and is a necessary investment to keep the farm competitive. Those added expenses are just one of the ways Branson has adapted.
Nearly all of the calves on his farm are the result of artificial insemination. "You see the cow over there?" Branson asks, pointing to a large, spotted heifer. "She has dozens of calves. We have a full-time vet that just works with us on reproduction." Branson now gets a better stock of calves by combining the eggs from his best cow with sperm from his best bull and implanting the resulting embryos into surrogate cows. "The dairy business will teach you a lot about things you never thought you needed to know," he says with a chuckle.
For dairy farmers like the Coltranes, land has an entirely different meaning. As dairy farms continue to get bigger, the only way family farmers seem to be able to survive is to continue buying land. But in the past few decades the available land for farming has been eaten up by housing developments, making it difficult to expand.
With the added expenses, increased need to understand veterinary science, and the scarcity of land, Branson knows it's critical that his grandchildren get a good education.
"To survive now, you have to know the latest technologies and constantly be ready to update," Branson says. "My oldest grandchild, Cole, is 16 years old and is already taking agriculture classes in high school and looking for colleges with good farming programs. If my grandchildren are interested in taking up the responsibility of the farm, we are going to do everything we can to make sure they are properly prepared."
As the next generation of Coltranes is groomed to take over the farm, the collective family history of success dating back to the founding of the nation has been inculcated in them by Cecil, Roy's youngest brother. He's a bachelor and an aspiring genealogist who used to ride his horse to the nearest Hardee's fast-food restaurant. He's also one of the family historians.
"You see those woods over there?" asks Cecil, with a distinct country twang. Sitting in his green ATV at the back of a cornfield surrounded by forest, he points to an old wagon trail that runs into the woods. "My great-grandmother died right through there in Polecat Creek."
He pauses, and puts his hands back on the steering wheel. "She was hauling a load of cane to make into molasses. The oxen got spooked and the wagon flipped over." She left five children behind.
His stories are a reminder that the challenges the Coltranes – and many like them – face now pale compared with what their forebears had to overcome. His resolve is a reminder that families can work together, adapt, and pass along a productive lifestyle.