Roots and resilience
At a century-old North Carolina farm, a legacy of unity and adaptation endures.
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Adapting to changeSkip to next paragraph
In Pictures Dairy Farm
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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.
IN PICTURES: Dairy Farm