A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FARM
In the early 1970's my father and his brothers took over the farm from their father, Jake Niceley, who had bought the farm nearly 30 years earlier, what we now call Riverplains. Papaw had leased it all that time to a dairy farmer and his family, and by 1970 it was in a state of disrepair. As new stewards of the land, a mountainous job confronted the brothers. It was up to them to clean the messes, mend and re-build...to try and right the wrongs of three decades of ill management and near neglect. My mother says when she married my father he was working "unhumanly" hard. It was also the era that encouraged huge farm credit; copious amounts of money were borrowed by farmers everywhere at that time -- to buy expensive tractors, gigantic, fancy silos, the latest dairy equipment, and so on. The fertile river-bottom fields were put into corn and other grains for silage, to feed the dairy cattle. The old men who had worked here for most of their lives were still around: Earl, who was actually raised on the farm, Raymond or "Hot Shot", and then later Gilbert Davis, who is still living and tending his own garden and goats just a few miles away in New Market. They were up in years then, but they worked hard keeping the fences mended, the fields bush-hogged, the baby calves fed -- and of course the countless other chores that are never ever finished on a working farm.
With 400 head of Holstein cows the dairy became successful. But by 1986 the farm was being paid about a dollar per gallon of milk -- the same price as in 1975. And so the brothers decided to sell the whole operation through a government program and shut the dairy doors for good.
In my opinion (and memory), the next couple of decades found Riverplains in some ways a victim of the modern agricultural crisis at large. Corporate farms were on the rise, driving many small farmers across the country out of business, others into a state of "treading water", where the main objective was to simply hold onto the land. At the very least, an identity crisis happened for many family farms, Riverplains included.
In our case, equestrian activities increased as we found ways to bring in money from horse boarding and hosting events; we leased the river-bottom fields to large, prosperous vegetable growers (mostly tomatoes), and continued to have a small herd of beef cattle.
The true crossroads came about 10 years ago. We realized that the decades of conventional farming -- such as loads of chemicals to prevent insect damage and weeds -- has taken its toll on the soil and the environment. As a family we are finally in agreement that we want the youngest generation to grow up without ever having to breathe in toxic chemicals. We want to teach them the values that come from working with Mother Nature instead of against Her. We want them to know what it means to select and save a seed for the next year's crop. (It goes without saying we do not believe in genetically-engineered seeds and do not support the corporations that own them.)
Now we are in a transition time: frustrating and stressful at times but also exciting. Of course so much of being a farmer has to do with risk -- with trial and error, faith and hope, and certainly perseverance. We have been growing heirloom corn (Hickory Cane in particular) organically, for over 7 years now. We have experimented with organically grown spelt (similar to wheat) and alfalfa. For a few years there we had a handful of Jersey cows, which we hand milked, learning to make butter, cheese and other dairy products in the process. We are continuing to build our herd of grass-fed beef cattle, as well as our pastured hogs...
Basically, experimentation and diversification will have to continue for us to ever reach the goal of healthy, productive sustainability. I believe as temporary "owners" of this beautiful land it is our responsibility, and honor, to try.