I am writing today because I want to set before the many and diverse sets of eyes that read your paper some of my recent experience out here in Jefferson County. After living in Nashville for years, I moved back to my family’s farm in Strawberry Plains late last year. Even in the dead of winter, I relished the return. I was so happy to drink in the vast quiet, the expansive and rolling hills and valleys scattered with livestock, the fields laying fallow, waiting for spring.
By the end of May it was plain and ugly: News had leaked that Norfolk Southern had plans to build an intermodal and logistics center (ultimately a giant railyard plus industrial park) in New Market—only a few miles from my own family’s farm. The center would be located in the heart of the best, the most productive, the most fertile agricultural land in Jefferson County. In fact, there is not that much agricultural land left in Jefferson County. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 76.7 percent of Jefferson County’s farmland has been converted to other uses in the last 20 years. If Norfolk Southern acquires the 280 acres to build the intermodal site, and then the county eagerly gobbles up the surrounding areas for the industrial park, which they will, that would be at least 1,000 more acres lost—if not more.
But why should anyone care if they don’t live in or near New Market, Tenn.?
In my mind, there are many, many reasons. Unfortunately, there is not room here to get into them all. I believe what might be the chief reason is this: Every citizen should be concerned about the greed and might of this country’s corporations. The federal government has already given some corporations more power than they had to bestow. For anyone who may not know, railroad companies can seek to have private land condemned by “eminent domain.” Currently, Norfolk Southern is seeking the acquisition of land in New Market by way of private contracts. It is not known who or how many land owners will sell. I fear that many feel they will “have” to sell now, as it might seem the only way to retain any power in the situation.
Meanwhile, since this issue has become publicized, I have seen a lot of quibbles bubbling up about who’s in greater need. There are those who need the “potential” jobs this kind of facility may eventually draw to the region; county officials say the property owners in the county need tax relief and only industry can provide it; some take the angle that the environmental benefit of taking trucks off the road is a need we must satisfy at any cost; and the slick Norfolk Southern corporate officials who gave us a public presentation last week in the Jefferson Middle School auditorium said we “need to be connected to the global market.” They also explained how in order to compete with the trucking industry and keep making lots of money, they need to build intermodal facilities wherever they choose. As it so happens, the sites they choose are frequently what are called “greenfields”—agricultural land, probably less expensive to convert—as opposed to rehabilitating “brownfields,” or abandoned industrial sites (which are more than abundant at this point).
What I am asking Norfolk Southern to do is choose an available, existing industrial site in which to carry out their business, and let the farmers continue to do their business in Jefferson County. Is their business really more important than growing food? Why should we sacrifice our homes, our community, our livelihoods for them or for anyone?
Farmer’s markets are enjoying a real resurgence, agri-tourism is now touted by the state, “buy local” is a catchphrase, and environmental concerns are at a peak—and yet a corporation can still choose a productive, active farming community to destroy for their purposes and try to convince us that in doing so they are being responsible, beneficent, and even “green.”
I ask the folks in this region who care about where their food comes from, who care about the sacredness of community, the continuity of knowing where we come from, anyone who has felt the power and poetry of place, to please take an interest and even join in this struggle happening just down the road.
For anyone interested in learning more: jeffersoncountytomorrow.org.
Jennifer Niceley, Strawberry Plains