Railroaded: Norfolk Southern vs. New Market's Farmers

Here's what we stand to lose if Norfolk Southern takes nearly 700 acres of farmland in New Market

Inside, above the main guest entrance of his Virginia home, Monticello, Thomas Jefferson kept a plaster bust of the French economist Turgot. The two men never met. But both men independently reached the conclusion that the ideal economy would be based upon a system of small farms, that tillable land was the only bankable, trans-generational source of national wealth, and that it should be tied directly to the concerns of many citizen-farmers who lived on their own land. For numerous reasons, Tennessee has evolved along the lines of that model.

Tennessee farms tend to be small—grossing less than $50,000 annually, according to the USDA—and family-owned. According to University of Tennessee Extension Agent Jonathan Rhea, some of the state's best farmland is in Jefferson County, spread around the bucolic community of New Market, about 20 minutes from Knoxville. To strong and mixed reactions, the railroad giant Norfolk Southern has chosen 280 acres of that farmland to become an intermodal terminal, and in conjunction with local government and developers, an additional 400 acres adjacent to become a logistics park. (See "Surprise Development.")

If that development is realized, it will be at the expense of a community and countless traditions. In a shaky economy, a railroad and its boosters are gambling with lives and working farms.

Norfolk Southern has been generally mum on details aside from job-generation and economic-booster cheerleading. (The company shared brochure material for this article, but declined comment other than that New Market was currently the preferred site of several under consideration and that details "would be premature.") Jefferson County elected officials and appointed leaders have aroused suspicion by entering into confidentiality agreements with the railroad. (For this article, the county mayor's office deferred to the county chamber of commerce, which has declined to comment.)

Home and property owners in the 280-acre footprint of the proposed facility are known to have been offered options to sell their land by a third-party firm. While those people wait for information—like deer in the headlights, some wondering if the railroad will make them rich, others fearing eminent domain and forced relocation—many of their neighbors have mobilized to resist the development. Before the first bulldozer cranks, the mere concept of a large railroad facility threatens to divide this community.

Here are just some of the lives and lifestyles that stand to be altered or lost should things go as planned.

"DOWN THERE IS ROCKY VALLEY," says James Arville Finchum, standing in his driveway and looking east, at the top of a hill his family has owned for 90 years. "And that's Bays Mountain beyond. People are always talking about preserving the Smoky Mountains. Well, this here's the Smoky Mountains and we want to preserve it."

Looking west, you can see even farther. Blaine is a twinkle of reflective rooftops. It would take more than half an hour to reach it by car, and there is the illusion that you could toss a paper airplane that would beat you to it. Much nearer is the gently rolling rectangle of bottomland farms that may soon become a large rail yard. Here and there through trees, you can sense the path of existing railroad tracks. They have been straightened to remove a curve that may have contributed to the 1904 head-on collision of east- and westbound passenger trains—the calamity that inspired "The New Market Wreck," one of the earliest popular songs in the country music tradition.

Finchum's home, a two-story bank-house built into the hilltop with glass walls facing south that he designed and built himself decades ago, is at the highest point on his family's farm. To reach it you drive past the brick home in which his late parents spent their retirement, currently occupied by Sue Finchum, James' sister. Then you climb past the clapboard house in which James and Sue, both in their 50s, were raised. Still square, it's being reclaimed by the woods now and is used only for storage. In addition to the 100-acre spread on which these three homes stand, east of Highway 11E, the Finchums own and farm 50 acres on the western side of the 55-mph four-lane. The two properties were combined when their parents married.

"Our grandmother and them were run out of Claiborne County because of Norris Lake," says James Finchum. "They came over and bought that 50-acre place."

Although they were established during the 1930s and '40s, Norris Lake and Douglas Lake continue to foster resentment and ill-boding in Jefferson County. Numerous families who stand to be impacted by the proposed Norfolk Southern facility live here because they were forced off family farms that are now underwater.

On the 50-acre western farm, James Finchum grows hay that he bales and brings by farm tractor and trailer to his cattle on the larger farm. Presently, the trip is about two miles, complicated by crossing 11E. If Norfolk Southern builds its intermodal facility on the proposed site between the two, Finchum's trip between his two farms will be more than 10 miles, and will involve traveling by tractor on the highway.

Sue Finchum attempts to explain the difference between life here and elsewhere.

"There is an attachment to the land that people who've moved every five years will not have," she says. "There's an attachment that comes from seeing what your parents and grandparents do that other people will not have."

Asked to describe his workdays in comparison to those who might punch a time clock in town, James Finchum shrugs. He's always at work.

"If you work at a job, you come home and your time's free," he says. "It's not that way on a farm. It's a different way of life. Most people don't realize it. But most people wouldn't work like farmers do. Tobacco's bringing less now than it has in the past. But nothing else is cheaper. There's not much profit. Most farmers nowadays have to have an off-the-farm job to survive."

"WHEN I GO TO A FARM AUCTION, it's like going to a funeral," says UT Extension Agent Jonathan Rhea. "I hate to see farmland lost or sold. If we're talking about a willing seller, I don't have a problem with it. I'm not the one who's worked that land. If we're talking about eminent domain, I do have a problem with it."

The "culture" part of the word agriculture refers, by way of Latin declension, to cultivation. But if you have access or connections to farming communities, you know that they do have their own distinct culture. Across the country, that culture and those communities are already endangered by urban and suburban encroachment, attrition of a willing workforce, competition from exploited land and labor overseas, weather patterns that have ceased to be predictable, a largely indifferent consumer population, and countless other factors. Barn-raisings and communal labor at harvest are making the transition from fact to folklore.

"Officially, I don't have a position," says Rhea. "I know all of these people. I've sat at their kitchen tables. Some are for it and some are against it."

With or without an official position, Rhea has a perspective and personal experience that's relevant.

"I grew up in Monroe County," he says. "Our farm is four miles from Madisonville city limits, just across some railroad tracks from an industrial park. We're aware every day that those people could say they need our land. My brother died on that land in a farm accident. I am not willing to sell. We are caretakers of this land."

It's a rainy September morning. If the rain lets up, Rhea intends to spend the afternoon sowing a demonstration field of orchard grass on space offered by a Jefferson County farmer. The farmer and his neighbors are interested in seeing how well this particular variety grows and grazes here. It's a challenge for Rhea to remain dispassionate on the subject of threatened farmland.

"America has the cheapest and safest food supply in the world," says Rhea. "Our state is made up of small-scale farmers. That system is more stable and safer from terrorist threat than big farms. What's going to happen when that farmland goes away? Is China going to feed us when all this land is eaten up by development? New Market has some of the best farmland in the state for row crops. The things that make it desirable for development are the same things that make it perfect for farming."

The problem, of course, with the food-farm connection as an anti-development argument, is globalization. Every supermarket in Knoxville offers summer vegetables year-round. If it's not tomato season in Grainger County, it's tomato season in Brazil. There is a current trend toward localism. And Danny Shelton, of Shelton Farms on Burchell Road in New Market, sees that trend gaining momentum.

"We grow produce, poultry, and tobacco," says Shelton. "My family farm is 313 acres and I rent 250 more. I'm 55 and I've lived here all my life."

From his produce fields, Shelton offers a Community Supported Agriculture subscription service. Subscribers pay a fee and receive a regular delivery of what's freshest and best on any given day. Shelton Farms had 150 subscribers this year and hopes to double that number next year. Homes as far west as Oak Ridge have Shelton Farms produce on their tables. The properties surrounding Shelton Farms now are all farms. If the intermodal facility becomes reality, it will change the nature of Shelton's produce operations.

"They're building that facility in the flood plain of a creek that floods regularly," says Shelton. "Any pollution or run-off from that site is going to end up in my fields."

The intermodal facility itself represents Norfolk Southern's investment in the development, and promises 77 jobs. The subsequent phases are speculative. Shelton employs 35 laborers on his farm, and considers those existing jobs threatened by jobs that may or may not materialize and may or may not be filled from the local labor pool.

JACK KRAMER FARMS 125 ACRES surrounding a historic home that he and his wife, Beverly, spent six years restoring. Known locally as the McBee House, after the family that built it, the brick mansion—the oldest rooms of which date from 1835—overlooks a wide and slow-moving stretch of the Holston River. After a day spent patching fence and chasing a calf that escaped after a tree fell, Kramer leads two dogs from barn to house. A retired naval officer with a Ph.D. in computer science, Kramer hails from central Pennsylvania—like the pedigreed herd of Black Angus he brought with him. He sports a closely trimmed white beard sans moustache that could be attributed to either his time at sea or his Amish Country upbringing.

"The other day it started to rain," says Kramer. "We had three people show up out of the woodwork and help us load the hay. Where do you do that? If that sense of community goes away, it will be a severe loss."

Farming and a connection to the land that supports you breed intuition and sophistication that make little sense out of context, but are functional nonetheless. At informational meetings around Jefferson County this summer (Norfolk Southern's plans were initially leaked in the spring, not announced), farmers like Kramer analyze content while others, like the Finchums, weigh the integrity and intent of the speakers through tone, eye contact, and body language. Neither is satisfied. Collectively, those who resist the development can give the impression that the railroad and local developers may have miscalculated. (Those opposing the development have established a non-profit called Jefferson County Tomorrow, which shares information effectively online and via regular meetings.) If the out-of-towners have seen too much Andy Griffith and think these people are hayseeds who will roll over and walk to town with their piddling checks, they're mistaken.

Kramer takes in the railroad's pitch, and looks beyond it.

"If you project what would happen if you put in a facility like this with its associated warehouses, it would predominantly involve minimum-wage jobs," he says. "There is no guarantee that those jobs will remain here. If it is true that the majority of those jobs are low-paying, than the majority of those workers will end up needing lower-cost housing. That threatens additional farmland. They're going to have kids and require more social services."

Kramer sees logistics and warehousing as the worst kind of industrial investment. A warehouse is simply inexpensive shelter from the elements, and, by its very nature, portable. Everything's coming and going anyway, he says. So if another county offers a better tax-abatement package in 10 years, a warehouse operation can relocate overnight.

"All these projections of how wealthy we're going to become are based on a number of assumptions, some of which are wrong," says Kramer. "They were based on the economy before the recession, a steadily increasing economy. We all know that's no longer the case."

To get to the Kramer farm from 11E, you drive past the Finchum family's smaller farm, through land that may soon be an intermodal facility. If that facility is built, an alternate route does not yet exist. So new roads will need to be built and maintained at taxpayers' expense—roads that will be burdened by heavy truck traffic that is not guaranteed to generate local revenue. Looming large for many is the rarely mentioned but seemingly imminent subsequent necessity of a four-lane highway connecting the facility directly to Interstate 40, built to interstate standards. (Highway 11E is inadequate whether trucks approach from Knoxville or Morristown.) That road is estimated to cost roughly $300 million, and would impact many more farms and homes than the proposed development itself. It would dominate the view and what you hear from James Finchum's house.

Around the corner from the Kramers' home is Beaver Creek Baptist Church. The Finchums and the Kramers are members, and Charles Hobbs is pastor.

"Someone who's not from here might drive by New Market and say, ‘There's nothing here,'" says Hobbs. "It's a rural community based largely on raising cattle. What that looks like is a house on 200 or 300 acres and a herd of Black Angus cattle. Say the land is bought. Where will you move that? There is no place equal to what we have here.

"The people who support this are all from other parts of the county. I know of no one who wants to sell. We are affected by it even now. Our people are upset by the way it's been handled. There are people here who seem more concerned about Norfolk Southern than they are about New Market."

Both the Finchums and the Kramers say they know of elderly neighbors whose health is suffering because of the prospect of relocating against their will. Jack Kramer laughs and quotes one feisty neighbor who says he won't leave his house alive.

AXEL RINGE'S HOME is on the eastern-facing slope of Bays Mountain. The woods have been allowed close to the secluded house where he and his wife, Jeanne Weber Ringe, live. Instead of vistas like those surrounding the Finchum and Kramer spreads, the view here is of late-summer wildflowers, past-peak vegetable gardens, and seemingly infinite living green. Ringe is a retired Department of Energy worker, and spends his days doing non-profit advocacy work, primarily for environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Tennessee Clean Water Network.

"The thing that none of the proponents have mentioned, except for [Mayor] Palmieri once as an aside, they're going to want to build a four-lane connector to the interstate," says Ringe. "That connector, if you look at a map, is going to have to cross Bays Mountain. That's going to be a challenge, no matter where they cross. Because you can't have more than a 6 percent grade for truck traffic."

As the crow flies, it's about 11 miles from the proposed site of the intermodal to I-40. So imagine a paved football field that long, or longer, cutting a swath across the county. It's by that necessity that the intermodal stands to impact everyone in Jefferson County and nearby.

Ringe has been in touch with the EPA in Atlanta, and is encouraged by preliminary conversations. Jefferson County is part of the Knoxville/Knox County Metropolitan Planning Area, which is currently "non-attainment" for ozone. Which means no additional sources will be permitted.

"It's not so much the rail yard itself," says Ringe. "Three additional locomotives aren't going to make that much difference. If the EPA wanted to be really picky, they could require the use of electric engines. But the attraction of 300,000 trucks a year isn't going to do good things. There isn't any way they could mitigate that."

Norfolk Southern has made its inroads into Jefferson County primarily through political alliances forged on the sly. Ringe and his neighbors, less secretively, are positioning themselves through similar channels this fall. Several possible courses of action are believed to be capable of stopping the project or at least sending it where it's welcome, such as neighboring Hamblen County. It's also believed that those actions stand a better chance of success if they aren't described in print beforehand.

INCONVENIENCED BY A PHONE CALL while he's got squash to pick, farmer Danny Shelton ends his conversation with a sarcastic jab.

"Knoxville?" he says. "You all won't miss out on the benefits of this intermodal railway. All the noise, all the pollution, all the truck traffic, you all will get it too."