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Making money and memories

Grandson learns the cattle business from his grandfather
Story and photo by: Glen Liford 1/27/2020


Luke Parris got his first calf when he was only 8 years old and has worked with his grandfather Steve McMahan to learn the cattle business.
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Luke Parris got his herd of cattle started when he was only 8 years old.

Like many grandsons, he followed in his grandfather’s (Steve McMahan) footsteps whereever he went. At the time, Steve was working to get a farm in shape that he had recently bought at auction in Union County. He was clearing pastures and installing fencing around several fields atop the rolling hillsides. Luke was by his side nearly every step of the way.

“There was a lot of work to do, and Luke was helping me,” recalls Steve. “The post driver we were using weighed more than he did, but he was working on it.”

At the end of the project, Steve had planned to pay the youngster for his help.

“I told him, ‘I’ll either pay you, or I’ll give you this little calf,’” he says. “Of course, he was pretty sharp. He said, ‘What’s the calf worth?’”

Steve laughs as he recounts the incident and says he explained that the value was about the same as the cash Luke could receive, but that it could end up making him more money down the road. A lot more.

The precocious farmer-to-be thought only a moment before accepting the calf. It wasn’t long before he wanted to buy another.

Luke came to Steve one day and outlined a plan to “expand his herd.” For years, Steve had given his eight grandchildren money for Christmas and would invest them in CDs (certificates of deposit) for their future. Luke proposed taking that savings to invest in more cattle. Steve gave in, and Luke negotiated with and bought seven more head from an elderly neighbor who declared the young cattleman got the animals at least $100 too cheap.

“The funny thing is that as soon as I gave him the calf, he came and told me ‘Papaw, I want a different color than you’ve got,’” says Steve, explaining how the Charolais influence came into his cattle herd mostly composed of Angus and black Simmentals. “Three or four years go by, and I’m looking at my herd and it’s starting to be mostly white or black baldies.”

Today, the grandfather and grandson team have about 130 to 140 head in their cow-calf operation, of which some 80 to 90 head belong to Luke. The pair keeps the cattle on the farm in Union County that now encompasses nearly 200 acres, while Luke and Steve both live in Halls, a short drive away in north Knox County.

Steve and Luke are customers of nearby Union Farmers Cooperative in Maynardville, and say Co-op Manager David Bunch has been a big help to them as they make critical farming decisions. They’ve also worked closely with Bobby Ellison, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservation technician assigned to the Union County Soil Conservation District office.

In addition to the farm, Steve is also a developer and contractor, and Luke works alongside him building houses, too.

“He passed the test for his contractor’s

license on his 19th birthday,” says Steve


He has taken the lead on several construction projects in recent months, including one at the farm for his mother, Leah Parris, and brother, Jake.

“I wanted to build myself a home on top of the hill overlooking the farm,” explains Luke. “That will have to wait a while now, but this is what I want to do: build and farm.”

When he was just 12 years old, Luke was featured in an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel as part of a series the paper was doing about young entrepreneurs. The article outlined Luke’s success at buying and selling his own cows and calves and making $12,000 to date, with a remaining herd of 13 cows. He was also raising chickens, selling the eggs, and “scrapping.”

He much preferred these money-making activities to childish things like playing video games and such, he told the reporter.

“I just enjoy working,” says Luke. “I like looking back and seeing something I have actually done rather than wasting time.”

Luke and his grandfather work together 12 or more hours each day, every day. It’s time well spent and enjoyable to both of them, they say.

In recent months, Steve has encountered some serious health problems, including having 14 surgeries in 18 months. And he says it’s comforting to know the future of the farm is good hands.

“With Luke here, the farm may last another generation, or two,” he says. “I’m glad he’s here.”

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