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Diversity is key

Shady Valley’s Colton Long earns East Tennessee Star Farmer
Story by: Morgan Graham 4/24/2020

FFA members dream of being named State Star Farmer, the highest achievement in Tennessee FFA. Fourth-generation farmer Colton Long is among those dreamers. Colton’s sights have been set on being State Star Farmer since joining the Johnson County High School FFA Chapter in 2015. His dream became one step closer when Colton was named East Tennessee Star Farmer this year.

“It’s nice to see all my hard work be recognized,” says Colton, a Shady Valley native. “Coming together with family and my FFA advisors to work on this project has taught me so much. I’m looking towards the future, but also trying to maintain a sense of reality in reaching these goals.”

The 17-year-old agriculturist has seen first-hand how a diversified operation can help a family farm maintain and even grow during economic swings. Colton’s family has a 45-head dairy herd, a 45-head beef herd, and produces round- and square-bale hay and straw. His parents, Travis and Cheri Long, laid the foundation for his passion for agriculture and FFA.

As part of the application for State Star Farmer, candidates collect data and develop a financial plan for their farm’s future. The diversity of the Long family’s operation provided Colton a variety of options to consider as he created the farm’s financial plan. He started charting data during his first year as an FFA member.

“Having all the data from previous years really helped Colton during the application process,” said Johnson County High School FFA Advisor Tracy Duggar.

The family farm started in the 1950s with a few dairy cows that were milked by hand. From there, the farm grew, but lost its milking contract with Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) in 2019. The Longs are holding on tight to their dairy herd and they have plans to build an onsite milk processing operation to pasteurize, process, and package their milk to serve to local stores.

“We’ve been working with the Tennessee Value Added team to bring this dream to fruitation,” Colton says. They are researching and will be visiting facilities that provide colleges and other local entities with dairy products.

In the meantime, the Long’s are focusing on their beef cattle. Since 2006, the family has maintained a beef herd as part of their operation.

“The [venture’s] main goal to was to focus on quality over quantity,” says Colton. Today their herd consists of 45 brood cows and 10 heifers.

Looking to maximize profits per acre in the East Tennessee mountains, Colton and his father focus on the hay and straw business. In 2018, they baled more than 6,000 square bales of hay and 1,200 round bales focusing on forages that are safe for multi-species feeding. They also bale over 3,000 square straw bales, many of which they sell to their local Co-op, Tri-State Growers. They also grow their own corn silage for their dairy herd.

“When applying for an award like Star Farmer, you want to look at what sets you apart,” explains Tracey. “In East Tennessee there aren’t many other farms providing the forage options that the Longs provide, so we decided this would give Colton the best shot.”

Colton not only strived to improve the family’s farm, but also made a difference in his school’s FFA chapter. He served as sentinel his sophomore year and vice president his junior and senior years while competing in a multitude of career development events, including horse judging, livestock judging, soil judging, and parliamentary procedure.

Colton will attend North East State Community College in Blountsville. There, he will earn his associate’s degree with hopes to transfer to University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he hopes to major in animal science with a minor in agriculture business. 

“Colton has an inborn fondness for agriculture,” Duggar said. “He is very passionate about this way of life, and has a rare sentimentality about it all. He represents everything that is good about agriculture.”

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