Allen Dairy movin' on up

Friday, June 19, 2009
John and Cannon Allen pause to look at the dairy their grandfather started in 1948.

CANEY SPRING - From the Verona Caney Road, the Allen Dairy has a pastoral appearance. Up close, it retains the look of a laid-back lifestyle, mixed with hard work and heritage.

But the Allen family has broken ground in the agricultural history of Marshall County. A conservation easement agreement was signed Wednesday to preserve a stretch of Duck River frontage and, in exchange, environmental protection measures became more affordable.

The easement is the first of its kind in Marshall County, according to several authorities.

Cannon and John Daniel Allen took the time recently to look back on their family enterprise and explain some of its foreseeable future.

The farm they run for their mother, Debbie, has 320 milk cows, mostly Holsteins with Brown Swiss, a breed they came to admire while in the 4-H program.

"Mom does all the book-work," John Allen said.

Like other large animal farmers, the Allens use artificial insemination to improve their herd. They also use dairy cow management protocols they obtained because of the University of Tennessee Dairy Research and Agriculture Center at New Lake Road near Lewisburg.

Cows are milked three times a day and Cannon says the "rolling herd average is 23,000 pounds of milk annually per cow."

As proud as they are of that level of production, both John and Cannon emphasized that they couldn't do it without their nine hired employees.

Machines in the milking parlor, no doubt, helped. "AI," as artificial insemination is called, is also an advancement, but so are some of the legalities for environmentally friendly dairy operations.

The Allen boys' father wasn't afraid of trying new things, so he brought on technological advances as well as milking three times a day.

Now, the Allen family has a contract with a non-profit organization found through contacts at the local office of the Natural Resource Conservation Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The contract is with the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, and it's the first one signed in Marshall County. The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Resource Conservation Service have been working hand-in-glove for the Allens, the Duck River, and a better environment.

The USDA's NRCS office helped the Allens obtain a grant to start funding for a new system for waste processing and water recycling that updates the way the farm's two water tanks are refilled.

Water from the tanks is used to wash out an open feeding barn which, as should be expected, is also a repository for some raw fertilizer.

Water that's washed across the concrete floor will soon flow to a pair of holding areas where solids settle. Eventually, they'll be spread on a field growing feed for the cattle. A new, and huge, septic tank will receive water from the holding area and send it on to a lagoon from which the water is eventually pumped back into the water tanks so the barn can be hosed down again.

It's not complicated, but it's big and it prevents barn floor water from flowing, as surface water would, down a riverbank or in a stream to the Duck River. Natural elements in such water can cause river water to foam up into suds at rapids. The Allens had old manure lagoons that are being replaced.

The Tennessee Nature Conservancy has expertise on how to coordinate conservation easement agreements with government grants. Federal law recognizes that land has a greater value if it's developed with buildings of all kinds. The value of potential development of land is calculated and that value can be used to match a federal grant. Municipalities do that and call it "in-kind services" when, for example, a baseball field is built on land obtained with grant money. A city might then fulfill its matching obligation with work. A landowner can release future uses of land in exchange for another benefit now through the government program.

A conservation easement is a contract declaring a legally binding promise that open space land won't be developed, or used for more than certain purposes that, in the case of the Allen Dairy, are the same as they've been for decades.

Those 60 years started after World War II.


Edwin Allen, 89 in August, started the Allen Dairy in 1948 without a contract, although the transaction was recorded at the county courthouse. There was a handshake agreement with Bill Pyle a few years earlier about the time of an auction.

Pyle bought 125 acres in 1945 for $9,150, Cannon Allen said.

The story is told that Edwin was asked if he wanted to go into the dairy business and that the auction was stopped so he and Pyle could walk the land and talk it over. When they got back, the deal was struck and a legacy began.

The dairy farm now has 1,000 acres, part pasture and part in crops for feed.

Edwin Allen's parents grew up in Caney Spring. He married a local girl, the former Betty J. Bush who was originally from West Virginia.

Edwin Allen had four daughters and a son. The son, Alex, became a partner in the father-son dairy. Alex Allen worked almost all his life on the farm and died of a brain tumor in 2000.

His widow, Debbie Sweeney Allen, owns the farm now. She and Alex had: a daughter, Sara, who's recently graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in business, and; two sons, John Daniel and Cannon, frequently referred to as the Allen boys.

"I can remember hauling our feed and stopping somewhere in Alabama, and everybody - at least four or five there, would know us, me and Cannon," John Allen said.

Their grandfather was into politics and knew a lot of the politicians on a first name basis, including some of the governors, the Allen boys said. "He knows Ned Ray (McWherter) and was in good with the Gores. If somebody needed to go to the Capitol to get something, they'd talk with him."

Edwin's grandson, John, would appear to be following in those footsteps. He's on the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Board, a cooperative group that sells milk for dairymen from Pennsylvania to Georgia.

"Granddaddy was also on the Select Sires Board," said John, who's now on the same panel. John also serves on the Marshall County Farmers Co-op Board. John is modest about it, though.

"If it weren't for Cannon, I couldn't go on those boards," John said. "That's the way Granddaddy could get on boards, knowing that his son was running the farm.

John is 33. Cannon is 30.

"Somebody asked if being on those boards helps and I'd say, 'It doesn't make money for you, but it doesn't hurt to know people.'

"I've learned how the other end works," he says of marketing and how milk plants are operated.

The Allen boys' grandfather bought out Pyle with money made from the milk cows and the farm has grown over the years. Alex Allen and his wife, Debbie, bought out Edwin's half in 1998.

After Alex Allen passed nearly nine years ago, "We pretty much took over the farm," Cannon said.

Now, Lane Allen, John's 9-year-old son, is in and out of the dairy office and across the farm, virtually as he sees fit - pretty much as his father and uncle did years ago.

"I've been here since I was five or six years old," Cannon said. "We came with our father."

The Allen Farm is a working business that has a pastoral appearance, but there are reality checks at times when the boys concede that it's been more stressful over the years with changes in the price of milk, but they emphasize that they enjoy producing something wholesome in the food chain.

"It can be a tough life at times, but the outcome is, I guess, rewarding," Cannon said.

Hard work, knowing people and heritage have had a way of helping the Allen boys.



Tennessee Nature Conservancy Duck River Program Director Leslie Colley reports that the Allens' conservation easement was signed on Wednesday at a title attorney's office in Columbia.

Discussions toward reaching the agreement "began 22 months ago when we were provided an introduction to the Allens by Mandy Cash," the district conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service, Colley said Wednesday.

"They had a series of old manure lagoons that were in need of closure or repair," she explained.

Conservation easements can also provide an income tax benefit that depends on an individual's income bracket.

The motive to do it, Colley explained, "was to match federal funds made available to construct a new waste management and water recycling system."

The Nature Conservancy "had the corridor along the river surveyed," she continued. "It's 100 yards wide for nearly 5.5 miles. Then it was appraised and then the appraisal value was calculated on the prohibited uses, which were subtracted from the fair market value of riverfront property along the river such as timber and removal of topsoil and, of course, it can't be built upon. The fact that it was on a flood plain had an influence on the potential income. They may continue to farm it as they always have.

"The Nature Conservancy is very supportive of production agriculture and we like the agricultural landscape in Middle Tennessee," Colley said.

"The Nature Conservancy enforces the terms of the conservation easement with an annual visit to the farm to be sure that everything is as it should be," she said. "The easement does not make the land public."

Activities on the land must be acceptable to the Allens.

"Our purpose is to preserve the character and ecological integrity of that river corridor," Colley said.

The Nature Conservancy's leaders met the Allen boys on a suggestion from Mandy Cash, the district conservationist.

"Mandy approached us because the cost of waste system that size would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and her programs could only provide half," Colley said. The Conservancy "was able to cobble together other mostly federal grants and money from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture."

The easement will be registered in the Marshall County Register of Deeds Office.

"Everyone who's been associated with the project considers it a win-win for the Allens because they have been taken out of a potential regulatory situation... And they have a new adequate waste removal system for the dairy.

"And the Nature Conservancy has been able to protect nearly 150 acres of beautiful, important river corridor," she said.

That's good for water quality of the Duck River, which provides raw water for Lewisburg's drinking water plant. Its water intake is right across from the Allen's farm.

"We want to help keep the Duck River clean," John said. "We want to conserve nature and be environmentally friendly."


Marshall County's dairy community, its political leaders and many of its residents were rocked this year as it became clear the state government intends to move the Jersey milk cow herd from the UT Dairy Research and Agriculture Center.

That prospect has been postponed with federal economic stimulus money and county leaders continue to look for a way to maintain the center, although it wouldn't be closed. It's proposed for a heifer research program.

The center has helped the Allen Dairy. While the brothers have been to UT's research center in Spring Hill, they turn to the one nearby at Lewisburg.

"There have been a lot of good studies at the Lewisburg farm that have helped us on this farm," John Allen said. "We're totally for it staying open."

Cannon Allen said pre-treatment of heifers for mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands, leads to better milk production.

The Allens have nearly 300 cows that will eventually be producing milk. They have about 40 that are no longer producing.

The annual celebration of June Dairy Month is a continuing effort to remind some folks and teach children that milk doesn't just come from the grocery.

"We want the public to know that milk is one of the safest products," John said.

He and Cannon displayed their farm in conjunction with a concerted effort by dairy farmers to promote their products and preserve their way of life.