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Full circle

Following his retirement from TVA, Camden’s Mike Douglas returned to his roots as a full-time farmer
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 1/26/2017

 

Mike Douglas, left, a longtime member of Benton Farmers Cooperative, takes a break from feeding his cattle to visit with the Co-op’s Manager, Johnathon Jackson, while the herd patiently watches the exchange.
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Three years ago, Mike Douglas of Benton County happily left 33 years in the corporate world behind him. The longtime Tennessee Valley Authority employee says he was more than ready for retirement, but the 64-year-old admits he had no plans to stop working.

“I was ready to return to my roots and work with cattle,” says Mike, who grew up helping his dad, James Otis, known as O.J., raise livestock and hay on the family’s 110-acre farm in the Prospect community near Camden. “I feel like a kid again, spending my days piddlin’ around with cows and hunting dogs. I guess you could say my life’s come full circle.”

Mike became a farm kid at age 6 months when O.J. purchased a house and acreage from A.C. Herrin, his uncle who moved north for better job opportunities.

“A lot of Southerners were moving north at that time,” says Mike, explaining that his dad and mom, Janice, also migrated to Michigan for a short period of time. “Dad didn’t like it, though, and came home after only a couple of years. They moved into the place next to my grandparents and haven’t left since.”

O.J., who recently turned 88, and Janice, 83, live in the same house where they raised Mike and his two sisters, Pam Horton and Kim Sampson. They, like their brother, are raising their families within a few miles of the homeplace.

“I think our childhoods were those of typical farm kids,” says Mike. “Dad worked a full-time job with TVA, so it took all of us to help him feed the cows and horses and put up the hay. Dad didn’t have a lot of cattle, just enough to mess with, and, of course, I was right there messing with them, too.”

Mike says if not helping his dad on the farm, he was most likely riding horses to the corner general store with neighborhood boys or hunting squirrels and raccoons with his Uncle Ray.

“Uncle Ray gave me my first little hound when I was about 11 and taught me how to train him,” Mike explains. “I guess you could say he started my lifelong love of dogs and hunting.”

Mike’s teenage years mirrored his childhood — days filled with cows, dogs, school, and friends. After graduating from Camden Central High School, he attended what is now known as the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at McKenzie, and, on the weekends hung out at the local Dairy Queen. One Saturday night, Mike reconnected with Deborah Cowell, a grade-school classmate.

“We dated about four months before I convinced her to marry me,” he jokes.

Not long after their marriage, Mike began his job with TVA, and not many years later he and his wife built a house on 20 acres in the Post Oak community, a few miles between Camden and Mike’s family farm. The couple, who will be married 44 years in April, still live in the Post Oak home where they raised their two children, Meagan and Chad.

“My kids’ childhoods were different than mine,” says Mike. “Since we live on only a few acres, they didn’t need to work as hard as I had to growing up. It was the right thing for them, I think; they’ve turned out to be fine people, and I’m proud that they both have college educations.”

Meagan, 40, is married to Jack Garland, a Benton County livestock and row crop farmer who’s chairman of Benton Farmers Cooperative’s board of directors. They have three children: Ella, 6; Abigail, 3; and Jackson, 1. Chad, 37, also lives nearby on a mini-farm where he raises horses and works in transportation for the local school system.

Even with his long hours at TVA and busy family, Mike over the years kept one or two dogs for a rare hunting trip and says he tried on a few occasions to raise his own cattle.

“I missed working with the cows, so I would have small herds of five or 10,” he explains, “but I’d always sell them soon after because I just never had enough time.”

Mike helped his dad, especially during hay season, but admits his father, who retired from TVA at age 62, handled the day-to-day chores by himself.

Circumstances changed, though, in the late 1990s when 70-year-old O.J. announced it was time for him to retire from farming, too.

“I was still more than 10 years from my own retirement, but I knew Dad was ready, so I leased and then eventually bought the farm,” Mike says. “It was all I could do, with help, of course, to just maintain what Dad did — raising 30 head of cattle and enough hay to feed them. That was a point in my life where I couldn’t do much on the farm, but I knew that someday I’d be able to do more.”

In the three years he’s been farming full time, Mike’s “more” has been substantial. He’s increased the commercial herd to 80 head and rotates them in three groups over some 300 owned and leased acres. He also raises nearly 100 acres of hay each year.

“Compared to how hard I used to work, this feels like I’m cruising,” says Mike, who hired local college student Dakota Beecham a few years ago to help around the farm, “this feels like cruising.”

As for his favorite pastime, Mike has upped his dog pack to six English hounds and hunts ... well, whenever he wants.

“Just like when I was a kid, my days are filled with cows, dogs, and family,” he says. “They bring me just as much joy now as they did back then. I’m a blessed man.”

 
 
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