"Trading Badges for Tractors": A Lifelong Farming Journey with Don and Karen Massengale

Imagine owning a century farm but also being a full-time civil servant, eventually trading in your badge and uniform for a John Deere tractor and a life on the farm. That’s exactly what our guest, Don Massengale, did when he transitioned from being a firefighter, paramedic, and police officer to embracing the labor and love of farming. In this captivating conversation, Don, alongside his wife Karen, takes us on a journey through their generational farm, exploring the daily grind, the unique challenges of modern farming such as drought, flooding, high interest rates, and soaring land prices.

We also delve into the Massengale’s relationship with River Valley Ag Credit and how it has shaped their farming journey. Discover the role Don plays as a Director at River Valley AgCredit. Find out about the Young, Beginning and Small (YBS) Farm Program, an initiative designed to provide support and opportunity to young, aspiring farmers. The Massengales share their wisdom, their struggles, and their triumphs, offering invaluable advice for those considering a venture into the farming industry. So, buckle up and join us on this farming adventure as we uncover the realities and rewards of farm life, the importance of a supportive partner in this demanding industry, and the joy of watching the growth of life, season after season.


[00:00:08.010] - Chris Griffin

Welcome to Back To Your Roots, a podcast that provides insight into all things farming, financing, and farm life, guiding you, Back to Your Roots.


[00:00:18.210] - Chris Griffin

Welcome back and thanks for joining us. I'm your host, Chris Griffin.


[00:00:21.550] - Jordan Turnage

Hey, and thanks for coming back on guys and listening to us. We appreciate it. My name is Jordan Turnage and today we have Mr. Don Massengale and his wife, Mrs. Karen out of East Tennessee with us this morning. Don is jack of all trades, one being a farmer, and the more important thing for us in our regard is that he is a director here at River Valley AgCredit. Don and Karen, thank you so much for coming on the podcast this morning. We appreciate it.


[00:00:47.310] - Don Massengale

You're welcome.


[00:00:48.460] - Chris Griffin

So we all know that you've been a longtime member of River Valley AgCredit and obviously before that, Chattanooga Credit. So just tell us kind of the relationship you've had with Farm Credit, with the associations that you're obviously part of now and kind of how that's benefited you and how you've seen that grown over the years.


[00:01:11.270] - Don Massengale

Well, my dad was a member of the old Chattanooga PCA, which turned into Chattanooga Ag Credit. And after his passing in 2009, which was unexpectedly, I took over running the farm with the help of my mom and my siblings. And that really started my relationship with Ag Credit. Back then, at that time, I believe it was Chattanooga Ag Credit. And in 2001, I had the opportunity, even though we were still milking cows, I had an opportunity to buy some beef cattle. So at that time, I went to the Dayton office and talked to Eric Smith and talked to him about this herd of beef cattle and we decided it was a good deal. So that's when I really officially became a member myself and bought my first head of beef cattle and became a member of River Valley AgCredit. So River Valley Credit goes way back in our family and basically, we couldn't have done what we'd done without him.


[00:02:22.190] - Jordan Turnage

I got to work with Eric before he retired and he was just always a card, a really great guy to the area. Learned a lot from our encounters that we got to have with when we would all meet up. And I know Eric probably was just a number one working with you and probably didn't have twist your arm too much on getting things. I'm pretty sure he probably could have talked you into any other kind of operation just with how he talked to folks.


[00:02:47.110] - Don Massengale

Exactly. Eric was a good salesperson. He was a good relationship manager. He could talk to people. He knew the organization, and that was a big plus for us.


[00:02:57.990] - Jordan Turnage

Oh, yes, sir. Well, going off of what we're talking about with being a member of the board you joined a few years back, can you just kind of talk about the process of joining the board and what your role is as far as being a member of the board?


[00:03:16.590] - Don Massengale

Sure, my role on the board. I've been on the board now for about five years. River Valley is a great organization to help farmers with their financial needs. After we started the poultry farm in 2015, I got a better understanding of the need for River Valley, and that's where I got my interest in becoming a director because I wanted to help the organization any way I could. And now being on the board, I currently serve on the audit committee, the credit committee, the compensation committee, and the credit view committee, and it's been a great experience and I really love it.


[00:03:57.770] - Jordan Turnage

Well, we really appreciate you getting on the board and taking that time here at River Valley, we feel like we serve our members here and it takes having a strong board to help be that backbone for us, and we really appreciate that and getting to work with you.


[00:04:16.530] - Chris Griffin

So I know that you've been on the board now for five years. What are obviously some changes that you've seen over the last five years, obviously with our association, but externally as well, obviously for the positive or the negative and kind of how they've impacted us as obviously a company or an association, but also our farmers that are our members.


[00:04:39.610] - Don Massengale

Well, like you said, I've only been on the board for five years. There's not been this great change that comes to my mind. We're all time changing, trying to get better, trying to get stronger. But what I want to touch on here is our YBS Program. I don't know when Farm Credit System started that I didn't research that, but I'm very proud of that program that helps the young, beginning, and small farmers because the youth of today is what's going to keep us going. And I know the age of the American farmer is getting older and older. And I'm just very proud that the Farm Credit System and River Valley AgCredit has this special program that we can keep these young farmers. And get out and get new young farmers into the business of agriculture and take care of them and help them with their financial needs. So I'm really proud of our Ybs program.


[00:05:41.080] - Chris Griffin

Yeah, that's one thing. I've been here just a little over a year that has been really impressive and something I've learned a lot about. And like you said, I definitely think it's a vital part of, obviously, the sustainability of farming and the growth of it in the future. Because, like you said, a lot of our farmers right now, they're aging. And we've got to figure out a way to make that accessible and make that entry attainable for that younger generation of farmers. So I agree with you there. It's an awesome program and something I'm proud that Farm Credit offers.


[00:06:14.150] - Don Massengale

Yes, me too.


[00:06:16.070] - Jordan Turnage

Well, we have to find a way to guarantee the legacy for our upcoming farmers to continue and give them opportunities to get started and take on those implications and hardships. And I feel like with us at River Valley having that knowledge and agriculture, us being kind of a guiding hand with them and their operation is what's going to help get them through these issues that we've kind of come across the past couple of years. With drought, with flooding, and high interest rates, land prices being the way they are, equipment inputs, it can be a daunting task. I mean, there's a reason there's only, I think, around 3% of the entire country still farms and that average of farming, like you said, Mr. Don, on it being I think the average farmer now is around 59 and a half years old. And I feel like every year that we go to a program and they mention that it adds one more year to it, it goes from 58 and a half to about 59 and a half. And it's our job to get out there to try to help these guys that want to take on the pursuit of agriculture and be successful.


[00:07:34.410] - Jordan Turnage

And it takes folks like us and it takes folks like you to be those stewards and guidance for them. So just kind of going off of what we're talking about with farming, Chris and I, we're over here on the west side of Kentucky, and our land here, it's predominantly flat and we're mainly a row crop operation here. We have poultry and we have cattle operations out here as well. But row crop really is kind of what we can hang our hats on over here in Kentucky, but it's a little bit different than it is out towards your way. From what I've just looking at map, you know. I think East Tennessee is just a little more hay and rocky than we've got out here in Western Kentucky. I just want to see if you can kind of expand on what it's like farming out in East Tennessee.


[00:08:29.250] - Don Massengale

Yes, we are just a little bit different. What we have over here in East Tennessee is hills, trees, hay fields, and cows. In a nutshell. We are just a little bit more hilly than West Tennessee. I love driving to Paducah, crossing that Kentucky line and seeing those flat cornfields bean fields just going on and on and on. Over here you could take one of those 24-row corn planters, make about two rounds of my field, be done. But we do have our hills, we do have the trees. We do a lot of beef cattle. About every other house going out here in the country has got a herd of beef cattle on the farm somewhere. And so we've got our hay fields. We do a lot of hay over here. There's a few farmers in the area here, the River Valley AgCredit area over here in Southeast Tennessee that they do some row cropping. We do have some dairy cattle over across the river from me, which would be like Athens, Sweetwater, and Cleveland. So we still got our dairies down here, but for the majority, we've got the hay fields and the beef cattle.


[00:09:48.570] - Jordan Turnage

Oh, yes, sir. Out of college, cutting my teeth. I worked for Tennessee Farmers Co-op, and we did a state tour. I worked in Obion County, and we went from Obion County in one day and drove all the way to Johnson City and then worked our way back west. And you want to talk about some elevation changes and topography. It's so interesting how all in one state here in Tennessee and in Kentucky, you can see so many different styles of agriculture and just having to adjust to the part that you call your part of the state or your part of the area. And I always kind of joked and said that most folks out there in East Tennessee got one leg longer than the other from having to deal with having to walk up around hills. I'm sure the cows are about the same way, too.


[00:10:38.960] - Don Massengale

Just about. It just about the same way. Yes, sir.


[00:10:41.220] - Chris Griffin

Mr. Massingale, I wanted to ask something real quick. I know you had mentioned, obviously, your farm has kind of been part of a few generations, and is that correct?


[00:10:52.290] - Don Massengale

Yes. In Tennessee, we have this program called the Century Farm Program. My farm that I live on, my great grandfather bought it in nineteen and four. The original farm was 200 acres. He started out with cattle and strawberries. Rhea County is the home of the Strawberry Festival because way back when, there was numerous farmers that grew strawberries.


[00:11:19.540] - Chris Griffin



[00:11:20.110] - Don Massengale

Then my grandmother and my grandfather started milking cows here on the farm after my great grandfather had passed away. Then after mom and dad got married and started having kids, they moved back to the farm and they started milking cows in what I would call just a livestock barn. It wasn't a dairy barn until the neighbor's farm came for sale, which was a dairy farm. So mom and dad bought that and then they started milking cows.


[00:11:47.530] - Chris Griffin



[00:11:48.690] - Don Massengale

Then after high school, I stayed on the farm and helped dad until he passed away in 2009. And I kept the dairy going until 2005. And then in 2015, my wife Karen and I started the poultry farm. We built two breeder layer houses. We're gathering eggs for hatching. Then I've got three children and they all live on the farm with their children.


[00:12:16.380] - Chris Griffin

Oh, wow.


[00:12:17.690] - Don Massengale

So if you go back and add all that up, there are six generations living on this farm.


[00:12:22.740] - Chris Griffin

That's awesome.


[00:12:23.230] - Jordan Turnage

That's fantastic.


[00:12:24.750] - Chris Griffin

Obviously in Kentucky, I don't think we have something similar to this. But when you say Century Farm, what does that mean exactly? What does that mean from the state? What kind of recognition is that and what does that allow you guys to do?


[00:12:40.770] - Don Massengale

Well, really and truly, it doesn't allow us to do anything. It's a recognition. It's a pride thing.


[00:12:47.700] - Chris Griffin

I got you.


[00:12:48.380] - Don Massengale

But to be a Century Farm, the farm has to have been in your family for 100 years continuously 100 years handed down generation after generation. And even if I didn't farm, if I rented it out and somebody else was still farming it, it would still be considered a Century Farm.


[00:13:09.510] - Chris Griffin



[00:13:09.770] - Don Massengale

But it has to be in the family at least 100 years.


[00:13:12.220] - Chris Griffin

That's awesome.


[00:13:13.330] - Don Massengale

Just to add to that, I catch myself walking toward the back of the farm. Either I've had two tractors back there and I've got to walk back and get the other one, or I've got a cow that's missing and maybe she's calving. And I'm walking back to the back of the farm looking for the cow to calf. I catch myself thinking and just listen to this. I catch myself thinking that over 100 years ago, my great-grandfather walked this same little wagon trail. And that right there is why I am proud to be a Century Farm. It's just knowing that my great-grandfather over 100 years ago walked this same wagon path.


[00:13:58.580] - Chris Griffin

That's awesome and there's so much pride in that. That's incredible. And I'm sure you obviously have a lot of memories there as growing up as a child. And then you're able to carry those same memories and build new memories with your grandchildren and your children. It's just such a cool legacy and recognition. So that's really awesome that you guys are a Century Farm.


[00:14:25.090] - Don Massengale

Yes, sir. Thank you.


[00:14:26.470] - Jordan Turnage

Well, let's get Mrs. Karen involved in.


[00:14:31.350] - Don Massengale

Ah oh.


[00:14:32.260] - Jordan Turnage

Let's get the real boss, I guess, involved in this. And let's kind of get what a day in the life of Mrs. Massingale is like working on the farm. Her roles, responsibilities, what it's like dealing, other than just having to take care of almost three generations of Massengales out there on the farm? Keep them all straight.


[00:14:53.790] - Karen Massengale

Well, farming can be rewarding, but it's a lot of work. Our day usually starts at five in the morning because we have to get up and go feed the chickens. But, typically with our breeder layer houses, it's a seven to eight-hour day for two or three people. So we've got some help that helps us with the chickens, and that's seven days a week, 365 a year. And then after that, after we get done with the chickens, then we take care of the cattle. They got to eat too, so we've got to go around and feed them and then just whatever else needs to be done on the farm because, you know, there's always something to do.


[00:15:36.410] - Jordan Turnage

Oh, yes, ma'am.


[00:15:37.430] - Karen Massengale

Yeah, but that's about it. Daylight to dark doing stuff on the farm.


[00:15:43.470] - Don Massengale

We've got a pretty good I don't know if it's an organizational plan or family plan or whatever, but when we started these chicken houses, I was working a full-time job as a firefighter, paramedic, and police officer. She actually ran the chicken houses. And even though I have retired from my public job, I'm a full-time farmer now, she still basically manages the chicken house and then I manage the beef cattle. I'm fixing to go get on a tractor and bale some hay this afternoon. So it has been a real rewarding and a real teamwork for her to manage the chicken houses and me to manage the cattle part of it and everything gets done.


[00:16:31.600] - Chris Griffin

Now, I do have one thing. Did you say paramedic, police officer, and firefighter all in one?


[00:16:39.230] - Don Massengale

Yes, sir, I did.


[00:16:40.550] - Chris Griffin

Okay. Yeah. I was like, did I hear that correctly?


[00:16:46.450] - Don Massengale

I worked for a small town where we were a firefighter, a paramedic, and a police officer. We patrolled in a police car for 8 hours and for the other 16 hours of a 24 hours shift, we were firefighters and then some of us were medically trained. And as I was a paramedic, we would take care of the medical calls until the ambulance got there.


[00:17:11.560] - Chris Griffin



[00:17:12.060] - Don Massengale

Yeah, some of us done all three.


[00:17:15.020] - Jordan Turnage

Yeah, so you had to change your clothes about four or five times a day.


[00:17:17.690] - Don Massengale

A couple anyway. Yes.


[00:17:19.440] - Chris Griffin

That's crazy.


[00:17:20.560] - Jordan Turnage

And go from that and then adding on to good Lord, adding on that and then doing dairy cattle, and beef cattle, and poultry.


[00:17:28.590] - Don Massengale

Well, as they say, behind every good man is a good woman. So if it wasn't for Karen, I couldn't have done what I did. It was a very rewarding job and that kind of helped us get started in the poultry industry, give us more income. And now that we've got our feet wet, I have retired and we're both here on the farm full-time.


[00:17:53.000] - Jordan Turnage

With your time in the poultry industry, would you all kind of expand as far as recommendations? Would you all recommend for farmers and ranchers to look into going into the poultry industry there? I know it's a very lucrative industry, but it's a lot of upfront costs and just kind of want to talk about your relationship into taking on that poultry operation and then kind of maybe expand on what it's like working with River Valley as far as us helping you all on that situation too?


[00:18:28.500] - Don Massengale

Well, when you look at my background as growing up on a dairy farm, everybody knows that dairy farming is a seven-day-a-week job. When you've got the breeder layer houses, well, all the poultry houses, but especially the breeder layer houses, you've got anywhere from six to eight hours a day, seven days a week. So that fit into my upbringing and it was not a big transition. So would I recommend it? Yes, it's a very big investment at first.


[00:19:04.750] - Jordan Turnage

Yes, sir.


[00:19:05.570] - Don Massengale

Because like you said, the houses are expensive to build and it was our role to pay for the houses. The houses are mine, the chickens are theirs. But especially if you're an old dairy farmer or used to working seven days a week or managing seven days a week and want to stay in the farming industry, then yes, I would highly recommend it. And actually, the company that I grow for Aviagen, they're looking for farmers in this area they would like to expand. And if there's any farmers that has even thought about it, then they need to contact them and do their research and see if they want to get into the business.


[00:19:47.130] - Jordan Turnage

Yes, sir. So basically at the end of the day, you got to find so to help our guys with this. Going back to kind of the YBS program on this. So for guys that are looking to really get started to be successful, we need to make sure that working a twelve-hour day is just a normal day for you and to find a good woman that can back you up. Those are the two big things. You got to be able to work hard and find a woman that can work right there with you probably harder than you.


[00:20:16.610] - Chris Griffin

You got to find a Karen Massengale. That's what I've taken away from this conversation.


[00:20:23.250] - Don Massengale

You're making it hard on me, fellas.


[00:20:24.760] - Chris Griffin

Sorry. Sorry. Don.


[00:20:27.850] - Don Massengale

But yes, it's like dairy farming. It's like farming. It's a family organization. Now, going back to my roots, my great grandfather, he bought the farm in nineteen and four. He ended up having eleven children. Now I do not recommend that, but there was a reason that they had large families back then. It was a family operation.


[00:20:54.380] - Chris Griffin

You had to have that. You had to have the hands on deck. That makes a lot of sense. And this may go into the YBS thing as well a little bit. I know you talked about obviously, you had W-2 income. Well, a lot of these new farmers that start, do you recommend if they have the potential to have a Karen Massingale by their side that can help them to continue to have that income, that outside income while they get started? Do you recommend that? Is that something that you think was a good idea for you guys?


[00:21:29.090] - Don Massengale

It was a good idea for us. That worked very well. And our philosophy or thinking behind that was, well, this was the reason that I kept working. The chicken houses were brand new, brand new equipment. The chances of breakdowns and big maintenance was very small. So basically all you had to do is go over there and make sure everything was running and then make sure the help showed up to gather the eggs. And not saying this lightly, but just about anybody could do that. And Karen decided that she could do that. She could manage it, she could do the schedule, she could get the employees there, and she would pull a shift just to make sure everything was running right. So yes, that can be done. And it worked for us. And that way we still had some steady income in while we were getting our feet wet, and we'd done that for five years until I retired. So I was working a full-time job and helping her and then still taking care of the cattle, taking up hay, and planting corn.


[00:22:38.140] - Jordan Turnage

Just doing it all.


[00:22:40.450] - Jordan Turnage

Just getting on the farm and making it work. You just got to get your hands dirty and not worry about calluses and having a good support system. That's basically...


[00:22:49.380] - Don Massengale

 It's a lifestyle that you either love it or you hate it. And when I was working my job, I could come home and I could go up here to the silo and turn the silo on to feed the cows, but I still feed silage these beef cattle, but I'd turn that silo on and feed these cows. And then somewhere out in the pasture field there, you'd see about 6, 8, 10 baby calves running, kicking their heels, button heads with each other, just playing up a storm. That was my therapy back when I was working on my ambulance.


[00:23:27.420] - Jordan Turnage

Oh, yes, sir.


[00:23:29.250] - Don Massengale

Life don't get any better than that. Just sitting out here and watching these calves grow and play and mama's coming in and eating. And you either love it or you hate it.


[00:23:39.900] - Jordan Turnage

And it's not work if you enjoy it. I mean, I'm sure there's hard times and good times, bad times. That's the fun in farming. Like everybody says, if it was so easy, everybody do it right. I always said it takes a servant's heart to be in agriculture and know that you're going to go through hardships. You're going to see golden years. And it's just being able to weather the storm and be there in the good and bad that keeps you going. Knowing full-well, I mean, just planting that seed, raising those cows, you don't know what you're going to get until it all comes out in the wash, basically.


[00:24:23.330] - Don Massengale



[00:24:23.920] - Jordan Turnage

But to pick it back up and run with it and say, this is my life, this is what we're going to do. We're going to make a legacy on this. I can't commend you and your family enough for the time and legacy and work that you guys have put in. And I just wanted to say to Mr. Don and Mrs. Karen, thank you so very much for coming on this podcast today and taking the time and sharing your thoughts with us. And we sincerely appreciate all you do as a member of the board, and we are happy to have you on there and we're happy to be your servants here in West Kentucky and East Tennessee.


[00:25:10.170] - Jordan Turnage

And if it weren't for folks like y'all, we wouldn't have jobs, so we sure appreciate it.


[00:25:15.010] - Don Massengale

Well, thank you for saying that. Proud to be on the board. I love every minute of it. I have learned a lot. I'm still learning a lot. I love farming. That's all I've ever wanted to do back when I was 12, 14 years old, that's all I want to do is drive tractors. I love driving tractors. There's no better time on this earth than sitting in your John Deere. You're out here in the field and there's nothing but you, your John Deere and God to talk to. And life does not get any better than that.


[00:25:44.830] - Jordan Turnage

No, sir. I mean, you can paint a picture with your words right there on that and that's about as good as it gets.


[00:25:50.530] - Don Massengale

It doesn't get any better than that.


[00:25:52.400] - Jordan Turnage

Yes, sir. Well, thank you again so much for coming on the podcast and we sure appreciate Mr. Don, Mrs. Karen, thank you so much. We sure appreciate all y'all do for us.


[00:25:58.980] - Karen Massengale

Thank you.


[00:25:59.560] - Don Massengale

Thank you.


[00:26:00.160] - Jordan Turnage

Thank you again so much for listening to us. And make sure to listen to us next time. We'll have the CEO, Mr. Kyle Yancey, come back in here and we're going to talk about more in-depth discussions on financing.


[00:26:10.620] - Chris Griffin

Thanks for tuning in to Back to Your Roots where we dish the dirt on all things ag. Be sure to never miss an episode by following and subscribing. While there, leave us a review about what you want to hear next. Stay in the know between episodes by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and TikTok. For more resources, go to our website at rivervalleaggcredit.com.

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