Editor’s note: The editors would like to thank Susie Russell, program technician at McNairy/Chester Farm Service Agency for her efforts in gathering background information for this article:
The success of a farm or ranch is often measured in acreage, the size of a herd, or an above average crop yield. But for Hilda and Eddie Ashe, being the biggest or the best never mattered much.
It’s the farming lifestyle they fell for, and they kept it going through good times and bad.
Hilda and Eddie grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in the small farming community of Michie, Tenn., in McNairy County, a few miles north of the Mississippi-Tennessee state line. Both graduated from Michie High School.
In 1969, they tied the knot, and Eddie began a career in farming. In 1976, Eddie and Hilda bought their first farm, one of Eddie’s proudest moments. They started raising their own cattle, plus hay, pasture, pine, and had three daughters, Valerie, Monica and Emily. At one time, Eddie had a respectable row crop operation going too, farming about 800 acres of cotton and soybeans.
Back then, Hilda wasn’t involved much in the farming operation, but contributed an outside income through an office job at Southridge Plastics (now Mississippi Polymers) in Corinth, Miss.
In the early 1980s, the farm economy went through some rough times, and Eddie was forced to scale back. He gave up the row crop land he was renting, but he didn’t give up on farming. To augment his farm income, he took a job as a letter carrier with the U.S. Postal Service and shifted to hay and livestock on land he owned, around 100 acres. He became a part-time farmer, even though he spent as much on the farm as he did delivering mail.
The shift to a smaller operation wasn’t something that Eddie or Hilda fretted about. “You just do what you have to do,” Hilda said. “Eddie would always say he was a farmer at heart. He would rather be out on the tractor than anywhere. He was very lucky he got a job as a rural carrier, so he still got to be outside. He wasn’t cooped up in a factory.”
Eddie bought calves in the fall, fed them through the winter and sold them in the spring, and enjoyed every minute of it. After their youngest daughter became interested in the livestock though FFA, they bought cows and started raising calves.
Hilda became more involved, too, especially after Eddie and two of their girls started participating in the local horse shows and barrel racing their two horses.
Then, on March 28, 2004, a tragedy turned the Ashe family farm upside down.
Eddie, then 52, had purchased a new horse for his daughter, Emily, and that afternoon, they were preparing to go riding together. “He had ridden the horse before,” Hilda said. “We’re not sure what happened, but he fell off the horse and hit his head on the ground. That was it. We think maybe the horse reared up and threw him forward. It was one of those freak accidents.”
Hilda was attending a shower at church about 2 miles away. “They came and got me. By then he was in an ambulance. They were telling me that it wasn’t looking good for Eddie.”
Eddie never regained consciousness and died the same day. Suddenly Hilda was left to deal with a double burden of grieving for Eddie and the need to tend to the farming operation. “All I could think of was that it happened for some reason,” Hilda said. “We just didn’t know what that reason was.”
With the demands of the hay season upon her, and the needs of the livestock more urgent each day, Hilda turned to the philosophy that she and Eddie had relied on the past — to keep the farm going at all costs.
There was no plan of action, other than family members simply pulling together to help out, including Hilda’s brother, Tim Williams. “I really don’t know how we made it that first year.” Hilda said. “We just did what we had to do when it was time to do it. By the next year, we started talking and planning more.”
Slowly but surely, Hilda made the transition from grieving farm widow to lady rancher.
Susie Russell, program technician in the McNairy/Chester FSA in Selmer, Tenn., handled Eddie’s paperwork when he was alive and has watched Hilda grow into the job. “She knows exactly what she’s doing and exactly how to do it. She has really amazed me.”
Susie introduced Hilda to several programs designed to ease the financial burden for ranchers in Tennessee. For example, through the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Tennessee Ag Enhancement Program, Hilda put up a hay barn for square bales with the help of a 35 percent cost share.
Hilda later completed a 13-week Master Beef Producer Program, administered through the Tennessee Extension Service. As a master beef producer she became eligible for a 50 percent cost-share on the construction of a round-bale barn. “Susie has also helped me with finding cost-share on automatic waterers for cattle,” Hilda said.
Today, Hilda farms approximately 115 acres — pasture, hay and pine trees. She owns 1 bull, 19 cows and 18 calves. Hilda has just expanded her farming interest to include goats — 1 male, 8 females, and 2 babies.
Her daughters have left the farm, but two grandchildren, Ashton, 12, and Victoria, 8, are a big part of Hilda’s life these days. Hilda’s brother, Tim, is still actively engaged in the operation, and Tim’s stepsons, Richard and Joey Spencer, and Tim’s wife Rhonda, help work the farm too.
Their goal is to make the farm as profitable as possible. “Maybe in a year or two we’ll be to that point,” Hilda said. “We’re trying to get ready. We bought a new baler, a new cutter and we’ve put up a couple of hay barns. We’re not making a living off it. Right now, we’re reinvesting.”
During the downturn in the economy, Hilda lost her job at Mississippi Polymers, but she has used the extra time to dedicate herself to the local community. Hilda is president of the board of directors of the McNairy County Farm Bureau, secretary-treasurer of the McNairy/Chester Cattlemen’s Association and serves as an alternate on the County Office Committee of the McNairy/Chester County FSA.
“Hilda knows where her strength comes from to do all that she does,” Susie says. “She is very active in the church, Lebanon United Methodist, in Michie.
Six years after Eddie’s accident, Hilda says a greater purpose from Eddie’s passing has certainly not revealed itself. So she stays focused on the cows, each of which has a name. When asked what Eddie would think about her progress on the ranch, Hilda didn’t miss a beat. “He’d be pleased at the number of improvements we’ve been able to make.”
Picking up the pieces from a tragedy is never easy, and each person moves on in his or her own way. Emily, Hilda’s youngest daughter, was only 18 when Eddie’s accident occurred, “and it’s been tough for her,” Hilda said. “They had a very special bond. She was his little ‘boy.’ She was with him when it happened, and she felt bad because she had wanted the horse.”
Emily, who now lives in Texas, has limited her trips back to Michie. But the bond the Ashe family shares with agriculture is strong and does bring Emily home at least once a year.
There is also a strong bond between Hilda and her granddaughter, Victoria, who has firmly stated that when she grows up, she wants to be a lady rancher. For this, Eddie would be proud.