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Farms are disappearing in Forsyth County. How one local family is keeping them alive.
FCN Dennis and Denise Cantrell Farm Family 2 110718
Dennis and Denise Cantrell pose for a picture on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, at their home on Keith Bridge Road. The couple has lived there since 1975 and been farming on it for about the last 10 years. - photo by Brian Paglia

Dennis Cantrell walked to the barbed-wire fence and with one sound summoned all his cattle in the pasture. A cacophony of dinner requests responded as almost 50 black, fuzzy cows sauntered over to Cantrell expecting to be fed.

“They’ll get fed,” Cantrell said.

But not right then. Cantrell instead turned and walked back to the house on Keith Bridge Road that he and his wife, Denise, have lived in since 1975. He settled in a leather chair beneath several bucks mounted to the wall in the living room. Denise sat on a nearby couch. They waited for the last of their three grandchildren, Lucas, to be picked up before Denise’s music lesson that Monday evening.

“There’s no magic story here,” Denise said, and she would say it again later, insisting that the farming life they’ve cultivated isn’t remarkable.

But it is almost by their farm’s sheer existence. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the number of farms in the United States peaked in 1935 at 6.8 million, and the majority were similar to the Cantrell’s: Small, with diverse production, and in rural areas.

The rise of industrial agriculture changed that. The number of farms declined rapidly until the early 1970s where it’s since leveled off at about 2.05 million, and they became larger and more specialized in their production.

And while the majority of farming is still concentrated in the country’s rural areas, Forsyth County has been steadily shifting away from that. When the Cantrells moved into their home on Keith Bridge Road, the county’s population was around 20,000. Now, it’s estimated to be almost 228,000.

“Down in south Forsyth, there used to be a lot of farms down there,” Denise said. “Now, it’s anything but farms.”

The Cantrells farm because that’s what they know. Denise’s father was a preacher and had a dairy farm along with chickens and hens and beef cows. Dennis grew up on a farm just outside of Helen that raised chickens and cows, and when he wasn’t there he was often visiting his uncle’s farm in Gainesville.

One summer, Dennis’ uncle gave him a dairy calf, and it was Dennis’ responsibility to raise it and train it in preparation for county fair competitions.

“From that time on, I just always wanted to own our own little farm and say we was farmers,” Dennis said.

After they got married, Dennis worked in construction while Denise stayed at home with their two kids. Dennis regularly helped out on Denise’s father’s farm, but they didn’t start one of their own until about 10 years ago.

Dennis decided to purchase some cows, and immediately he was immersed back in the life of his childhood cutting hay, spreading fertilizer, mending fences after storms, maintaining equipment.

“It’s a lot of work,” Dennis said.

“For him,” Denise said.

These days, the Cantrells own about 90 cows on almost 300 acres, much of which is leased from nearby property owners, including Tommy Bagwell, the former CEO of American Proteins. They’ll be honored by the Upper Chattahoochee River and Soil Conservation District’s annual affiliate member banquet on Thursday at the Forsyth Conference Center.

It’s not how the couple earns a living, but it was never intended to be. It was meant to preserve a way of life and their own nostalgia for it, particularly for their three grandchildren (with one more expected in January). It’s not uncommon for all three to be in the tractor with Dennis when it’s time to bale hay or out in the family’s garden to help pick cucumbers or banana peppers or okra.

“It’s the reason I wanted a farm, where I could farm with my grandkids,” Dennis said. “Teach them how life really was. All the meat don’t come from Kroger and Publix. They come from the farm. All the vegetables don’t come from the farmer’s market. They come from the garden.”

Their house is in one of the last vestiges of Forsyth County’s agricultural past, and the Cantrells don’t see any reason to leave it anytime soon. Indeed, the homes on their stretch of Keith Bridge Road all used to belong to Denise’s relatives, the Nix family. Some have been sold, but many still remain in the family. Her sister lives next door. Her other sister lives in the next house over. The Cantrell’s son lives across the road, and their daughter lives just a few miles away. They attend nearby Harmony Grove Baptist Church.

When Dennis sits at his kitchen table, he can look out three windows and see nothing but pastures filled with his cattle.

“That’s just a lifelong dream,” Dennis said.