Jon Dana had an earlier taste than most of the challenges in being a farmer.
He was barely a teenager when his father J.W. died, leaving a wife and son and half-tillable farm in the hilly Knoxville area.
“His dad passed away when he was 13 and he took on a big load early,” said Jon Dana’s son, another Jon who goes by that name or the same initials as his grandfather.
“There’s as many people that call me that as Jon,” the younger Dana said.
Whatever he’s called, the latest in a line of Dana farmers is awed by all his father went through and still managed to accomplish.
“I’m so proud of Dad,” his son, now partner with his wife in the farm his father helped build. “I might be biased, but he’s a heck of a man.”
Today, the Danas – father, son, daughter-in-law and four full-time employees – oversee farms in four counties containing 2,250 acres of corn and 3,600 acres of soybeans, as well as some pasture for cattle.
The changes in 50-plus years are too many to list, but no one would’ve predicted the growth that’s taken place since the Dana family’s shaky start.
Like most boys their age, both Dana boys helped their fathers with work around the farm. In the mid-1950s, the elder Jon Dana had pitched in with chores, but when the father died he was suddenly the family’s responsible male, facing a mountain of bills, hilly acreage and the challenges of being in high school.
“We were fixin’ to lose the farm because we had too much debt,” said Dana, now 71. “We tried to sell it, but we couldn’t get as much as we owed on it.”
Early on, the youngster learned a valuable farm lesson: how to balance farm debt and expenses with an often-unpredictable income.
Dana not only managed to graduate from Richmond High School in 1959, he found a new source of farm income. In those days, investment firms would buy cattle the way people today buy stock or grain futures, or invest their money as start-up capital for new businesses. Cattle investors wouldn’t care for the animals themselves, but would hire farmers who could provide pasture and the expertise to bring the animals to maturity.
Dana entered into an agreement with the investment firm of Oppenheimer & Co., which put cattle on the Danas’ untillable land and provided the family with some much-needed income.
But it wasn’t just the boy’s ingenuity and industriousness that saved the farm.
There was a family angel that helped mother and son keep their home and stability.
“I had an uncle who laid down his life and helped me and my mom get by,” Dana said.
The man, a Methodist preacher, helped with the herd and crops so Dana could manage his juggling act of school and home responsibilities.
It was that initial struggle – and a subsequent inflation-fueled financial crisis in the late 1970s and early ‘80s – that Dana survived and used to lay the foundation for a successful farming career that continues today.
“My son came along then,” Dana said of the younger Jon. “From about 3 years old he knew he was a farmer. The two of us, we built it back up together.”
In the early 1990s, the time was right for the son and his wife, Erin, to become owners of Bar 7 Inc., Dana Family Farms.
The father was no slouch when it came to the business and science of row crops, but his son was from a generation that was at home with computers and understood their value as accounting, tracking and marketing tools.