Erich Woerner stood atop Lewis Chapel Mountain on Friday overlooking the patchwork of green farmland in the Sequatchie Valley below.
"It's being sold off in lots. It may not seem like it, but there are far more houses now than there were 50 years ago -- or 20 years ago," the 86-year-old Woerner said.
Woerner's own farm sits at the base of the mountain. Since he and his late wife, Else Woerner, moved to the valley in 1966, he's seen many of his neighbors sell their farmland piece by piece. He could have done the same -- for a big profit. But that's not what Woerner wanted.
Instead, over five decades, Woerner bought the plots that touched his cattle ranch. What started as a 200-acre farm is now 572.
"I've seen development, and it doesn't turn me on to see this to be filled with houses. I'd buy it all if I had the money, but -- what's the lottery now, $240 million? Maybe I should buy a ticket," Woerner said with a grin.
Woerner spent much of his life putting the farm together, and he doesn't want to see it torn apart. So, with the help of the Tennessee Land Trust, Woerner's land will be farmed for many generations to come.
He has signed over two properties, his 572-acre tract in Sequatchie County and 90 acres on the Sequatchie River in Bledsoe County, to be protected by the land trust.
Woerner, who lives on Signal Mountain, still will farm the property, and it still can be sold in the future. But the land trust preservation easement means it will remain farmland.
"The general restrictions we go into are to limit development, like the number of home sites on the property ... and the subdivision of the property," said Sarah O'Rear, Southeast region project manager for the land trust.
That means Woerner's farm will never be a large industrial behemoth.
"The only things we prohibit [with farm use] are high-density feed lots and commercial slaughter or animal processing -- and no industrial farming," O'Rear said.
Woerner's farm is the largest farmland the trust has preserved in the Sequatchie Valley and the second largest parcel in the trust's 10-county Southeast Tennessee region. It is second only to the 693-acre historic Mayfield farm in McMinn County.
The land trust doesn't only preserve farmland, O'Rear said. It can draft easements for historical sites, or simply open spaces. Its smallest parcel is an 8-acre lot preserved for greenspace on Shallowford Road in Hamilton County.
In fact, the largest protected land trust property in the state is a 4,100-acre public park -- Shelby Farms Park in Memphis. But the state's largest protected farm is a 1,297-acre tract in Giles County.
O'Rear said the land trust isn't against all development, but it wants "smart development."
"We just really want to be a resource for landowners who may have other wishes for their land," she said.
As for Woerner, he just doesn't want to see the valley lose its natural beauty.
"I hope the rest of the people in this valley put their land up for conservation, too," he said.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com or at 423-757-6481.
Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...