The farmer is 79 years old. Her farms are ages 107 and 140. In the rosy dusk, Grace Butler powers her big red SUV across a creek and winds up a hill to feed and count her cattle. She talks to them as if they’re old friends, and they really are.
As she counts the herd, she spies a black cow in a clump of trees. “You naughty girl, hidden here,” she says in a brisk voice. “I see you have a baby to come, don’t you?”
Butler has 60 head of cattle spread over several family farms. The family owns a total of 900 acres. Two of the farms date to the 19th century. The oldest, purchased in 1865, is planted with soybeans and corn but is mostly used for hunting and family picnics. Ten heifers roam another farm the family has owned since 1898.
Butler’s farms, along with 30 others in Boone County and 6,400 across Missouri, have been designated by MU Extension as Century Farms.
It all started with a Civil War romance.
In the mid-1800s, Jacob Botner, Grace Butler’s great-great-grandfather, and his brother William Botner moved to Missouri after fighting in the Civil War. The two Kentucky brothers brought along their brides, two sisters they met in Ohio where they had served the Union cause. They bought 300 acres in northern Boone County.
The Botner brothers weren’t the only settlers from Kentucky. Boone County is part of what once was called Little Dixie because in the mid-19th century Kentuckians came to central Missouri in large numbers for the good, cheap farmland.
In early Boone settlements, 30 percent of immigrants were from Madison County, Ky., and 60 percent from places around that county, according to “A History of Columbia and Boone County” by John Crighton.
Today only two chimneys remain of the house the Botner brothers built more than a century ago. Memories of the house are still fresh for Butler. She misses the days when her mother seemed be endlessly bringing food from the wood-burning cook stove.
A few steps away, a small garage has stood the test of time. It was not built for a car but for the major mode of transportation in its age, horse carts. “Actually, we were a bit modern here,” Butler said.
In 1936, she said, her family’s home was among the first in the rural area to be wired for electricity. “It was so wonderful to have light and heat and everything at home.”
Several years later, in 1941, a tractor replaced horses, ushering in a new era of modernization.
Stanley L. and Ada Botner, Butler’s parents, saw business boom. At one time, they had hired hands and more than 500 cattle. But both Bulter and her brother, Stanley B. Botner, left the farm to pursue their own careers: Her brother became a professor of public administration at MU, and Butler went to Pennsylvania with her husband. She returned in 1978, 30 years later, to work as an adviser for the MU School of Accountancy.
The family farms were in the care of Butler’s parents until their deaths. Her father died in 1962; her mother in 1999. Four years before her death, at age 92, Ada Botner was still riding a tractor and tending cattle.
A changing business
These days, Butler and her fourth son are responsible for the farms.
“There is something about the land that gives you a sense of security and pride and builds your character and moral ethics,” Butler said. “But it’s not much of a money-maker. Nobody can make a living by farming now. You have to have a job outside.”
All of Butlers’ children have jobs off the farm. Three work outside Missouri, and one stays in Columbia. Butler also has retirement income from MU.
“The economic system is a whole lot different from when my parents were farming,” Butler said. “Things are so costly these days. There is a huge imbalance in the costs of what you produce compared to what you need to purchase.”
Butler’s problem is challenging other family farms in America, too. Although Missouri has the country’s second largest number of farms and is second in livestock production, farm acreage has been shrinking sharply. Boone County alone lost almost half its farmland between 1880 and 1997, dropping from more than 420,000 acres to less than 250,000 acres, according to the 2002 Census of Agriculture.
The value of farmland in Boone County, which the agriculture census put at an average of $1,599 an acre in 1997, is a far cry from the selling price of about $11 an acres a century ago.
Those aren’t the only differences. Farmers are aging, and the younger generation is leaving the farm. In Boone County, from 1987 to 1997 the number of operators between 25 and 34 declined from 119 to 70, while the number of people older than 70 increased from 230 to 259.
Rhonda Perry, program director at the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, said farm policy and increasing market shares for middlemen such as retailers and packers has contributed to a shift from family farms to larger, industrial livestock operations.
Butler is aware of the situation but has no intention of changing her farms.
“You have to have a big herd to make profits,” Butler said. “We don’t have that yet, and we don’t plan to. I’m too old to do much, and my son lives here can help only part time.”
Butler’s farm was one of the two in Boone County designated by the Century Farm Program in 2004. Started in 1976 by MU Extension, the program recognized 2,850 Missouri farms in its first year. Since it renewed a search in 1987, the number of Century Farms has grown to 6,400. Almost every year, one or two farms in Boone County are added to the list.
Every day, Butler drives on Botner Road, which is named after her family, and walks on the land owned and cherished by her ancestors. To her, work on the farm represents more of a family responsibility than a business.
“I love the land and love the family association,” Butler said. “My dad always said land is the best investment one can make. Now we maintain on a minimal basis — just keep things in good shape — and that’s what our mission is.”
Like other farmers, Butler worries about erosion, urban sprawl and competition with factory farms. Her most urgent worry, however, is whether to sell her 20-year-old cow.
“I hate to sell something when they are not able to produce. Think about what people would do to her,” Butler said. “But I guess I have to. She is too old and has trouble getting around.”
Butler feeds the cow twice a day and keeps it in a separate barn so the other cows can’t eat its food.
“I have a kind heart,” Butler said. “My mother would do that, too.”