By TERRENCE CORRIGAN
Susan Hundley grew up on a farm in Ooltewah, Tenn. After graduation from college, she married James Sandlin, one of the sons of a farm family from Alabama, and they embarked on what was to be a comfortable city life in Nashville.
As she talks about her life, it’s hard to imagine that Susan ever had even a fleeting inkling that after her 50-year marriage she would end up with full responsibility for Cedar Plains Farm in Unionville raising a herd of Santa Gertrudis cattle.
James died of cancer at their home on the farm in September of 2018.
“I said to him, before he died, ‘please sell the cows, I can’t handle the cows. What am I going to do with cows?’” Susan said. “James was determined not to do that. He wanted to die right here. He wanted to look out the window and see his beloved cows. And by Joe, that’s what he did.”
Since James’ death, Susan has prevailed. “You do what you have to do,” she said. “In the past year, I’ve sort of learned how to take care of cows.”
Susan’s ability to adapt to the situation may have been inherited from her father, Howard Hundley. “He was a farmer, a Realtor and a lawyer,” she said.
Hundley came from a long line of farmers. He was a horse trader and a horse dealer; he’d buy Tennessee Walking Horses at Bobo’s Auction Barn in Beaverton, Ala., during Celebration time. “He’d take that horse and develop it into a fine horse then sell it,” Susan said.
Hundley was also a melon trader. “He’d go into the mountains, I believe in West Virginia, and buy a load of cantaloupes, bring them back to Chattanooga and sell them,” she said.
In keeping Cedar Plains Farm afloat, Susan was also blessed with a good “right arm,” Justin Logan, who started working for the Sandlins a year before James died. “Without him (Logan) I could not do what I’m doing,” Susan said.
From university to growing cattle
Susan majored in Home Economics at the University of Tennessee and married James just as he was completing a master of divinity degree at Vanderbilt University.
James went on to enjoy a successful 35-year career as an administrator at Vanderbilt. Susan taught school for “a few years in Nashville,” she said, but she “quickly retired” when she discovered that teaching “was not what it was cracked up to be.”
By 1974, the couple had four young children. It was then that James revealed his desire to buy a farm. “In the back of his mind he really wanted a piece of land that he could farm on,” Susan said. “He had a full-time job. What were we going to do with a farm? Somehow, he managed to talk me into it. We had four children; he said he needed to show them where food came from.”
Susan understood the irresistible nature of farming that her husband succumbed to. “You farm because you love farming,” she said. “It’s in your bones. You almost have to do something with the land.”
The 146-acre farm they settled on and purchased in 1975 came with a 145-year-old home. “It had great potential,” Susan said, laughing. “You had to be young to see that potential.”
A house becomes a home
In the years that followed, James and Susan built an extensive addition onto the home, adding a large great room, four bedrooms (each with a bathroom) for their children, and a “giant room upstairs” where the 10 grandchildren can “bunk down.”
James celebrated history and tradition with every addition to the farm. He honored tradition in all the details of everything he built.
James harvested trees on the property to ensure that the wood matched the materials used in the original home. The cabinets are made of cherry, the doors are made of walnut and floors are ash planks.
The massive stone fireplaces of the addition are made with stone from area fireplaces of homes that were torn down, harvested by local stone mason Jimmy Crowell. Crowell died in 2015.
The burden of the ceiling of the expansive 47 by 27-foot great room is borne by three massive oak beams running the full length of the room. Those giant oaks were also harvested on the farm.
Evolution of the farm
After buying the farm, James’ and Susan’s first foray into agriculture was crops – soybeans and corn. Susan describes row crop farming as “quite challenging.”
Their next venture was back-grounding cattle, buying calves at auction and raising them to be resold.
In 2005, James retired from Vanderbilt and started a cow/calf operation raising Santa Gertrudis. James and his brother, Charles, bought and split a herd of these high value cows.
The Santa Gertrudis was developed in the early 20th century by the King Ranch in south Texas. The breed was the result of a cross between Brahman and shorthorn. It was recognized by the USDA as a breed in 1940.
The value of the breed was demonstrated in a “Texas A&M University Ranch to Rail feeding trial” in which “a pen of purebred Santa Gertrudis steers had a net profit of $100.87 per head. This compares to a minus $50.29 for 1334 steers from 137 ranches,” according to Thecattlesite.com.
As she takes a visitor on a tour of the farm, Susan discusses her recent decision to reduce the size of the herd. She’s brought it down from 42 cow/calf pairs to 28 head. When asked if she plans to sell out of the cattle business, she said, “That remains to be seen.”
It’s clear that whether or not Susan decides to get out of the cattle business she will stay on this beautiful farmstead, the place that she and James established over four decades ago, the property she calls the “home-place” for her four children and 10 grandchildren. She pointed out that if she sells all the cattle she can lease the farmland to a cattle grazer or a row cropper and stay in the homeplace she and James invested so much love and effort into.