Sign up for newsletter >>
Anatomy of a Protest

Anatomy of a Protest

What a caravan of tractors and the heirs to Ross Perot tell us about Middle Tennessee’s relationship to its past.

The Tennessee State Fair is still six weeks away, but last Friday, the field by the James E. Ward Agriculture Center in Lebanon looked like it was already in full swing. More than thirty-five local farmers were behind the wheels of their John Deeres and Kubotas ready to make the 8:30 a.m. trek from the fairgrounds to the Wilson County Courthouse. They were showing up en masse at a Planning Commission meeting that would decide the fate of Tuckers Crossroads, the farming community they call home. 

“I am not a professional protestor by any means,” Jack Pratt, the 49-year-old owner of a farm and a family peach orchard in Tuckers Crossroads, said. He has worked the land his entire life that his family bought nearly fifty years ago. When he got wind that Texas-based company Hillwood—founded by the son of former presidential candidate Ross Perot—proposed building a warehouse distribution campus on a 1,400-acre parcel it owned, he decided that it was time to do something. “If you don’t act, you don’t get to comment,” Pratt said.

Inspired by the farmers who protested the EU’s new climate rules last year as well as the American Agriculture Movement’s opposition to the federal government’s subsidy policies in the late 70s, Pratt huddled with his neighbors to send a message to the Wilson County Planning Commission about Hillwood’s proposal. “I don’t want to see Tuckers Crossroads turn into that,” Pratt said. “So, we thought we all could maybe get together and take our tractors to town.”

Pratt’s idea especially resonated with Michael Swope, 42, who moved to the area after fleeing rural Washington state’s increasingly restrictive farming regulations. “I thought I’d gotten away from all of that when we moved to Tennessee,” Swope said. “I didn’t want to see it happen again.”

Though the residents of Tuckers Crossroads are reluctant to credit one person as the leader of their efforts, they all agree that the development site’s fate is especially important because the community is one of the last undeveloped rural areas in Wilson County. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the suburban county that borders eastern Davidson County has seen the largest influx of new Middle Tennessee residents.

Less than twenty minutes from downtown and boasting a host of amenities, the county that is home to Lebanon and Mt. Juliet has also undergone an identity crisis that forms the heart of the battle over Tuckers Crossroads. Such is especially true given Metro Nashville’s sustained hemorrhaging of domestic residents as crime, the woes of the flailing public school system, and the cost of living in the city continue to mount. 

Proponents of the development touted that Hillwood would bring a combined 6,400 direct and indirect jobs to Wilson County. An area as economically robust and plagued with traffic congestion as Middle Tennessee could get along just fine without that boon, but Hillwood’s initial purchase of the land illustrates a greater issue for the survival of family farms. In a region with such varied economic opportunities that is also home to one of the most vibrant cities in America, the children of farmers are increasingly not buying into the agrarian tradition so important to Southern and Midwestern identity. 

However, if Friday’s fairgrounds gathering is any indication, Tuckers Crossroads proves the exception to the rule. Multiple generations gathered together at an event that was largely organized by Gen Xers and elder millennials like Swope and Pratt. Similar to many of Tuckers Crossroads’s residents, Houston Neal is a fourth-generation farmer who takes pride in the community’s honoring its heritage. “One day, he might want to farm the land too,” Neal said, pointing to his preschooler son by his tractor at the protest’s kickoff.

While the residents of Tuckers Crossroads may seem like purists to advocates of development, Swope is clear to point out that the protest is more about the proposed plan for the land rather than keeping it utterly pristine. “We have no problem with them building a housing development,” he said. “That would fit with our community. Warehouses surrounded by family farms wouldn’t.”

Amid a standing-room-only crowd of Tuckers Crossroads residents and supporters from neighboring farms, the Wilson County Planning Commission ended a marathon 3.5-hour meeting by voting 8-2 against the proposal. However, the fight is far from over. Hillwood could appeal the decision, and the plan’s ultimate fate lies with the County Commission. 

Regardless, those bystanders watching the farmers and their police escort depart last Friday witnessed a type of protest that is all too rare. Unlike the recent spate of organized and well-financed activism meant to clog roadways and derail college campuses across the nation, the fully permitted tractor convoy was both a tribute to Middle Tennessee’s heritage and a reminder that, despite the headlines, rural life remains the backbone of our region. “People move here for a reason,” Pratt said. 

Tom Brashear, Wilson County’s Director of Development Services, could not be reached for comment by press time.