Russell Craig Anderson admits to having a fondness for the land he’s lived on all of his life.
“Yeah, I’m attached to it,” he says as he maneuvers the 1986 Ford pickup truck—the Creek Truck— the mile between his home and Craig Creek just on the outskirts of Oriskany. “It’s all I’ve ever known.”
He arrived on the land a few days after he was born in the Covington hospital. His father was farming the property 69 years ago (“going on 70”), Anderson explains. His grandfather farmed the same land before his father, and his great-grandfather before that.
Four generations of Andersons have made a living on this land, and Russell Anderson hopes it will be a fifth generation “when my toes are turned up.”
The property also has been home to Isaac Austin for seven years. He’s Russell’s 20-year-old cousin, and the older bachelor hopes the young man stays with it. Isaac says that’s what he wants to do, and has even started raising meat goats as an addition to the 90 or so head of cows they have now.
That lifetime of farming the same land— and his efforts to protect the land and Craig Creek that borders part of the property— earned Anderson the Mountain Castle Soil and Water Conservation District’s (MCSWCD) first ever Lifetime Achievement Award. It was presented during the district’s annual banquet in December.
“I was born to it,” Anderson explained when asked why he’s stuck with farming. He’s one of the few full-time farmers in Botetourt these days. Many who continue to farm also have other jobs.
While his extended family of Andersons once farmed in the Oriskany area, he and Isaac are now the only ones in the Anderson lineage who still farm.
Anderson’s great-grandfather Charles Edward Anderson was raised on Barbours Creek in adjoining Craig County. He married Henrietta Crawford who was raised on Patterson Creek. They moved to Oriskany in the early 1900s and started farming.
Russell Anderson’s grandfather Andrew Jackson Anderson followed suit, as did his father James Elmer Anderson.
Sheep were once part of the livestock they raised, but the coyotes became too much of a problem and about 15 years ago Anderson said he gave up on sheep.
The operation and home are pretty self-sufficient. Anderson raises cattle and bales hay— about 1,600 round bales this past year, plus some square bales that still go in the barn that his grandfather built in the 1930s.
They can vegetables from the garden and fruit, butcher and can a hog each year. Anderson is adamant about having an array of vegetables from his garden as he rattles off a list of what he grows.
He’s proud of the fencing and best management practices he’s put in place on the farm. Seven or eight troughs now provide water for the cattle rather than having them use Craig Creek or any tributaries. He points out the areas where the cattle are fenced in various pastures for the winter. Round bales are fenced in neat rows near each pasture, waiting to be tractored out to feed.
When he was recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award, the MCSWCD did a slideshow on his work and life— a tribute to a farmer who has also dedicated much time to the district and FSA.
“To visit Russell Anderson’s farm in Botetourt County, one must first brave the swinging bridge over Craig Creek. To say Russell’s farm is isolated is an understatement. With no bridge access and the water level of Craig Creek too high to ford much of the year, getting in and out of the farm can be tricky…unless you’ve been doing it for 69 years,” the narrative that was written by Tim Miller said. Miller is the MCSWCD Education and Outreach Coordinator.
“As always, Russell is warm and welcoming and full of energy,” Miller’s narrative continues, noting, “He loves stories.”
The Anderson family cemetery is on a rise above Craig Creek where the state-maintained swinging footbridge over Craig Creek serves as a regular entrance to the farm. The ford is just downstream, but the rise and fall of Craig Creek makes it unpredictable.
“This cemetery— and another on the farm— is carefully maintained by Russell. To know Russell is to know the strong ties that bind him to his ancestors and this land they farmed.
“It takes tremendous strength and faith to live and farm in this beautiful, but remote place. Strength and faith seem to be an Anderson family trait,” Miller’s narrative continues. “Russell’s parents lost their first four children in childbirth.
“Russell grew up on this land. He remembers hearing stories of Oriskany being a far busier place, thanks to the iron ore mines…. Russell and Isaac (also known as ‘Skeeter’) work as a team to farm 600 acres of land. In the last few years, Isaac’s help has been invaluable to Russell. They make a great team.”
Miller’s narrative notes that Anderson has participated in conservation programs with Mountain Castles, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS), like many farmers.
“What sets Russell apart is his ongoing commitment to conservation. Many local producers have participated in multiple conservation practices. But the sheer number of practices Russell has participated in makes him stand apart,” Miller says.
Since 1998, Anderson has implemented 16 Best Management Practices (BMP) on his farm. BMPs such as re-vegetating former cropland, planting a riparian buffer and installing fences to exclude cattle from Craig Creek have all contributed to the MCSWCD efforts to reduce erosion and improve the water quality of the James River and its tributaries.
One of the issues with BMPs is maintenance. For most cost-share practices, landowners are required to keep them maintained and functioning for 10 years. “This spring, we inspected a number of district practices that were beyond their 10-year ‘lifespan.’ Of course, all of Russell’s looked almost as good as the day they were installed,” Miller said.
For Anderson, utilizing conservation practices on his farm are about more than just protecting water quality downstream. It’s about preserving the land and the only lifestyle he’s ever known, Miller continued.
Miller noted that Anderson’s middle name, Craig, is after the creek that surrounds his farm. “His daily life is intertwined with the natural rhythms of a life well spent amidst the changing seasons on the farm and the constant presence of Craig Creek.”
Jean Hazlegrove, executive director of the Botetourt/Roanoke FSA Office, presented the Lifetime Achievement Award, and had her own thoughts that she shared during the district banquet.
“This is a unique recognition for a farmer who has actively participated in almost every conservation program offered in this area through the Mountain Castles Soil & Water Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Farm Service Agency (FSA),” she explained.
She said she met Anderson about 29 years ago. “I was warned about his arrival before he showed up, as I recall, in preparation for that first office visit,” adding, “No amount of preparation could have prepared me for this particular visit by such a colorful character.”
He walked into the office in Daleville with his father Elmer and proceeded to tell me that he hoped I ‘wouldn’t lose any of their wool tickets like another employee had done. I was being ‘set straight’ right away.”
Hazlegrove noted Anderson has served on the FSA committee system off and on since 1978 for a period of 34 years. He currently serves as a member of the FSA County Committee and will began his 35th year of FSA service in January.
She noted after the passing of his father, Russell Anderson continued to run the family farm with the help of his brother James, sister Edith, and other family members, and has made plans for the succession of the farm to the next generation with his cousin Isaac.
“He has farmed with the challenges that many have never faced— the need to ford Craig Creek with farm equipment, cross the swinging bridge, or use a boat when the swinging bridge was condemned. At times, when the creek couldn’t be forded, many a heavy load has been carried on his back across the swinging bridge to the other side, including disassembling some farm implements and putting them back together on the other side of the creek,” Hazlegrove said.
“He has truly worked the land, stayed close to the land, been a part of the land his entire life – making a living by farming. He is a person as unique in this day and time that you will ever meet who truly ‘lives off the land.’ To this day, he and his family members continue their annual hog butchering and the large volume of canning of fruits and vegetables from their garden.”
She said over the years, she and Anderson have had many conversations. She said he tried to enlist in the military during the Vietnam conflict. He said, “I tried, but a heck of a note— they didn’t even want me,” he told her.
Hazlegrove said Anderson is a walking history book of Oriskany and the people of Oriskany.
“Those with ties to Oriskany are always contacting Russell with questions about their family tree and ancestry – and he knows the answers – simply because of his lifelong interest in the people of Oriskany,” she said. “He continues to this day to look in on the elderly and the sick of his community and makes sure there are provisions such as firewood or if grass cutting is needed or if just a kind word needs to be exchanged to someone who lives alone.
“He has done all of these things from a very early age as a young boy as taught to him by his father,” she added.
“Russell says people look at him as just ‘a poor old dumb farmer.’ Don’t kid yourself,” Hazlegrove continued. “He keeps up with the stock market. He keeps up with the prices on the farm markets. He keeps abreast on the world affairs and the effects of world affairs on the American dollar (better than most of us). He just plays ‘dumb.’
“Even now I hear Russell saying, ‘You have to have fun as you go through life, Miss
Jean.’ He has certainly worked hard— but for Russell— it has always been ‘fun.’”
— Ed McCoy