Evelyne Stites remembers exactly how her husband John convinced her to give up urban life and move to the farm they owned just outside Cookeville, Tenn.
“He told me, ‘I'll live 10 years longer if you move down there,'” she recalls. “I told him, ‘You had just better!”
Obviously, farm life has agreed with John, Evelyne and the entire Stites family. For almost 30 years now Rocky Ridge Ranch has been home to four generations of Stites. John and Evelyn's three children (two boys and a girl) also chose to make their homes on the 800-acre farm, where they raised their children (John and Evelyne have 11 grandchildren, eight boys and three girls. They also have a brand new great-granddaugher). The elder Stites agree that raising their family on the farm has been one of the biggest blessings in their lives.
“We have had the joy of watching our grandchildren grow up near us,” Evelyne says. “I can't tell you how much we have enjoyed being that close to our whole family.”
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the bond that this special family shares is to let Evelyne tell you in her own words. The following is from an article she wrote for the book, “Life in the Slow Lane.”
We have three children, all of whom built their homes on our 800-acre farm. So we've had the joy of watching our 11 grandchildren grow up near us.
A creek runs through the farm, and two of our children built their homes on the other side of the creek. They drove through the water to go back and forth--until one morning after a heavy rain when our daughter-in-law stalled in the middle of the creek with her children in the car!
My husband John decided then and there it was time to build a bridge. John built a covered bridge that we call Papa's Bridge. But it's more than a safe crossing over the creek--it's a gathering spot for our grandchildren. We built a room on top of the bridge where they could play and sleep out. We made a ladder attached to the wall of the bridge to access the room and a trapdoor in the floor...so when the door is closed there is no danger of them falling out.
It has been fun listening to our grandchildren on the telephone saying to one another, "Meet you at the bridge." When we drive through the farm first thing in the morning and see bicycles and dogs waiting below, we know that some of them spent the night at Papa's Bridge.
Our family makes a "big deal" out of everything. So we had a dedication and picnic when the bridge was finished.
Every year since then on the Fourth of July, we set up picnic tables on the bridge to celebrate the wonderful country we live in. We have a barbecue pit nearby where we cook a whole pig, two 40 pound beef roasts, a goat, a lamb and chicken breast. At noon, when the meat is ready, as many as 350 friends and family gather at the bridge for food and fellowship.
Papa's Bridge has given many wonderful memories to all of us.
The family unit is indeed a priority for the Stites. When their children finished college, they joined the successful construction business that John had built. When he retired to become a full-time rancher, the children took over the operation of the business.
Another priority passed down from John and Evelyne that all of the Stites children and grandchildren share, is a love for the land they call home. Not only is Rocky Ridge Ranch home to a purebred Brangus operation, but it is also a haven for wildlife. Canadian geese, ducks and herds of deer can be seen at various times of the year grazing with the cattle. Management practices have been modified to fit the needs of the wildlife and the cattle, keeping in mind the Stites number one priority… “to leave the land in better shape the when we received it.”
The Stites family has been in the cattle business for almost 50 years, but up until John retired and started devoting his complete attention to the ranching operation, the herd was mainly made up of registered Angus cattle.
Today, 73-year-old “Big John,” as he is affectionately known to his family, oversees a 200-head Brangus cow herd he built from one cow he purchased in 1984 and a group of Brangus females he bought from a neighbor in 1986.
“The first time I saw Brangus cattle was in the 1960's at the Houston Livestock Show,” he remembers. “I thought then they were the finest cattle I had ever seen.”
Twenty years later fate intervened, and John, who is one of the most progressive breeders in the business, took on the task of building a Brangus herd using artificial insemination (A.I.) and embryo transfer (E.T.).
“That initial set of cows we bought from the neighbor across the road we used as recips because I wasn't sure about the paperwork and pedigrees on the cattle,” he explains.
After researching Brangus genetics, John made the decision to build his herd using the Brinks bloodlines. In just 13 years, he has developed a good, solid set of functional females, utilizing some well known Brinks bulls including: Trooper, who in the 1999 Sire Summary, was in the top twenty-five percent of the breed for weaning, yearling, and scrotal EPDs; and Big Easy who is currently number one in the breed for birth EPDs. Last fall, Stites purchased another young Brinks herd sire from Camp Cooley Ranch, Bright Side of Brinks, who Stites has high expectations for.
Stites credits the quality of his herd on a very strict culling process with heavy emphasis on fertility.
“I am too old to fool with a cow that doesn't breed,” he laughs. “I sure don't have time to wait on her…she has to have a calf every year or she is gone.”
For the last few years, Stites has concentrated his efforts on building up his herd numbers in order to prepare for Rocky Ridge's First Annual Production Sale, “The Brangus Celebration,” which will be held on April 29, 2000 at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville.
For Rocky Ridge Ranch, this production sale marks the beginning of new phase in their marketing program. And Stites, not one to rest on his laurels, continues to look for new ways to improve his cattle and his operation.
“We've done pretty well in the short time we've been in it,” Stites says. “We have put together some good genetics and a good looking herd…but we are always trying new things, looking for ways to improve the operation.”
That progressive attitude is what makes John Stites unique. Most 73-year-old cattlemen are looking for ways to retire from the business…Stites continues to manage his herd with the enthusiasm of a man half his age and the confidence of a man whose legacy to his family will surely be his love for the land and the cattle.
“I plan on hanging in here for as long as I can,” Stites says. “But one thing is for sure…the cattle will be here forever…they are part of the farm.”
Visit Rocky Ridge Ranch online at: www.cattletoday.com/rocky_ridge