When Penny Sanford returned home to her familys Mississippi farm in 1991 after her father died, she couldnt foresee the opportunities that lay ahead on the place her great-great-great grandfather established in 1837.
James Cochran Hamer crossed the mountains from North Carolina that year with four young sons and a wagon loaded with necessities, eventually establishing a cotton farm, syrup mill, grist mill, sawmill, church, school, and orchards four miles outside what is now the small town of Kilmichael (pop. 804) in northern central Mississippi.
Penny Sanford relied on that same pioneering spirit when she left her career as news director for an Alabama radio station to return home after 8 years to help with her familys 1,424-acre Hamer Hills Farmdesignated by the state as a Historic Centennial Farm, meaning its been a working family farm for more than a century.
I always had the hope and expectation that I would come back eventually, she says. To be able to come back before retirement was a fantasy come true. It was a very easy move in that sense; the farm is so much in my blood.
As the sixth generation to live and work on the farm, Sanford says she and her family are determined to preserve and improve the land using various conservation strategies.
To keep the farm viable during years when drought affects the income from cotton, corn, and other row crops, Sanfords mother, Alice Hamer Sanford, and Alices brother Charles Hamerwho own the farm jointlyharvest timber judiciously from large stands of native pine and hardwoods. They also lease the rich bottom land to a neighboring farmer, Jimmy Middleton.
Middleton, who has raised crops for 20 years and shares his profits with the farm, has great respect for the Sanford family.
You couldnt ask for better people to rent from. I do a lot to improve the land because I appreciate being able to work it for so long, he says.
The family also raises registered English Shepherdsa farm dog similar in appearance to colliesand is restoring its peach and apple orchards while rescuing heirloom roses from various sites on the property.
But helping her mother and uncle preserve Hamer Hills Farm was just the beginning of Penny Sanfords voyage home.
Although she has no formal training in art, Sanford had taught herself to make Majolica, an ancient form of hand-painted Italian porcelain dinnerware that Sanford loved but couldnt afford. Three years after returning home, however, she was so inspired by the beauty of the land around her that she picked up a lump of raw, porcelain clay and shaped it into the face of a delicate angel surrounded by oak leaves.
It was the first of what would become her popular Natures Angels figurines, a line of limited edition porcelain ornaments which has become, in effect, yet another opportunity for the stewards of Hamer Hills Farm. Working in a studio on the farm, Sanfords mother and uncle refine details and prepare the ornaments for shipping, with help from a small group of local artisans, while Sanford sculpts the final touches that make each ornament unique.
Sanford also receives commissions for porcelain portraits of historic buildings, including the Governors Mansion in Jackson.
Its the reverance for history that drew Sanford back to her hometown in Mississippi, helping begin another chapter in the farm that once supported four generations of Hamersand may again someday.
Its very humbling to walk on land that was settled by your ancestors, she says. Their hardships were so great in comparison to our lives. It pushes my mother and uncle and me to do all we can to care for and preserve the land.