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Title: Oral History Interview with Charles D. Thompson, October 15, 1990. Interview K-0810. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007): Electronic Edition.
Author: Thompson, Charles D., interviewee
Interview conducted by Wang, Jun
Funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this interview.
Text encoded by Jennifer Joyner
Sound recordings digitized by Aaron Smithers Southern Folklife Collection
First edition, 2007
Size of electronic edition: 88 Kb
Publisher: The University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
2007.
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Languages used in the text: English
Revision history:
2007-00-00, Celine Noel, Wanda Gunther, and Kristin Martin revised TEIHeader and created catalog record for the electronic edition.
2007-00-00, Jennifer Joyner finished TEI-conformant encoding and final proofing.
Source(s):
Title of recording: Oral History Interview with Charles D. Thompson, October 15, 1990. Interview K-0810. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Title of series: Series K. Southern Communities. Southern Oral History Program Collection (K-0810)
Author: Jun Wang
Title of transcript: Oral History Interview with Charles D. Thompson, October 15, 1990. Interview K-0810. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Title of series: Series K. Southern Communities. Southern Oral History Program Collection (K-0810)
Author: Charles D. Thompson
Description: 114 Mb
Description: 18 p.
Note: Interview conducted on October 15, 1990, by Jun Wang; recorded in Unknown.
Note: Transcribed by Unknown.
Note: Forms part of: Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007): Series K. Southern Communities, Manuscripts Department, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Note: Original transcript on deposit at the Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Interview with Charles D. Thompson, October 15, 1990.
Interview K-0810. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Thompson, Charles D., interviewee


Interview Participants

    CHARLES D. THOMPSON, interviewee
    JUN WANG, interviewer

[TAPE 1, SIDE A]


Page 1
[START OF TAPE 1, SIDE A]
JUN WANG:
How old are you now? When were you born?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
I was born on Nov. 3, 1956 in Roanoke, Virginia. That makes me 42. That's in Southwest Virginia, near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the mountains. My grandfather was a farmer, and I learned all that I knew early on about farming from him. My first year of college, I farmed with him and lived with him while I was in college. Then transferred to a different college, not because I didn't want to continue living there. Even though my grandma always thought that the reason I left was because her cooking wasn't good enough. Isn't that just like a grandmother? On her deathbed, I told her "Grandma, it was not because of your cooking that I moved away that year," and I was so glad I was able to tell her that. It was because I has grown interested in other academic topics and I changed majors, and so I changed schools.
JUN WANG:
Which school you went first in Virginia to college?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
That was called Ferrum College. Interestingly, its history is tied to agriculture. It was one of these schools that went into the Appalachian region as a mission school early on around the turn of century, as a high school. My grandma was the first of the local children who came out of the mountains to go high school. Many of them before that weren't able to go to school at all.
JUN WANG:
You mean for women?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
No. For all people. Because this was a very isolated part of the country. People couldn't get out to the county seat where the larger high school was. There was no road.
JUN WANG:
Is that where you lived with your parents or grandparents?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
I only lived with my grandparents when I went off to college. Anyway, that was my first year of college. Then I finished college and went on to Emory and Henry. While I was at Emory and Henry College, which is also in Southwestern Virginia, I went

Page 2
to the coalfields and did various volunteer projects. I ended up working right after college in a very small coalmining community right up in the Appalachian part of Kentucky, right across the line from Virginia . I was doing agriculture-related work, and I realized that even though I had been through this program and majored in religion and sociology, I still wanted to work with people who were rural people, who are very much like my grandparents, I guess, in many ways. So I did that, and after a year of that, moved on. I learned that I was so interested in agriculture that I went to a place called the Frank Porter Graham Center, named after the former president of UNC actually. It was at a small farm, outreach and training school, the southern part North Carolina. That was 1980. The same year that Ronald Reagan was elected. I remember that, right when I arrived at the Graham Center, Ronald Reagan was elected. And I knew that my work was cut out for me then. Working with poor people, I just knew with this new change in administrations that poor people were going to suffer during that time. There I was, working with poor black and white farmers. So this was when I was just right out of college, what would I have been—1980, so 23 when I arrived there. So I guess I arrived in North Carolina and haven't left since I was 23 years old. So I've been here 20 years.
JUN WANG:
What kind of job you do in the center?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
I was what they called the demonstration garden coordinator or manager, or something like that. I actually gardened myself, and planted lots of different alternative crops, plants that I thought might do well in that climate but which people hadn't grown before in that particular area as a demonstration. I did workshops and talks to various groups that came through. Groups visited from other places and we also had an outreach program to the community.
JUN WANG:
Did you learned agriculture in college?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
No, I didn't. I was going to say, way back when, when my grandmother went to this early college, Ferrum College, it was an agricultural school. Students paid their way through college by working on the dairy farm and doing other work related to the farm. There's still two or three colleges like that in U.S. today, where you can work on a farm while there. But when I was there, there was no educational component or work component left at the college. So the farm experience and knowledge that I gained was directly from my grandfather.

Page 3
So I lived in my first year of college on the farm. And all the summers I worked and so forth in the previous years, that's when I gained my knowledge. I learned when I got to this Frank Porter Graham Center that I knew a lot. I didn't realize I knew very much, but in comparison with these people who were coming from places like New York City, and there were some of those, who were Vista volunteers and so forth to work at Frank Porter Graham Center, I felt I have some sort of indigenous knowledge about how to farm that not everybody has. It just comes from being in the family and knowing that. Much of it almost came, for lack of a better word, naturally to me, that work in the garden and that outreach work. At Emory and Henry College I had become very interested in community organizing and outreach. Even though there is not a major in community organizing, I developed my own major, so to speak. I did independent studies to teach myself how to be a community organizer. That's what I went on to do at the Graham Center. After leaving the Graham Center, I was still in North Carolina. I went on to agricultural training in North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.
After working with adults in agricultural education, I felt that I wanted to be an agricultural educator, and I wanted to do that as a living. So I went back to school and got a great deal.
A&T is a traditionally African-American university. Do you know about that system? There are several still in North Carolina that were traditionally segregated universities. Now they are not officially segregated, but they continue in the tradition. [interruption] There is one in Durham, there is one in Greensboro, and one in Winston-Salem. They still very much serve the African-American communities, so that they have a much larger percentage of black students, this is my guess, than UNC has of white students. So they have had a harder time integrating their schools than UNC and some of the traditionally white schools have had. Part of that is because their funding is so low that it's not attractive for white students to go there . I went there because it was a great deal, financially, for me. They almost paid me to go there. I was able to work on the farm in the university and work with hogs and sheep. I managed a sheep project.
JUN WANG:
How old were you at that time?

Page 4
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
That was about '82. That was just after I finished—I was a Vista volunteer at the Graham Center, and so it was a finite, one-year commitment that I made. So really you can say that I did two different one-year stints before going to graduate school in agriculture. It was a big jump to go from religion to agriculture, but I saw the connections. [Laughter] As I did with my earlier double major in religion and sociology, I just invented my own studies, so to speak. I think that everybody should approach education that way. You can't fit into a mold, they can give you guidelines, but that's all you can—
JUN WANG:
Isn't their agriculture in the earlier colleges? So you can only through graduate school to study agriculture?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
There are two in North Carolina, N.C. State in Raleigh and A& T in Greensboro, the traditionally white and the traditionally black schools, to teach agricultural and technical skills. I chose the black one partly because of economics, it was cheaper for me to go there. There were two other reasons, one is because, after working with black farmers, I was really committed to learning more and reaching out into the black community of North and South Carolina. That's what I had done. So I thought going to that school would be a real education in terms of racial issues, in terms of learning a different culture. And it really was that. Everybody, in the administration, every secretary, every person working out on the farm that I came in contact with were predominantly African-American. So, very different from most institutions that you come in contact with in the state. So it still is separate, in a way, and troubling in some ways. The other reason is because they emphasize small farm agriculture, while N.C. State had gone toward the commercial, corporate-scale agriculture research. I wanted to do small farm research.
So I was dating a woman that I met in the Graham Center at the time that I was in A&T. She lived in Chatham County. She continued to work for the same organization. The center where we worked was called Frank Porter Graham. The overall organization that ran that center was called the Rural Advancement Fund. Its offspring is still in existence in Chatham County. So along about '82, the Rural Advancement Fund main headquarters moved from Anson County, North Carolina, where the Graham Center was, and closed the Graham Center down. There was one real short reason that I'll give for that. It was because the main people who were there realized that

Page 5
farmers know how to farm, that our demonstrations don't change the societal structures. So it was more important to work on changing society than it was on teaching farmers how to farm. Because there were large forces at work that were pushing farmers out of business, not just their lack of knowledge. Not even partly that, really, because farmers are very knowledgeable people, as you know. With or without education, they learned these skills much as I did. The skills that I learned didn't come from schools about farming. That's what farmers always say: you can't learn this by going to school, you do it, you learn it by doing it.
JUN WANG:
Did you any experiment skills in the labs? And what did you teach to farmers then?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
What I studied to do after leaving this organization was to teach in a high school, teach agriculture to young people. Or some people use that degree to go into what they call the North Carolina extension service, working out of the university to do outreach to farmers. I didn't want to go into extension work, I wanted to work in high school. That's what I thought I wanted to do, but I hadn't ever really tried it. I had this romantic vision of what it would be. After my experiences in those two other one-year jobs, I thought, oh, I can go into high school, and there will be people who really want to learn from me, and I will teach them, and it will be a great relationship. Well, I went into Northwood High School. The reason I was talking about dating this woman who continued to work for Rural Advancement Fund—did I mention that it moved from Anson County to Chatham County? So Pittsboro became the headquarters. The organization now is called Rural Advancement Foundation International. Used to be called Rural Advancement Fund. Anyway, so back in '82 it moved there, and she was there. We had this relationship going, so I thought it would be ideal if I could teach as a student teacher. You have go out for one semester, or one three-month period, to teach in a high school for practice, with a fully-employed teacher who is your guidance counselor, so to speak. So it worked out. Chatham County was the site that I was placed in. It didn't take a lot of work from me. I said, I really need to go to Chatham County because I have people there, and I'm interested in that part of the state. I was placed there. I had some good students, I had a lot of students that didn't care at all about being in agriculture. I had about three or four good students, and the rest of them were just in agriculture because they weren't bound for college. They were the people who were almost ready to

Page 6
flunk out of high school. They were the people who the principal didn't know where else to put them. They were the worst of the school. They were terrible to have to try to teach. They were like going to a prison and trying to teach. Some people want to learn, and a lot of them don't. It's a huge challenge. The ones who don't make a lot of noise so the ones who do can't hear. And in our system it's very hard to be so harsh with these students that they will shape up. There is no way to make them behave. You could make them drop out of school.
JUN WANG:
You couldn't have them out of school?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
You could. But it's such harsh form of correction that it really leads to problems later on. So people tried at least to get these guys, they were all boys, young men, to get them through the program just that they can get a high school diploma. Yes, it's really sad. It also shows that there were very, very few—in fact, none—no students in my class, I interviewed all of them as part of a project I was wanting to do. Each person I got in, found out what kind of family they came from. Some of them, yes, they do come from farms in Chatham County, but all of them said they are not going into farming. Every single one of them.
JUN WANG:
Why?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
There was no money in farming for them. Many of these boys were simply too poor and had no resources to even imagine themselves buying the kind of land and equipment required to be a farmer these days. There would be some who would go perhaps into landscaping work, you know, planting trees and mowing yards, you probably have somebody here at this house who comes to do that. It would help if they had agricultural skills from a high school, learned how to build, how to use the machines, how to do woodworking. Those were the kind of things we taught. I also had dreamed of teaching people how to farm organically. How to do things. I taught myself about that.
JUN WANG:
So you haven't thought about doing farm yourself instead of education?

Page 7
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
I'd never had my own farm. I had my grandfather's, and then when I went to the Graham Center, I had my own very large demonstration garden. So I knew that I can do the gardening through that. And I was doing it organically. I was reading a lot. We had a very nice library and I read a lot of books and how-to manuals on organic farming. We were doing a lot of the hands-on experiments, research, I guess you could call it, at the Graham Center. But mostly it was demonstration rather than research. There was some larger farm-related research projects that were going on, but for the most part, I wasn't involved in those, but it was all around me. We had tractors.
JUN WANG:
I agree with you about agriculture education is very important, especially in high school. But before you taught in the high school. Did anyone else teach agriculture to the kids?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Well, they were enrolled already in agriculture with this other teacher, I was just the student teacher. That was while I was still in school, my last semester at A&T. So I got this M.S. degree in agricultural education complete with a teaching certificate that allows me to teach in a high school. But, as you can tell from how I felt about these guys who didn't care about being in that class, I was not motivated to go on to look for a position teaching agriculture in a high school at all. Meanwhile, while I was teaching, this person who worked with Hope, who was my girlfriend at that point, significant other, whatever. That organization was beginning to hire new staff people. But one of the women who worked with her at the Rural Advancement Fund was a community organizer with farmers, and she was in a car wreck and broke her arm, so she couldn't drive. So while I was a student teacher, she approached me and asked me, "Would you like to start on this project right now, and you work with me, you would be my driver, and you'd also be able to learn on the job, about this project and this organizing." So partly because she broke her arm and partly because I had this agricultural background, I really was the right person for the job. So she hired me.
JUN WANG:
What kind of job did you do?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Our project was called the Farm Survival Project. That project started by offering a hotline, that I spoke about when I spoke to the class. We called it the Farmer Crisis Hotline, that people could call from anywhere in North Carolina. It actually was not a toll-free number, they had to call it, but we offered our own phones.

Page 8
And these people would call for assistance on farm loan problems. This was going on in other parts of the country at that point too, but in the early 1980s, the farm situation was so bad.
JUN WANG:
Is that due to President Reagan's policy?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Well, it's partly because of that. It was partly because of false hopes in agriculture that started really after World War II, that told people to plant as much as they could. These new policies that the markets would be unlimited. And back during the Nixon administration in the early '70s, there was a secretary of agriculture named Earl Butz. He encouraged farmers, this is his infamous quote, to plant fence row to fence row, in other words, all you farmers who are out there who are just planting a little bit, plant everything you've got, because we have this new deal with Russia. We're going to market everything to them that we have surplus. Therefore, there won't be any such thing as a surplus. You just can go out and buy new equipment, and buy new land. We are going to have great big agricultural economy now. Because we are the bread basket of the world. That's what the mythology says. So farmers really geared up for that. Well, when Carter followed Nixon, he was a Democrat, a very honest fellow, painfully honest. He just didn't continue with that same sort of lie. He told the truth, and it had a real negative impact on the economy. Interest rates skyrocketed, and therefore, all these loans that farmers had taken out earlier, the flexible interest rate was starting to rise. They borrowed money at a low interest rate and it started to go up. So it meant they had to make more and more per acre in order to simply break even. So by the early 1980s, when I just finished this ag program, thousands, tens of thousands of farmers all over the country were declaring bankruptcy, and were being foreclosed on by various lenders. Tens of thousands in North Carolina went out of business in the 1980s. Because this is such an important occupation to people. A different kind of occupation from just simply getting a job at the grocery store. It's where you live, it's where your parents lived, where you go to church and all that—
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A]

[TAPE 1, SIDE B]

[START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
So these people were not simply losing a job, they were losing their lives, losing all that they had known, and all that their parents worked for and so forth. You can imagine how painful it is for people to have to admit that this is all going to have to be sold, or worse, the bank is going to get it all. That's what people were telling us when they called this hotline. Occasionally, we would get the call from a woman, usually, who would say, "My husband is talking about killing himself," that sort of thing, or, "He is talking about shooting somebody." Occasionally we would get those. We weren't really equipped to be mental health workers. We were community organizers who were answering the phone. Our solution was systemic rather than individual anyway. We wanted, rather than to say, "Tell me your feelings," and use that approach, we wanted to say, "Can we get other people in the community to talk about losing farms; can we have a meeting at your community center, can we have a meeting at the restaurant and have a bunch of farmers come together and talk together about what the problems are, and then let's see if there's something we can all do together to work on these problems. We built a pretty good organization, we got a number of different farm groups in North and South Carolina, that's what I did for a number of years. I worked from Robeson County to Bladen County to Duplin County. These are very rural counties who were recently hit by the flood down east. And I really enjoyed that work a lot.
But all the time, from the time I'd been in Kentucky, to North Carolina, after college, I had this strong pull to farm myself. As I said to the group back in the class, it was a very ironic time to go into farming, when all of these other people were going out of business. They were very big farmers who had expanded their operations. Usually young farmers who were in debt. The older farmers were not so indebted.
I just wanted to figure out a way for me to farm in an alternative way that would allow me to, well, as one

Page 10
person put it, this is another quote from Earl Butz, he said, "get big or get out." In other words, expand or go out of business, or sell your farm to another person who is going to expand.
JUN WANG:
But you don't like big farm, right?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
No, I didn't. I said, well, these people are going out of business, is there is a way for me to make a living, the opposite of that is getting small and getting into agriculture. The difficulty was convincing a lender to give me money to buy a farm on a small scale with the farm plan of raising fruits and vegetables. The farm plan I worked out pretty well, using lots of different books. Remember I told you about that agricultural library? I continued to use that library, because the library had moved from Anson County to Chatham County. That library is no longer in Chatham County unfortunately, but that's another story. So I worked with these books and resources that I had and came up with a very good farm plan. Probably much better than anything they'd ever seen, just to be honest about it. Because most farmers don't go through the kinds of experiences I had been through with a college degree in the humanities, and so my writing skills and all that were good. So I came up with this farm plan that was very specific in terms of how many acres of each thing I was going to plant, I gave justifications for it, I even did a marketing analysis showing that various restaurants would buy from me. I interviewed people who had done this and wrote down what they said. They said they thought a farm like this could work. I had quotes in there. It was a professional business plan. It was like a paper. So I gave that to a couple of banks—No, I don't think I gave that to banks. I had talked to bankers who said, "No, we don't make any farm loans any more." So I tried to convince them. But Farmers Home Administration was a federal agency, and still is a federal agency, that was established to help limited-resource and beginning farmers. That was their historical mandate from Congress to serve those two populations, particularly minority farmers. So when we started this hotline, and different methods of helping people in these communities who were calling, one of the things we had to learn was regulations about lenders. And the

Page 11
main one we were really getting lots of information about was called Farmers Home Administration. It was a federal agency, and we thought, of any agency in this country, that one that's supported by tax dollars needs to be treating farmers fairly, giving them every benefit that's possible, knowing that we were experiencing a widespread farm crisis that we hadn't experienced since the 1930s in the Great Depression. So we need leniency and we need understanding on the part of these lenders. We worked hard to learn about how to make Farmers Home Administration really work for farmers. We, I mainly, on the project wrote a bunch of different pamphlets that farmers could read about their rights as a borrower. We did one on what are the different kinds of bankruptcy, under legal definitions, that sort of thing. Anyway, because I did all that, I knew about how to get a beginning farmer a loan.
JUN WANG:
Yes, you became an expert on this.
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
I became an expert. I used my knowledge to apply for a loan. I went to the local county committee—I didn't go before them, I gave the application to the county director. The county director takes my farm plan and presents it before the county committee. There are three people on the county committee, none of whom are farmers. They are just big businessmen. I can't remember—Louis Rinn was one of their names. What did he do? They were all from Chatham. One of them did something like run a sawmill, run a big factory, or something. They were partly rural but mostly just into business deals, and that's how they got onto the committee. One of the things we did in some of the counties where we were organizing was get good farmers on these committees. That was one of the ways we could change things. Congress actually passed a law that there would have to be two full-time farmers on the committee making loans. They're making loans to their peers. That still leaves room for problems because there can be jealousies and all that. But it's much better to have farmers who understand what it is to farm. If somebody says, "Can't pay a loan back this year," the farmers know that there was a drought this year or whether the guy just not really trying. Anyway, I applied, and the county committee said they were not going to give me a loan. There were two reasons: you don't have enough experience, and you know, it's real hard to show you have experience running a farm when you're a beginning farmer. But here I had my grandfather, and I had my demostration garden, and I had a degree, but still insufficient experience. The other one was

Page 12
that the farm plan was atypical for the area. In other words, no one has ever done this, therefore it can't work. Well, it was such bad logic, because what everybody else was doing was not working. And I appealed. And I knew about how to appeal. I don't think anybody had ever appealed in Chatham County before. So I appealed, and I went to the district director. This was just appearing before one person, who happened to be an African American. Perhaps a little more sympathetic to the ideas of discrimination, that sort of thing, although I couldn't detect that, I just thought maybe this was a good thing to have an African American who would understand. He wouldn't be part of—Do you understand what I mean when I say the good old boy system? That's a slogan, a saying, in the South. The good old boys are those powerful white guys like who are on the county committee. Those business types who tend to run the county. And often they aren't in a rural place, like Chatham has been, they aren't sophisticated in a traditional way. They don't wear three-piece suits. They might just be farmers, but they still are— those are some of the good old boys, and then they can be lawyers or doctors too. But there's a network. Those guys kind of help each other. I bet it's the same in every country. And they're usually male, almost without exception, and who they know and who they are related to get a lot of benefits and get the land, and when it comes to politics, they get their people elected. You know that? Does it work that way in China?
JUN WANG:
Yes, this kind of network is very popular in China.
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Parochialism might be another way of putting it. The good old boys system keeps outsiders out, any new ideas out. It keeps minorities out. It keeps the status quo, maintains the status quo. It doesn't give loans to people like me. It's a system. So I thought this African American guy, who was the district director, might not be part of that system and might understand what it is to try to break into it when everyone else is resistant to the idea.
I took people with me, I took another farmer you've heard of, Bill Dow. He went with me. Hope, who by that time I was very serious about, we were talking about getting married. This was the person who was working at Rural Advancement Fund, Hope Chant.
JUN WANG:
So this is like a court?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Yes, it is, but there's only one guy there with a tape recorder, much like this. He's taping the entire thing. We're sitting in this room with no windows. So he says, "Okay, let me hear your appeal." I was my own lawyer, so to speak. I had to organize it all. I said, "Okay, my opening statement is that I've been denied the loan because of these two reasons. But my file shows that I have had a lot of experience and my farm plan will work." So I brought one person named Mark Epp, who

Page 13
was from the Rural Advancement Fund, who gave testimony about me working for a farm demonstration organization and that I was in charge of that. He was my supervisor on that, so I brought him in. The other person was Bill Dow. Hope didn't say very much. She just came in support. Bill Dow, who talked about alternative farming working in Chatham County because of the market in Chapel Hill. So we walked out of there, we said everything. The district director was not there to argue with us, he wasn't representing the other side, trying to convict me, or anything. He was supposed to be an unbiased listener, so to speak. Oh, the other guy who was in there was the county director of the Farmers Home Administration who represented what the county committee said.
JUN WANG:
When was that?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
1984. That was a good question. Meanwhile, I had found this land, I had found twenty-two acres, that I wanted to buy. It was owned by this guy, this dentist, who was named Dr. Rainer. Dr. Rainer didn't want to deal with realtors. He was a crotchety old man, well, not that old, but he—He didn't like realtors and he didn't like official agreements. He was sort of the good old boy type, who wanted to just do business directly with people. He liked the idea of me getting the farm a lot.
JUN WANG:
Is he a farmer?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
No, he wasn't the farmer, he had just bought it—he was a dentist—as an investment. He lived all over in Garner, which is near Raleigh. That's where his dental practice was. He rented it for years, but then he got tired of owning it. He owned forty-some other places to rent out to people. He said, "The only reason I'm getting rid of that place is because it's too far away for me to manage." You know, he didn't want to come forty miles over to see if his rental property was doing okay. The thing is, all this was taking time. The county committee is letting me know three weeks after I submit my application that I don't get a loan, and then we have the district hearing. Meanwhile I have to tell Dr. Rainer, "They're still saying they might give me a loan." I'm having to say, "I think I can get this loan," of course, not exactly believing that I could, just trying to keep him going.
JUN WANG:
How much did it cost?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
To buy that land, it had a house, and it had a farm, had cleared fields, and a pond. It was a nice little farm to start with. He wanted $60,000 for it. It was over fifteen years ago. It was a good deal, it was a low price. It was a good price I could afford. I had a job, I was working as a community organizer, not making great dollars, but I had a steady job. I could make a case for being able to pay that loan back. Of course I was going to try to pay it back with farming eventually. So, the district director overturned the decision. I never found out exactly why. He changed his mind, he changed the

Page 14
organization's mind, changed their direction, and said now I was eligible for the loan. But that was only one step. That was only to determine my eligibility. Once that was established, then the county director said to me, "That only means you're eligible, that doesn't mean I'm going to give you the loan." So I said, "What I need to do to get the loan." He said, "I have to be convinced that you're going to be able to pay this back. I can't just be giving out loans and not getting any money back. I represent the federal government, you know, I can't be just throwing money away." So, okay, well, "I'm eligible. Here's my farm plan, I'll walk through the farm with you, I'll show you what I'm going to do." I never did know—I thought maybe because I worked for Rural Advancement Fund and we were already causing problems and having some victories, including having congressional hearings in various districts, congresspeople coming and having a hearing to find out about Farmers Home Administration policies and how they were working on the local level, which was making democracy work, that's what we were doing. I think it could have been that that caused them to change their minds. And it also could have been that this guy just had a little bit of a heart in there somewhere. He wasn't a bad guy. His name was Kenny something, I can't remember. He was just a nice fella, but he wasn't about to rock the boat. He wasn't about to try to get himself in trouble in order to help me. He had to still go by the book. As long as he could see that what I was doing could be supported by his book, so to speak, he was willing to go along, and he did.
But meanwhile, this doctor had to wait about six months for all this to happen before I ever got a check. How many people would be willing to do that? It was amazing, but it all worked. He said, "I'd given up on that loan," when I finally got the check and was able to write him a check. "I was about to give up on that, and if you hadn't bought that farm, I was going to turn it into a trailer park." Mobile homes, that's what he decided he was going to do.
So in 1984, I started the farm. Actually, before I even got the loan, I had heard it was approved, before the money came, I started working. I started clearing brush and burning. I hired another guy, actually, and then I rented the place out for just a few months to a guy who had a lot of cattle. And those cattle got in there and cleared a lot of bushes, they ate a lot of grass. This was while I still lived in town, I lived in Pittsboro. This farm was two and a half miles south of the Pittsboro courthouse. Do you know where the courthouse is? Have you been down there? You go two and a half miles south on 15/501, down that way, that's where it was. I named it Whippoorwill Farm. Whippoorwill is a kind of bird that sings at night. I heard it singing one night while I was clearing that brush, I heard the whippoorwill singing. So I said, "That reminds me of where I came from, back in the mountains of Virginia. I'll name it Whippoorwill Farm."
JUN WANG:
Does every farm have a name?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
No, not every farm has a name. Tends to be, some of the newer farms have names. Some of the old established farms don't need a name, people just know them by who runs them, who owns them. I thought it would be good to have a name because I was going to begin to sell products, to farmers markets and to restaurants, and they need some name recognition, just like we remember Coke, everybody has to have their brand. So that began to be mine. I was a small businessperson, not interested in mass marketing like Coke or anything, but I was interested in establishing a name and a reputation. So I did, I began to do that, selling at a farmers market. The very first season, really, I sold things like flowers, and—I can't remember all the things I sold that first season—squash, and a few measly things that barely brought anything. I can remember the first time on a Saturday that I made

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$100, that was a big event. It took me weeks to build up. The first week I made $15, the next week I might have made $40. Then I can remember that first week, "Yes, $100!" It was a day of celebration, to work so hard and make $100.
JUN WANG:
One week you can have a harvest.
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Then I began to planting blackberries and blueberries, profitable crops. Also I got sheep. I even got llamas, the South American animal, to sell for novelty reasons, just as pets. I started working through all these networks and met people from all over the country, really, doing different things. From blackberries I met people from Arkansas. That sort of thing. It was a good experience. I think I worked well as a small businessperson, although there were disappointments in the farm as well. One of the main ones was that I was alone all the time and that I had nobody to work with. My wife never said she wanted to be a full-time farmer. We got married—did I say that?—in 1985, that same person that I had come to Pittsboro to see and be near. We got the farm in 1984 and had the big marriage celebration on the farm in June of 1985. A lot of people came, it was great. We got neighbors to come and that was a real celebration. But for the most part, I worked alone. She worked in an office in Pittsboro at the Rural Advancement Fund, which eventually became the Rural Advancement Foundation International. She still works with them, but she works in Carrboro now. They still have an organization down there. Incidentally, the woman who broke her arm, named Betty Bailey, she is now the executive director of the organization. She's still there, she's been there fifteen years now. So anyway, I was there for nine years, from 1984 to 1993. I guess the entire time I was a farmer, I had various emotions involved. By the way, as I worked harder and harder, and got better, and my plants began to mature, I began to make pretty good money. I was making, instead of $100, once I made $2000 at the farmers market in one day.
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]

[TAPE 2, SIDE A]

[START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
[audio missing]
JUN WANG:
It seems that you always did the right thing, making good decisions and choices.
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
No. I don't know. Sometimes I wonder about selling the farm as I did in 1993. People wanted to buy it so fast.
JUN WANG:
Why you want to sell it?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Because we wanted to be closer to Chapel Hill. At least I did. I knew I couldn't be a farmer, a full-time graduate student, a husband and father at the same time.

Page 16
JUN WANG:
Why did you want to go to graduate school?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Well, I guess I had always thought about issues about philosophy, religion, and I really interested in folklore, and also anthropology and those sort of things. Even though I worked on a farm, I always wanted to work with people. So I thought I maybe need to get another degree so that I can work on a farm and also work with people simultaneously. That's what I miss.
Because I came from the mountains of Virginia. People come from the mountains always want to go back. That's what I want to do. So how can I go back and live there? By having a Ph.D., I can teach in a small community college in the mountains and at the same time have a farm. So I went back to school and did the degree. In 1993 and 1995, and I finished it in 1998. I had 18 hours in anthropology too. I had three courses with James Peacock. All seminars about the South. There are all kinds of professors and graduate students. That might be the highest points in my graduate career. I felt I was the colleague of the professors. Rural Tyson is a great professor. I got a lot of connections where I was here. So I am thinking about what I really want. I tried to teach in a small college in Pennsylvania last year. Right after getting out of school in May, I got to the college in August. It was just not quite right. I thought it was an insular community that didn't have the kind of quality I was looking for in an academy. UNC is not like that. It has people from all over the place with stimulating mind and ideas. It's hard to explain. But I felt lonely again. That is pretty common to someone with a lively mind to feel lonely sometimes.
Hopefully there is a community of people to have discussions going on, have friendships going on. So I think of communities and I didn't experience it on the farm. I said to other people and myself in 1993 when I was planning to sell my farm, I said no matter how hard I worked

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on my farm, no matter how much I made my farm looks like my grandparents' farm, I started to realize that even though I was making my farm like theirs, in terms of fences, the colors of the farm and other stuff I chose, that I can never bring my grandparents back to work with me. There is nothing, there is no way to replace human connection. I think perhaps the peak of my farming experience, although I began to make so much money later by myself, it has to go back to the time when I worked with my grandfather together in the mountains. There is something about the two of us working together that was right. I most love that one.
JUN WANG:
How about other farmers near you? Do they also work alone?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Most other farmers mostly stopped, retired in the community when I was farming. It's just an inactive farming community. Most people had day jobs.
JUN WANG:
So you didn't have a community life?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
No. We did have a group get together in the hay season. We got paid as a group. I mostly participated. That was something. I involved myself fully.
JUN WANG:
It's hard to imagine one person working in a farm. In China, less technology tied people together.
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Machines are not always a bad thing. I worked a lot of physical labor so I was in a good shape. I usually work fifteen hours a day.
JUN WANG:
That sounds very healthy.
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
Healthy, but when you worked by yourself, you didn't talk a lot.
JUN WANG:
How about your wife Hope?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
She got a job and usually got home late. We eventually had a son in 1988. He's 11 years old now.

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JUN WANG:
Do you want him to be a farmer?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
I want him to learn the skills, how to do some of those things that I learned from my grandfather. It is an irreplaceable ability to be able to fix things, to be able to know that you can grow enough food to feed yourself and other people. I know I can do that.
JUN WANG:
Do you have a garden in Chapel Hill home?
CHARLES D. THOMPSON:
A very small garden. That's why it's so frustrating. It's only about the size of your room here. I plant tomatoes, bezels. But not like corn, those big field things. It's frustrating. I am still looking for the perfect balance in life. Yin and Yang or something. I need the intellectual stimulation and interactions with other people on a regular basis. And I also need to relate to the soil.
END OF INTERVIEW