The Disappearing Landscape of Family Farms

Oct 29, 2019

It wasn’t that long ago that one of every three people in this country were farmers. But over the last century small farming has been almost entirely replaced by agri-business, land development and better paying jobs in practically every other industry. Farmer, activist, and educator Charlie Thompson grew up in southwest Virginia amid a disappearing landscape of family farms.

His new book is called, GOING OVER HOME, A Search for Rural Justice in an Unsettled Land.

Charles Thompson is Professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology and Documentary Studies at Duke University. 

His seventh book, GOING OVER HOME, A Search for Rural Justice in an Unsettled Land digs deeper into the bucolic myth of small scale farming in America, through the lens of his own family’s experiences.  “Even though we've had the right language,” that speaks of supporting farmers, “ starting with Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries’ own words, we really have made it next to impossible for the small grower to really compete with those that are the large growers.”

Thompson comes from a long line of family farmers.  As a child, he loved visiting his grandparents’ farm in Franklin County and loved everything about farming. In delving deeper as an adult, he learned about the darker side of farming. “And as I started to look back, I realized that even in the very beginning of our country when plantations that used enslaved people, were growing much of the crops for export, there had never been a level playing field. There's never been a time in our past, in the good old days of agriculture, when, when everyone was making a good living. People in rural areas have been innovative and entrepreneurial and figured out ways to survive. But I realized in the farm crisis of the 1980s that all that was coming to a head at that point had really been 150 years in the making.”

Today’s trade embargoes are only the latest blow, says Thompson. For years, government assistance for farming has been heavily weighted toward large corporate entities with their economies of scale. “If they are more efficient, why do they need government aid?  If we take that away,” he argues, “and give special attention to young people, who are trying to raise food on a local level and provide it to consumers that they know and can be in a community with, I think that we're really going to open up a tremendous entrepreneurial wave.”

Thompson says countries like Denmark and Italy have made a decision to support small scale agriculture, but he points out, “There are so many young people who are volunteering and working on farms today who have no access to credit.”

And that's what he faced in his twenties, when he and his wife, Hope, "did a lot of fighting (for) and a lot of studying, to figure out how to get a government loan for what was called a ‘beginning and limited resource farmer.’ I think we need a national policy to favor the young,  the people who are willing to work hard.”

Thompson remembers his grandfather’s struggles farming cattle and how he could only make ends meet by taking on additional jobs. Years later, the family farm was sold, like so many others in Virginia and the rest of the country. And seeing the gradual death of a way of life he loved politicized him. “And that, led me eventually to work with African American communities and also immigrant communities.” He’s lived in Guatemala and  worked in Mexico, and it lead him to realize “that many of the people we're seeing trying to cross the border or really crossing the border and working in agriculture are actually people who have been displaced from their rural communities in much the same way that my own family had. It gave me a whole different view on the world and an empathy for rural people everywhere, whom I feel a special affinity for.”
 

When Thompson told his mother the title of the book, “Going Over Home” she said, “that's what daddy always said, ‘going over home.’ We're going over home.’ And he meant going from Rocky Mount, Virginia over to Calloway, where he was born and where their family farm was. By then he had become a doctor, but he took his children ‘over home’ often.

The phrase comes from a song called, “The Wayfaring Stranger” an American Folk Gospel song. “When we talk of people not having access to land and longing for home in a place where Jim Crow was so powerful and had its hold on the South, I thought, this is so much more than just a hymn about hoping to go to heaven. It's about land. It's about power and having a hold in one's own community. And indeed, that's really what my search for justice has become.

Charlie Thompson will speak Thursday  evening  November 7th at a benefit for SustainFloyd.

What:  SustainFloyd’s “Dine for a Cause,” Beans and Rice Dinner and Speaker Charles D. Thompson, Jr.

When:  Thursday, November 7, 2019, 6:00 p.m. dinner; Speaker at about 7 p.m.

Where:  Floyd EcoVillage, 188 Eco Village Trail, Floyd, VA (behind Wall Residences, 718 Franklin Pike, Floyd)

Cost:  Free event; Donations to SustainFloyd are welcomed; Book sales to benefit SustainFloyd