Charles Church: The evangelist of farming
Charles Church was born February 2, 1946, from the mountain land, into a family that lived from agriculture. He was the fifth generation of farmers in his family in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, and his life was dedicated to farming in a world in which this had become an eccentricity or a luxury. The only way to survive was to believe. Watauga River Farms was the pillar of the local food system and his loss will be felt throughout the High County community.
Church started farming as soon as he was old enough to walk, beginning when he was three or four years old by helping in the tobacco field, planting cabbage, and picking up potatoes. He started to help with the milking when he was seven. At age seven, his father let him plant a few rows of tobacco on his own and Church made $22.17 (in 1953 dollars); by age eight, he had a quarter acre that was all his. Church grew tobacco for 55 solid years, “until it became so unprofitable it was ridiculous,” he said (in an interview Feb. 13, 2011 http://appalachianfoodstorybank.org/charles-church/), and he used to be one of the largest burley tobacco growers in the state. In 2000, he became the first large-scale farmer in the High Country to transition from tobacco to organic vegetables.
Charles was always changing to keep up with the times, at the same time that he kept the past alive. He was the link between the past and the future -– he taught us through his stories how things used to be and how they could be different again, what a local food system would look like and how it could work.
Charles told the story that when he got the chance to start planting organic broccoli in 2000, with help from a tobacco transition grant, he knew how to do it because he used to do it for Bill Wilson 25 years ago — Bill would come and pick it 3 days a week and pay him, and all he had to do was grow it. Their connection began before that, when Bill first moved to Watauga County as part of the back-to-the-land movement in 1972. Charles accepted him as a farmer even though he was a newcomer, and inspired him to begin farming tobacco.
Charles was continually convincing people to go into farming in the High Country—anyone he could get to listen to him about the opportunities in organic agriculture, from the nurse at the hospital who took care of his aunt to people he met at the Mountain City auction. He depended on the help on Ray Reece (who passed away in 2011), his friend from childhood and a brilliant mechanic, to keep everything running around the farm. Charles was heterodox — an amazing storyteller, his voice scratchy from the years. He took his time to talk and always had a story to tell. One way he paid taxes was to help his neighbors.
From the first days of Maverick Farms in May 2004, Charles helped us every way he could and said many times how happy he was to see “the kids” coming back to work the land. He said Hillary was one of the hardest workers he’d ever seen. He helped us with tractor work, with vehicles, with seeds, compost and straw – he knew we didn’t have any money, so we’d set up a trading account each season, and he would come to farm dinners (sometimes dancing to the old-time music) or call on us for help whenever we could do something for him. We always needed a truck, and then help repairing it, and Charles would ask Ray to come over to help us get the truck running again. Once we bought a real old blue truck for a couple hundred dollars from Charles—when it quit running and we decided it was just too much to fix it anymore, we traded it back to Charles for a couple bushels of seed potatoes—and were amazed when we saw that Ray had gotten that truck running again. We depended on him until the very end to help us get our hogs to the processing plant in Wilkesboro — when our hogs were ready and Charles had extra room on his truck, he would load ours up and take them down off the mountain.
Charles helped fellow farmers, instead of seeing them as competitors. As someone who was spreading the word about farming, he saw each new person he could convince to get into farming as a success. His door was always open and he was ready to share what he knew with anyone, following the Bible to “Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38). In a world of work that privileges competition, he always prioritized cooperation. He once said, “The opportunity for people to grow, to make money is standing right in front of them, if they would just take advantage of it, and I have never seen that in my whole life, being able to sell what you grew and get a good price. Usually what you grew, you were at the mercy of whoever would buy it for whatever they would pay you, and you would go home counting your loses, usually. Now it’s altogether different and the opportunity is wide open” (Charles Church Feb. 13, 2011).
Charles was always optimistic — hopeful that every new season would be the good one. The depth of his loss for the farming community, especially young farmers, is immeasurable. But this season, as we start the spring planting, Charles is with us, inspiring us to keep going even when times are hard.
Excerpt from 2005 interviews with Charles Church:
Charles Church was born February 2, 1946 in Mountain City, Tennessee, where his great uncle was the doctor in the four room hospital clinic there. Church owned around eighty-eight acres of land in 2005, of which seven acres are cropped in vegetables and around twenty in hay. He rented an additional thirty to forty acres of farmland from various people around Valle Crucis. In total, he farmed approximately twenty acres of certified-organic vegetables, ten acres of non-certified vegetables, eight to ten acres of tobacco (until he stopped in 2007-8) and another twenty to thirty acres of hay.
Church started farming as soon as he was old enough to walk, beginning when he was three or four years old by helping in the tobacco, planting cabbage, and picking up potatoes. He started to help with the milking when he was seven. At age seven, Church made $22.17 off his own row of tobacco, in 1953 dollars; by age eight, he had a quarter acre that was all his own.
For at least the last seventy-five years, the Church family has been one of the first to adopt new business plans and farming technology. Charles Church’s father Ralph Church was one of the first people to grow tobacco in Watauga County in the early 1930s. In 1953, Ralph Church was one of the first two people to buy tractors in Valle Crucis (Arlie Hodges was the other person), and Church kept this tractor his whole life. Church grew tobacco solid for 55 years, and he used to be the one of the largest burley tobacco growers in the state, “state until it became so unprofitable it was ridiculous,” he said, and he became the first large-scale farmer in the High Country to transition from tobacco to organic vegetables in 2000.
A tragedy occurred in the family when Church’s father Ralph died at age forty-five, in 1956, when Church was ten years old. His grandfather died two years later, “of a broken heart” because he had been extremely close to his son, and he never recovered after his sudden death. Church grew up fast after that, saying “I was an old man at 15.”
For the first two or three years after Ralph died, the family rented the farmland out. But in 1958, at age twelve, Church and his mother started to put tobacco out, and by 1960, Church took the farm over himself, when he was age fourteen and in eighth grade. He says, “[Taking over the farm] wasn’t a big decision, my mother knew I wanted to do it so she let me.” Church says he probably did not make the best decisions when he first started out, but he had a lot of help from the extension office, and he learned quickly. He started by growing several acres of hay, half an acre of tobacco (that was the quota), and four or five acres of cabbage. He would plough the fields with a horse, and hoe all of it by hand. He would borrow horses from the neighbor, and keep them a couple days, plowing from seven o’clock in the morning until six o’clock at night, so that by the evening he and his friend could hardly walk and the horses were completely “lathered up.” He laid out of school a lot, he says, though he graduated high school and went to Catawba Valley Tech for one year of junior college. Church’s heart was in farming, though, regardless of the fact that he says he probably disappointed his mother’s side of the family by dropping out of school. Many of them were schoolteachers, and highly valued education.
Church married Betty Smith in 1965, when they were both nineteen, and he was drafted into the Army right after that. He sold his cattle, truck, and rented the farm out, but after three days they sent him home because of his asthma. He said he wasn’t disappointed, “because it was going to cost me a fortune to leave the farm.”
In order to make a little extra money, Church got a temporary job with a surveying crew on Beech Mountain, in 1972. His friend Forrest Reece needed someone to run the backhoe one day, and it came naturally to Church since it was “a lot like driving a tractor.” He bought a half interest in the backhoe, and then bought Reece out completely after a couple weeks. In thirty-three years, Church said he has never had a day without a backhoe job, 90 percent of which is repeat business. His sons helped him work the backhoe and truck and run the bulldozer and dump trucks, to dig out roads, house sites, water lines, and septic systems. The income from this off-farm job is what allowed Church to keep the farm going all through the years, helping pay the workers and cover the income gaps that come with the farming season.