CHARLIE'S FARM: Dreams, List Keep Lauderdale County Farm Thriving
By Darryal Ray
He keeps his dreams in the bib of his overalls, scrawled out on a slip of paper right along with the day's to-do list, phone calls to make and possible business opportunities.
|Almost 200 sheep and lambs and 800 chickens share 80 acres of pasture at Charlie Thompson's Lauderdale County farm. |
"I guess I just dream a lot," Charlie Thompson says as he unfolds the list he keeps tucked away inside his black Alfa pocket calendar.
Some dreams -- like the one he had a couple months back about a portable processing plant or an Adopt-A-Farmer program -- come to him in his sleep. Others, more like ideas than dreams, come to him as he goes about the business of farming or working at the paper mill.
No matter how they come, they make Charlie's list.
In fact, it was one of Charlie's dreams that brought him to where he is today -- sitting in a rocker on the front porch of a beautiful 11,000-square-foot house he's been building for more than a decade. "I call it a PAG house -- Pay As You Go," he says, explaining that much of the house -- from the massive hand-hewn logs that make up many of its interior walls to the 5,200 bricks in the basement walls -- has been recycled from odds and ends of six old farmsteads and two old schools.
"Before I built this house, I envisioned this house being here. I saw it, but I didn't see it this big! I didn't see it like this!" says Charlie. "Hopefully, it'll be completed in the next couple of years. We might move into it this year because my wife's giving me so much grief about it. I tell her, 'If we don't live in it, the kids will.' Of course, that goes over real well."
For now, however, Charlie and Cynthia Thompson live about a 100 yards away in a century-old farmhouse that also doubles as a serve-yourself market for one of Alabama's more unusual -- if not most diverse -- family farms.
About 800 chickens of numerous varieties roam freely over 80 acres, sharing the pastures and fields with goats, sheep, geese, honeybees and a large white Pyrenees guard dog. Out back, there's an outbuilding where about 200 roosters raise a racket and a hutch where 40 white female rabbits provide meat for processing and fertilizer for the fields.
Depending on the time of year, the crops may include anything from watermelons to pumpkins to peas and tomatoes.
Each week, scores of customers pull into the Thompsons' driveway, just off U.S. 101 near the small Lauderdale County town of Lexington and help themselves to the eggs in the porch refrigerator or honey in a cooler heated by a 30-watt bulb. They take what they need, and drop the money in a small red "honor" bucket. He takes any leftovers to a food bank operated by his church.
"It works," says Charlie, the 52-year-old president of the Lauderdale County Farmers Federation. "We'll move probably 100 dozen of eggs and maybe five gallons of honey a week. And when we have tomatoes, we'll average about a ton of tomatoes each year."
While the front porch market is successful, it's not the only sales outlet. The pea patch is u-pick, the watermelons are sold off the truck down at the intersection and the pumpkins draw about 4,000 to 5,000 people to the farm even in a bad year. He's marketed his lambs to mosques and rabbits to a cruise line.
"You have to make it pay, and it has paid," he says, adding that it hasn't always been easy. "You may think you are on your own timetable, but you're really not -- you're on the good Lord's timetable, and things will click for you when they're supposed to."
The son of a bank president, he says he chose farming because "I didn't want to sit behind a desk."
But there were other reasons, too. As a teenager, a bank robbery and kidnapping in nearby Town Creek left a lasting impression on Charlie, especially after law enforcement discovered a similar plot to kidnap his family and rob the bank.
"I got tired of toting a gun everywhere when I was a kid," he said. "The FBI would be up on our roof or hiding out in the woods, and I'd be sitting at my bedroom window with a gun. My job was, if somebody raised the window, to shoot until I emptied my gun. That's how serious they were. At that time, that's the way it was."
Even so, he was only 17 or 18 hours from receiving his finance and marketing degree from the University of North Alabama and "destined to work in a bank before I just said, 'Enough's enough.'"
"Daddy -- he was flustered at me a little bit -- and he said, 'Just what do you think you want to do?'" Charlie recalled. "I said, 'The paper mill is a good place to work. They're hiring.' I've been there ever since and I enjoy it. A lot of folks don't like their job, but I enjoy working there."
The mill's oddly rotating work shifts fit well into Charlie's brand of farming. "I'd have to run a combine or cotton picker at night and stuff and that didn't work with my job," he explained. "So, I had to do what I could, and this is what it turned into. ... If you'd told me 20 years ago that I'd be doing this, I'd have looked at you cross-eyed."
The job satisfaction, however, can't be beat. "God enjoyed walking in his Garden and I enjoy walking in mine. There's nothing like going out there when those trees are full of walnuts or you see a three-pound tomato growing on your vine," Charlie says. "It's just satisfying. It does something for you. That's the way God built us. ... In my opinion, a couple of things are required to raise young'uns -- one's a creek and one's a barn. If you've got a creek and barn, they can play and have a good ol' time and use their imagination, kind of think for themselves."
He says the creek-and-barn approach worked for his own kids -- son Jeremy is in medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and daughter Laura is in pharmacy school at Auburn University. "I tell 'em, 'It's going to be aggravating for you to get your medical degree and then have to come back here to sell eggs and honey,'" he says with a laugh.
Charlie, however, prefers "playing in the dirt" ... and adding dreams and ideas to his list -- dreams like the one about turning a gooseneck trailer into a mobile processing facility for rabbits and chickens. He's already approached Charlie Meek, coordinator of the USDA's Northwest Alabama Resource Conservation & Development Council, with the idea.
"He kinda laughed at me a minute, but finally he said, 'Alright.' So I knew he was thinking about it," said Charlie. "The next day he called me up, 'You're not going to believe this!' He'd gotten on YouTube and there were about four states that had already done this. I said, 'Let me guess -- it's got a roll-out canopy, it's made of stainless steel and aluminum, got an onboard generator, and hot water heater and freezer.' He says, 'You've seen this!' I said, 'I have not ... well, I've seen it but it was in a dream.'"
Adopt-A-Farmer was another dream, an agricultural educational project targeted to fifth- and sixth-graders that enables farmers to share their story or maybe let the kids grow a garden on the farm. He's already registered possible domain names for Internet sites for the program.
"There are folks out there who think, 'You're tearing the world up! You're polluting! You're pesticiding me to death! We want our food from Wal-Mart!' ... farmers have a story to tell and in my opinion, we're about 30 years behind on getting our story told," Charlie said. "I just had that dream and need some help from somebody with expertise in developing programs and maybe getting the Web site developed. It's kind of like when a light goes off in your head. Mine just took awhile."