Last week, I had the privilege of meeting Joe Thompson, who went from growing tobacco to growing freshwater prawns on his farm in northern Orange County. Thompson was honored March 24 with the 2010 Gilmer L. and Clara Y. Dudley Small Farmer of the Year Award from N.C. A&T State University.
Joe is among a growing number of N.C. farmers who have converted their operations from tobacco to aquaculture in recent years. He is also one of the many examples of the innovative, can-do spirit North Carolina farmers are famous for.
Joe switched from tobacco to prawns after a series of hip surgeries caused him to think about a form of farming that was less physically demanding. He built two ponds on his farm with his own equipment and some local help. He remodeled an old tobacco barn into storage and freezer space, and built a walk-in freezer out of used freezer panels. He even designed a portable ice maker with a storage bin instead of buying ice. Joe figures that these and other innovative ideas have saved him more than $50,000 as he continues to build his prawn operation. The 61-year-old is now working on adding a third pond. By 2011, he expects to have four ponds and 7,500 pounds of prawns.
Small farms such as Thompson’s Prawn Farm are the bedrock of North Carolina agriculture. Nearly 91 percent of farms in the state are family-owned and operated, and 88 percent generate annual gross sales of $250,000 or less. Small Farms Week recognizes the contributions of these producers in North Carolina, and I always look forward to meeting with them at A&T’s Small Farmers’ Appreciation Day.
The NCDA&CS has a small-farms office that assists small, limited-resource and minority farmers with a variety of matters, including marketing, farmland preservation and managing risk. You can find out more about this office here.