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High Country Experiences ‘Huge Loss’ Sunday With Passing of Valle Crucis Farmer Charles Church

Charles Church - Photo by Jessica Kennedy
Charles Church – Photo by Jessica Kennedy (For more of her photos, click here.)

“I promise every farmer that was out in the fields today was thinking about Charles.” Amy Fielder of Springhouse Farm

By Jesse Wood

April 29, 2013. The High Country and, in particular, the surrounding agricultural community experienced a huge loss yesterday with the passing of Charles Church, the 67-year-old farmer of Valle Crucis.

He passed away Sunday at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.

Church was not only an innovator in the farming fields; he was also a kind, generous man and a mentor to many farmers in the area. 

Amy Fiedler of Springhouse Farms, who is in her fifth year of farming, was one of those farmers who sought Church’s farming knowledge. No matter how busy Church was with his own Watauga River Farms operation, Fiedler said Church took the time to visit and help her out during “crisis moments.” 

“He made so many trips out to my farm to check the soil or check my problems and was never to busy to help us. I think the beauty of Charles is he was so encouraging to young farmers,” Fiedler said. “I would call and panic if the fields were underwater or the crops weren’t coming up. There’s a lot of pressure in farming, and he just taught me to be tough. He taught me to never give up, and he really taught me not to sweat the small stuff. If you ever try farming for a living, it’s a very, very hard living and stressful. He was always there and supportive.” 

She added, “I always attribute so much of what I know to the time I spent with him, the time he so selflessly gave to me and to the rest of the farming community.” 

Just as Fiedler noted, the crew at Maverick Farms – in a eulogy printed below – mentioned that Church helped fellow farmers “instead of seeing them as competitors.” 

Courtesy of New River Organic Growers website
Courtesy of New River Organic Growers website

The final words of the eulogy praising Church stated, “Charles was always optimistic — hopeful that every new season would be the good one. The depth of his loss for the young farming community is immeasurable. But this season, as we do the spring planting, Charles is with us, inspiring us to keep going even when times are hard.” 

Jim Hamilton, director of the Watauga County Cooperative Extension, called Church’s passing a “huge loss.” Hamilton said that Church likely mentored more farmers in Watauga County than anyone else and was on the top of the list of folks in the area to call with an agricultural question. 

“Charles is one of those guys who could talk to anybody. It didn’t matter if you were a free-range, organic, gluten-free vegetarian farmer or a hardened, old school, fifth generation farmer. He could talk to anybody,” Hamilton said. “He will truly be missed.” 

Church was instrumental in the formation of New River Organic Growers and was one of – if not the first – farmer in Watauga County to receive organic certification. He had a presence at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market. He collaborated with ASU. He was an influential Farm Bureau board member, and he offered his farmland for demonstrations and other educational programs. And that just touches the surface of his work in the agricultural community and beyond.

He was also one of the first farmers to make the transition from growing tobacco, which used to be a huge source of income for local farmers, to growing and raising organic foods, which is now in high demand and sold before it is even harvested.    

“He was a leader, a true innovator in the county,” Hamilton said.

A Watauga County native, Church had been farming for decades.

Church told High Country Press in a 2008 profile, “I’ve worked on this farm since I was big enough to walk … As soon as I could carry a bucket, I was helping feed the animals, milk the cows and do what needed to be done. The jobs were hard, but back then, we did what we were told. You did what had to be done.”

As Fielder said, “I promise every farmer that was out in the fields today was thinking about Charles.”

Funeral services for Church are scheduled for Wednesday, May 1, at 3:00 p.m. at Hampton Funeral Home Chapel. Prior to the service, family will receive friends from 12:30 to 3 p.m. at the funeral home. At other times, friends may call at the residence, 2953 N.C. 194 in Sugar Grove.


Charles Church: The Evangelist of Farming

Eulogy of Church From Hillary Wilson and Maverick Farms

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, and his life was dedicated to farming in a world in which this is 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, 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 own. 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 the 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 real 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, and 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 died 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 hogs 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 13 Feb 2011). 

Charles was always optimistic — hopeful that every new season would be the good one. The depth of his loss for the young farming community is immeasurable. But this season, as we do the spring planting, Charles is with us, inspiring us to keep going even when times are hard.


Charles A. Church, February 2, 1946 – April 28, 2013

Charles A. Church, age 67, of 2953 NC Highway 194 South, Sugar Grove, the Valle Crucis Community, passed away Sunday, April 28, 2013, at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.

ChurchCharles was born February 2, 1946 in Johnson County, Tennessee, a son of the late Ralph M. Church and Laura F. Church. He was farmer and farm owner in the Valle Crucis Community. Charles was a member of Valle Crucis United Methodist Church where he was former Superintendent of Sunday School. He was a board member of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, past secretary of Watauga County Parks and Rec, past member of the Watauga County Planning Board, past member of the North Carolina Agriculture and Sustainability. Charles also helped organize the New River Organic Growers and the Eastern Carolina Organics.

Charles is survived by his wife, Betty Smith Church of the home; three sons, Ralph Church and wife Amy of Valle Crucis, Chuck Church and wife Kelly of Sugar Grove, and Joel Church of Valle Crucis; four grandsons, Matthew Church and fiancee Nicole Sbrizzi of Zionville, Dillon Church of Valle Crucis, Kevin Church, and Jeremy Church, both of Sugar Grove; a special nephew, Otis Watson and wife Sonja of Wilkesboro; a special niece, Gail Watson Hicks and husband Dewayne of Butler, Tennessee, and one sister-in-law, Shelia Grindstaff and husband Jerry of Vilas. He is also survived by a number of nieces and nephews.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by one sister, Laura Milton Hodges.

Funeral services for Charles A. Church will be conducted Wednesday afternoon, May 1, 2013, at 3:00 o’clock, at Hampton Funeral Home Chapel. The body will lie in state, at the chapel, from 12:30 until 3:00 o’clock. Officiating will be Reverend Delmar James. Private graveside services and burial will follow in the Baird Family Cemetery.

The family will receive friends Wednesday afternoon, from 12:30 until 3:00 o’clock, at the funeral home, prior to the service. At other times, friends may call at the residence, 2953 NC Highway 194 South, Sugar Grove.

Flowers are appreciated, or memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society, Watauga Relay For Life, 4-A Oak Branch Drive, Greensboro, North Carolina, 27407.

Online condolences may be sent to the Church family at www.hamptonfuneralnc.com.

Hampton Funeral and Cremation Service is in charge of the arrangements.