The Peanut Podcast Episode 20 How I Got Here: Stories from the Farm

How I Got Here: Stories from the FarmOct 2, 2023

Whether today’s farmers come from a multi-generational line of growers or they’re the first generation to be called to agriculture, those paths are filled with twists and turns, challenges, redemption and kindness. In this episode, we’re sharing compelling stories from the peanut grower community that open up new opportunities, possibilities and appreciation in agriculture. Featured peanut farmer guests on this episode are Karla Thompson of Georgia, Jan Jones of Georgia and Lonnie Fortner of Mississippi. Below are a few excerpts from the episode, but you can listen to the full episode here.

We first spoke with Karla Thompson of JET Farms in Southwest Georgia. Karla is a recent graduate of the Peanut Leadership Academy (PLA). But Karla’s farm story began about 12 years ago when she married into a farming family. Karla grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and had no background in agriculture when she married Aaron Thompson. Both practiced law for several years in Phoenix, Arizona, before Aaron’s father called and asked him to come back to their farm in southwest Georgia.

“When I started, it wasn't really clear what it was going to look like for me to be there as a city girl and a lawyer,” Karla said. “So, I spent as much time learning as much as I possibly could. I really started out filing paperwork, shadowing Aaron's sister in meetings, riding along with my father-in-law. Just kind of trying to absorb this totally new world.”

Over time Karla began to learn more and more. She found a special passion for QuickBooks and used her accounting and institutional knowledge from when she worked for a more formal corporation to help the farm.

“For me, working with my husband is probably the best thing in the world,” Karla said. “We get to work together every single day and whenever there's something hard that comes up, I've got, you know, the ultimate person in my corner to back me up.”

Next, we spoke to Jan Jones from Climax, Georgia. Jan is also a PLA graduate and while she grew up on the farm, she didn’t start out seeing herself as a farmer. She remembers helping bottle feed and raise calves when needed and selling boiled peanuts for extra cash with her sisters.

“I don't know that I consciously chose a different path,” Jan said. “I think it was more that I just never considered that as a path to take growing up. And I think that was mostly because I knew plenty of women who helped their family run the farm. but it was mostly from like a bookkeeping role or just helping with the day-to-day management of it and stuff like that. But I didn't know any of them who were actually driving the tractors and doing the manual labor.”

Jan’s parents encouraged her to find a career she loved, so she went to school and got an
English degree. But after one year of teaching, Jan decided it wasn’t for her and moved back to the farm in 2013 to regroup. She says this was the formal start to her farming career. As Jan sent out resumes to try to get her dream job in publishing, she helped her dad out around the farm. However, the longer she stayed, the more she realized she liked it, and eventually she stopped sending her resume out.

“Then by that fall, Dad was like, ‘okay, so what are you doing? What's your goal? What’s your plan here?’” Jan said. “We sat down and we talked about it. I was like, ‘You know, I think I'd like to stay, I think I'd like to do something.’ So, he just piled on a lot more jobs, and pretty soon I was running everything. The spreader buggy, the sprayer, and the planter later on… I am involved in every facet of our farming operation.”

Finally, we spoke to Lonnie Fortner from Southwest Mississippi. Lonnie is the Mississippi member on the National Peanut Board. Lonnie’s story begins in the 1980s. He grew up on a farm around Starkville, Mississippi and his family farm did not survive the farm turmoil of the 1980s. So, Lonnie went to college and began working for the Department of Agriculture, eventually becoming the county executive director (CED) for the Farm Service Agency (FSA).

As CED for the FSA, Lonnie got to know some farm families well. One family he worked with knew Lonnie wanted to get back into farming, but also knew how difficult it was to do so.

“I get a phone call one day that asked if I wanted to come down there and start managing. You know, working with them,” Lonnie said. “And so, it was hard not to say yes right there on the telephone. And I realized I was married now. I had to get permission or get [my wife] Karen on board. And so, she didn't say no.”

Lonnie quit his job and moved down to Claiborne County to start farming.

“I was very thankful for the opportunity that I got to go back down and start farming with a family – the Gedons,” Lonnie said. “And then Jacque, of course, James, we called him Jacque. They were very entrenched in the operation, and so we got a chance to join them. And then work our way into that into that partnership. And I give them all the credit in the world. They gave me free reins to basically just go down and start farming, and I was able to develop. I managed more in the field everyday operations and they were willing to give me the room to grow and develop the system that we basically are farming today. And so, I give my my daddy all the credit in the world for teaching me how to farm. I grew up on a truck seat.”

Peanuts were added to his operation in 2002 when the Farm Bill ended the quota system. They grew their first peanut crop in 2004 and have grown them ever since. One of the greatest parts of getting back on the farm for Lonnie is the full-circle moments when his father is able to come back and help him.

“That's one of the great things that's come out of this,” Lonnie said. “Now Daddy can come back, he comes back in the fall, and helps me get the crop out, you know. He'll, he'll come run the bean combine while we're picking cotton and you know, so it's been it's been really good.”

Listen to the full episode here.

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