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Small farmer finds success with prawn industry

Three hip replacements later, Thompson began Thompson’s Prawn Farm in Cedar Grove, N.C.

Thompson said his surgeries coincided with the 2004 United States government buyout of the tobacco industry.

“When the tobacco buyout happened, I had medical problems, so this is why I got out of tobacco farming,” he said. “If it weren’t for that I would still be farming tobacco.”

The Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004 eliminated price support loans, which Thompson said forced small farmers like him out of tobacco farming.

“If you don’t get big, you get out,” he said.

Richard Reich, assistant commissioner for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the number of tobacco farms has decreased statewide in the last few years for several reasons.

He said there have been consolidations of smaller tobacco farms to improve efficiency, which had led to a decrease in the number of total farms.

“The tobacco industry has even more pressure on it, so the demand for tobacco has declined and that’s been a factor as well,” Reich said.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture census, there were 95 tobacco farms in Orange County in 1992. In 2012, the number of tobacco farms dropped to 14.

Thompson said when he first started prawn farming he dug a two-acre pond, ordered baby shrimp from Texas and began feeding them.

He said the prawn growing season begins in mid-May and lasts until September.

“I really enjoy (prawn farming) because you meet so many different people that come by and they’re interested and asking questions,” Thompson said. “It’s so beautiful.”

As a prawn farmer, Thompson has to be punctual when feeding his shrimp.

He said the shrimp get used to feeding at a certain time. His day at the farm usually begins at 7:30 a.m. when he throws a 50-pound bag of feed into the ponds.

“You like breakfast, you like lunch, you like supper,” Thompson said. “Shrimp do the same thing.”

In addition to prawns, Thompson said he raises vegetables, hogs and wheat.

In 2010, Thompson won the Gilmer L. and Clara Y. Dudley Small Farmer of the Year Award from N.C. A&T State University.

“They support farmers around here,” Thompson said. “You gotta be doing something different from someone else before they recommend you.”

Thompson said the community has expressed a lot of interest in his prawns. He said he sells them to the general public, grocery stores and restaurants in the Chapel Hill area.

Thompson’s Prawn Farm is the only freshwater prawn producer west of I-95 in North Carolina.

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“It was something new to (people) when we first started and everybody was just overwhelmed to see fresh seafood being raised out here in the country,” Geraldine Thompson, Joe Thompson’s wife, said.

Geraldine Thompson said people come to the farm from all over North Carolina on prawn harvest day.

“They just haven’t seen it done before, so they’re so interested in seeing how it’s done,” she said.