CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hall Family Farm in Ballantyne was under fire Monday after an employee reportedly made racially insensitive comments to a group of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) students on a field trip.
The farm employee reportedly told the group of mostly African American students that they were "not there to pick cotton."
The farm owners defended the employee, saying it was just a poor choice of words. But parents, staff, and the woman who originally posted about the incident on social media said they’re still very upset.
When Kathy Capps took to Facebook to share her experience at Hall Family Farm, she never expected it would blow up like this.
“When people treat any of the children in our city badly, we all need to stand up," said Capps.
The post shared hundreds of times recounted what happened when a group of kids from Thomasboro Academy visited the Hall Family Farm earlier this month, specifically, what one employee said to the group.
“She said, 'You’re not here to pick cotton today. You’re not here to pick fruit. You’re here to pick pumpkins. Y'all go sit under those trees, 'cause I know how y'all like shade,” Capps said.
The fury poured in, and people attacked the family farm on social media all night.
“Pretty much immediately accused of us being a racist operation," said farm owner Kevin Hall, who added he and his wife were blindsided.
In fact, the Halls thought the incident was settled weeks ago -- when they apologized to the school for their employee’s comments.
“Her talk to get the children excited was something to the effect of, 'I’m glad you all aren’t here to go cotton picking or nose picking, you're here to go pumpkin picking!” Hall said. “We immediately spoke to the employee told her that that was a stupid choice of words, but we feel very strongly knowing her for many, many years that that’s all it was it was a stupid choice of words."
The Halls said they offered to speak with school administrators in person but never heard anything more about it until Capps' post began making the rounds Monday.
“The fact that in this day of time someone would even make an off-the-cuff comment like that there’s no instance where it’s going to be funny or appropriate,” Capps said.
The Halls said they won't fire the employee because she's a trusted family friend. But Capps and her friends at Thomasboro said they won't back down either.
“Our goal is to educate them and fight the cycle of poverty, so anything that stops that I’m gonna go after,” said Capps.
The Halls added the employee called the school administrators to offer a tearful apology, but some still said that’s not enough.
Here is Kevin Hall's full statement:
I am greatly distressed to report that today I was made aware of a public allegation of racism against a longtime employee of our farm and against Hall Family Farm, presumably for not dealing with the matter appropriately. These allegations arise from a single incident that occurred on an elementary school tour on October 3rd. This post is written to present the facts to our many thousands of loyal customers that have visited our farm in the 11 years that we have been in the u-pick strawberry and pumpkin business.
October 3rd was a miserably hot 90 degree fall day. The incident occurred on the pumpkin picking portion of the tour where one or two classes are taken to the field by one of our tour guides and given a short educational presentation about the fruit that they are about to pick, including facts about growing, harvesting, using the fruit, and in the case of strawberries, proper picking procedure to protect the plants. We have never had a written script to follow and each guide speaks freely. In 11 years of conducting field trips, I estimate that we have had less than 15 tour guides. Most of the guides begin their presentation with some humorous back and forth to get the students attention. A typical start to the presentation would be as follows: Guide, "Students! Are you here to pick squash?" Students, "No! "Guide, "Are you here to pick cucumbers?" Students, "No!" Guide, "Are you here to pick strawberries?" Students, "Yes!" The details vary, but this is representative of the beginning of the picking portion of the tour. In this incident, the guide started with: Guide, "Today I'm happy that you aren't cotton pickers or nose pickers. You are pumpkin pickers!" This is the basis of the allegation of racism.
Our accounting records show that this was the first time that this CMS school has attended a field trip to our farm. Not a single teacher or accompanying adult made us aware that day of any issue that they had with the tour. As I stated earlier, the day was miserably hot. Our staff worked diligently to make their field trip as enjoyable as possible. Multiple students were given free cold drinks when they exhibited signs of heat stress. One teacher did, in fact, present signs of heat exhaustion, so our staff brought her into the sales tent where she was able to cool off in front of our cooler. Several of the teachers from the school purchased funnel cakes and drinks after the incident occurred. The school stayed on the farm a typical amount of time, and at no time were we made aware that they had any issue with the field trip in general, or with a staff member in particular.
The next day my wife took a phone call from an administrator at the school. An immediate accusation of racism was made. My wife apologized profusely and attempted to explain the situation regarding the pumpkin picking narrative. She immediately informed the female tour guide who led that particular tour about the accusation. Our employee related to us in detail exactly what she recalled saying. Later that day she voluntarily called the school and spoke to an assistant principal. She apologized profusely and explained the situation. She was in tears by the end of the conversation.
The next day a woman from St. Luke Church came to the farm and asked to speak to the owners. She stated that her church sponsored this school and she was here to hear our side of the story. Both my wife and I spoke to her at length and explained to her exactly what happened. The woman informed us that this same school had accused the Charlotte Ballet of making a racist comment on a previous field trip, and suggested that we offer something to de-escalate the situation. She then suggested that we offer the school a refund. My response was that I didn't believe that our employee said or did anything that was intentionally racist or disrespectful; that offering a refund could be interpreted as an admission of guilt; that offering a refund would not necessarily, in the words of the St. Luke woman, "make this go away". I said that she made a poor choice of words, but there was absolutely no intent to be disparaging or condescending to these students. I explained to her that our guides have made the same introduction, sometimes with the same word choice, sometimes with different words, to tens of thousands of students for the past 11 years. We have not had a single incident like this in any of those thousands of field trips by preschools, daycare centers, private schools, CMS schools, Union County schools, Lancaster County schools, or York County schools.
The woman from St. Luke raised a concern that the school administrators felt that my wife laughed at them in their phone conversation. My wife admitted that she responded to the immediate accusation with a tired "laugh". Bear in mind that this incident occurred during one of the most frustrating, difficult seasons we have experienced as farmers. The extreme heat and humidity ruined our entire crop of pumpkins before we even opened. The financial loss was thousands of dollars. Then Hurricane Florence severely damaged the best corn maze we have grown in years. Then the extreme heat kept customers away for the first 3 weeks that we were open. Then we lost an entire tractor-trailer load of mountain-grown pumpkins to the extreme heat, another loss of thousands of dollars. When my wife answered that phone call, she was exasperated, frustrated and demoralized, and the immediate accusation of racism added one more blow.
At some point in the conversation with the woman from St. Luke, the topic of firing the employee arose. I stated bluntly that I will shut down our business for good before I fire this employee. My wife offered to personally sit down and talk with the school's administrators. Our conversation was cordial, factual, and ended pleasantly.
I want to conclude this message with my personal testament to the quality and decency of all our employees. Our employees are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, Caucasian and African American and Asian American, I am Asian American, and we all work together to provide a wholesome, family-centric farm experience for all customers. In particular, I want to share with you the character of the tour guide whose extremely poor choice of words sparked this incident. She has been a dear friend of my family since 1992. She and many members of her family have been faithful employees from the very first day that we opened in 2008. She treats every human being with respect and kindness. For the past two years, in the off-season, she and her husband have spent the winter months caring for orphans and teaching English in the Philippines and Thailand at their own personal expense. Yes, she made an extremely poor choice of words, but she made every effort to apologize and dispel the misunderstanding directly to the persons that were offended. My family's friendship with she and her family is vastly more important to me than the continued operation of our farm, and I will not punish her for a stupid choice of words, a comment made with absolutely no innuendo or ill will.