Last week brought an emotional low point and high point in rapid succession to 2021 Bulloch County Farmer of the Year Jay Clarke of Register. But he gave thanks through it all and reports this has been his best year yet in farming.
His father, William Leroy “Roy” Clarke, age 74, died Nov. 10 under hospice care after having pancreatic cancer. After attending the graveside service Monday of last week, Jay Clarke was one of nearly 140 people who came to the Farm City Week Lunch hosted by the Statesboro Bulloch Chamber of Commerce the next day, Nov. 16, at the Bulloch County Ag Complex. He didn’t notice at first that his wife, Ashley Clarke, and their children, son Camden, 10, and daughter Brooklyn, 7, were there at the edge of the crowd. Then his brother was called on to introduce the Farmer of the Year honoree.
“It’s been kind of an emotional week,” Jay Clarke said the next day. “We buried my father Monday, and then that happened Tuesday. So it’s been full of highs and lows, about as high as you can get and low as you can go, in my opinion, you know.”
His father was not a farmer. A highly decorated U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, Roy Clarke worked about 40 years for Savannah Electric & Power Company, the previously city-owned utility. But his son the Farmer of the Year knew that his father would have been “some kind of happy” to see him receive the award.
“He loved to hear about things on the farm and see things like this happen for us, so he would have been thrilled,” Clarke said.
His mother, Janice Clarke, a dental hygienist, has been cleaning teeth for also about 40 years, her farming son said.
So, Clarke is a first-generation farmer, as his brother, Will, noted in his introduction. Will Clarke is general manager of Tillman & Deal, the Statesboro farm supply retailer now owned by the R.W. Griffin company. In other words, he works in agribusiness but doesn’t farm.
But the Clarke brothers grew up just outside Register in what was very much a farming community.
“All our neighbors farmed and had farms and we kind of stayed on them, just piddling around and helping in summer jobs, doing odd stuff,” Will Clarke said. “We’ve always been in the agricultural world, I guess you could say.”
Jay Clarke, now 37, started doing landscaping work while still in high school, attending first Bulloch Academy and then Statesboro High.
“I’ve just always been an outdoorsperson, hunting, fishing, gardening,” he said. “Just anything outdoors, that’s just been my life. I played a lot of sports growing up and never was much of a person to sit behind a desk or anything like that.”
He eventually sold his landscaping and lawn care company, Pro Lawns Inc., and went to work for another Register-area farmer, Robert Franklin, as an employee. After about eight years working with Franklin and learning from him, Clarke branched out on his own in 2012. He can explain why starting a farming operation, as a first-generation farmer, is a pretty rare endeavor.
“It was challenging, I can tell you, finding land to farm and trying to get operating capital that wasn’t there, and there was a lot of hurdles to jump to do it,” Clarke said. “I’ve kind of got to give the Lord all the credit. He kind of aligned the stars for it, and everything just kind of happened, a lot of hard work and a lot of him giving me the opportunity to do that.”
Crops and cattle
With his nephew Dylan Clarke farming with him as currently his one full-time employee other than himself, Clarke tends between 1,000 and 1,500 acres of row crops, namely peanuts, cotton and corn. He also has one part-time employee and previously employed more workers.
As with many farm operations today, the majority of the acreage is leased from other landowners, but he has recently purchased a couple of small farms near his home base.
The Clarkes also maintain a few more than 500 brood cows.
Those are “mama cows,” as he put it. There are maybe 525 right now, and if you include the heifers – young female cattle that have not yet become mothers – the total might rise to nearly 600 head.
Bulls are brought in to breed them, and Clarke sells the calves. Usually, the calves are a Hereford-Brangus cross, with Brangus being a breed developed from Brahman and Angus.
“We breed October, November and December, and we calve them out the next year and sell calves to stock feedlots in the Midwest, or wherever they decide to go,” he said.
Taking care of cattle is now his remaining work for the winter. Since a cotton picker rolled through the last of his fields Wednesday of last week, Clarke’s 2021 row crop harvest is complete.
“It’s been an absolutely amazing crop year, this year, yield-wise and now prices,” he said. “This is by far the best year that I’ve seen in farming. We’ve just had abundant rain, and all of it, corn, cotton and peanuts turned out above any expectations that could have been set.”
After such a season, but also while grieving for his father, Clarke was named Farmer of the Year. The Chamber of Commerce used an online nomination form to help make the selection.
“On top of everything that had happened, it really brightened my day for sure,” Clarke said. “It was one of those things that was definitely unexpected, and I felt like maybe undeserved, but other people might differ. Like I said, I definitely give all of the credit to God. He makes the sun come up and the sun go down and rain come, the hard part, things I can’t control.”
His wife, Ashley, a registered cardiac sonographer, works for St. Joseph’s-Candler Health System. They are active members, and Jay a deacon, of Rehoboth Missionary Baptist Church near Claxton.
Special guest speaker
This year’s special guest speaker for the Farm City Week Lunch was Jon Jackson, owner of Comfort Farms in Milledgeville. Comfort Farms is a nonprofit that provides work opportunities to veterans returning home from combat, creating meaningful work taking care of crops and animals.
Comfort Farms has also built partnerships with other producers to “create robust local supply chains, sustaining the food industry in times of disruption,” Statesboro Bulloch Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jennifer Davis reported in an informal press release.
“Jackson encouraged Bulloch County farmers to partner with one another to provide local, regional and state supply, increasing the economic impact of agriculture, while providing a critical and sustainable product to its community,” she wrote.