Cream of the Crop

November 2, 2011 10:41 AM
Cream of the Crop

An appreciation of the past helps this Michigan farmer lead into the future

Michigan was a rugged frontier in 1835, with official statehood more than a year off, when Jonas Clark made his way to what is now Clinton County. He lay claim to 85 acres of gently rolling farm ground fringed by forest. Six generations and 175 years later, members of the Clark family still own and live in the white clapboard house that Jonas built along the now graveled Clark Road. They still proudly work the same ground he tilled then, thanks to the steady-handed leadership provided by 33-year-old Jake Clark.

Clark shoulders the responsibilities of the diversified farm with a mixture of pride and gratitude. He is quick to acknowledge his father, Pete, as the person responsible for growing the once small farm to its current robust 10,000 acres of corn and soybeans.

Together, they have worked to expand the farm acreage, 15% of which they own and 85% lease.
"My grandpa Leon was a successful general contractor—one of the top 100 in the country at one time—and he bought 800 acres, which is what helped my dad get his start," Jake says.

The Clarks purchased more land in the early 1980s and began leasing ground too. Today, they work with more than 100 landowners.

In addition to crops, Jake and his dad have added complimentary business enterprises, including a corn and soybean seed dealership; custom planting and harvest; snow removal; lawn care; and custom anhydrous ammonia applications.

Jake notes that the family’s farm and business successes have much to do with its 15 full-time employees. Three have worked for the Clark family for more than 30 years and can recall Jake’s birth. Earning the respect of those men, he says, was one of the greatest challenges he faced when he started farming full-time in 2000.

"They’d put their heart and soul into this place, so I knew it was going to be tough," he says. "They treated me like Joe Shmoe, just like they would’ve treated anyone else. I shoveled, and I washed, and I listened, and I still find myself doing those things. That’s how you earn your
keep around here."

Clark faced other pitfalls that would have derailed someone with less determination and fortitude. He struggled to read, write and spell as a youth and eventually was diagnosed with dyslexia. Even today, it sometimes rears its head unexpectedly.

"Don’t take any pictures of that ammonia tank over there; I misspelled ammonia," he says, cocking his head in the direction of the white anhydrous ammonia tanks lined up outside one of the machine sheds.

Cream of the crop 2
A diversified operation helps spread risk and even out cash flow, says Jake Clark (center). That strategy included adding a Pioneer seed dealership. With Clark are seed salesmen Jamie Rincker (left) and Bill Campbell, both of St. Johns, Mich.

Family Bonds. Jake is the proverbial middle child, flanked on both sides by brothers. Younger brother Curtis lives in Los Angeles, bartends, writes comic books and hopes to eventually develop screenplays for Hollywood. Older brother L. Peter Clark III currently farms with Jake and their dad and is finishing law school. He is the most eloquent of the three men.

"I’ve never won an argument with him," Jake admits with a laugh.

It was Peter who recommended Jake for the 2011 Top Producer of the Year Award, for which he was named a finalist. The award is presented by Challenger and co-sponsored by Asgrow, Bayer CropScience and SFP.

Peter labored on and off for a year to write a recommendation he believed worthy of his brother.

"My brother Jake has dreamed of nothing aside from farming since he spoke his first words," he wrote. "He was wrenching on equipment by age 8 and chisel plowing by 9. I believe he could disassemble a John Deere 9860 combine harvester into its nuts and bolts and put it back together without ever opening a manual. He is one of those rare and gifted people who have an innate understanding of machinery. If I had to offer what his original goal in farming was, I would say it was simply to raise his family in and around the things that he loves."

Jake confirms the truth of Peter’s words about farming and family, which includes his wife, Sarah, and children, Ava Grace, 5, and Jonas, 2.

"I’ve tried other things, but this is what I live for," says Jake, who worked a while in construction. "If you want to farm, you have to put in 100%; there are no corners to cut."

Forward-Thinking. Jake constantly looks for opportunities and investments that can help strengthen the farm and prepare it for the future. Technology is one such opportunity. The Clarks plant and harvest crops using variable-rate technology, GPS guidance and yield monitors.

This year, the Clarks revamped their grain storage and drying facility to include automation. The facility boasts a new high-capacity dryer that can dry 2,400 bu. of corn per hour, which helps keep the family’s three 12-row corn heads moving during harvest.

"Up until now, we’ve been harvesting until mid-December. We’d like to finish by Thanksgiving, which would put a smile on everyone’s face," Jake says.

A top-of-mind challenge Jake expects in the near future is transitioning the team of employees as the older ones retire and the younger ones step up to new responsibilities.

"You can’t get what those veteran guys know out of a textbook, and we have to get the younger guys knowledgeable," he says.

Peter marvels at his younger brother’s stamina and believes the family farming enterprise faces a bright future. Who knows, he muses, referencing Jake’s young son, there might even be another Jonas at the helm of Clark Farms when it reaches its 200th birthday in 2035. 

Clark Family at a GlanceTPOY

Family: Jake Clark is married to Sarah, a registered nurse and currently a full-time mother to Ava Grace, 5, and Jonas, 2. He farms with his father, Pete, and his older brother, Peter.

Business Structure: What started as an 85-acre farm changed little until 1974, when Jake’s father, Pete, took the reins. By the early 1990s, Pete had grown the farm to 5,000 acres. Jake joined him full-time in 2000, and they now farm more than 10,000 acres in and around Clinton County, Mich. Jake also rents or farms on share another 1,000 acres. Although the farm has been used in the past for raising livestock, it is now devoted to corn and soybeans. The Clarks also have diversified their operation to spread risk and even out their cash flow. Clark Farms’ businesses include a seed dealership; custom planting and harvest; custom anhydrous ammonia applications; snow removal; and lawn care.

Welder Extraordinaire: Jake has been a proficient welder since childhood, according to Peter, who references the farm utility truck Jake revamped as proof: "Built on the frame of a GMC TopKick, it has a 250-gal. diesel tank, air compressor, welder/generator, oxygen/acetylene torch, fold-down workbench, a full set of tools, cherry picker hoist, air-powered grease gun, grinders and a full array of nuts, bolts and other fasteners. There is nothing more relieving than seeing that rig pull into a field after wearing your fingers down to a nub, in a freezing cold December rain—we get a lot of those in Michigan—as you try to work free a rounded-off, ice-covered bolt from a plugged feeder-house chain with a rusty old pair of pliers," Peter says.

Community-Minded: Clark Farms sponsors area sports teams each year and supports a host of other community projects. The walls of the farm office are covered in trophies, plaques and team photos. Once a year, Jake cleans up all of the equipment, recruits a couple of employees and treks into town to the elementary school for Career Day. As Peter says, "No one gets the same reaction at Career Day as the man who arrives with 100 tons of bright green machinery."

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