Nestled deep in the country off a dirt road between two other dirt roads is Bulloch County’s only certified organic farm. Clark & Sons Organics is just west of the Portal City limits but holds a Twin City address.
On any given day, you’ll find Mr. Al Clark tending to the land that’s been in his family since 1832. His great-granddaddy bought the land to cut the timber and float it down Lotts Creek to a saw mill. His great-granddaddy then began the farming operation. Mr. Al’s granddaddy followed into farming and it’s continued through each generation. The Clark family is originally from North Carolina and had originally settled in Jenkins County where they mingled with the Clifton family. The Clark family as we know them today then moved to an area known as Clark’s Pond on the far side of Portal where a second tract of farmland was established in addition to the one that still remains today.
During World War II, Mr. Al’s granddaddy was unsure of the return of Mr. Al’s daddy, so he sold the farm in Clark’s Pond. But he did return from the war and went on to carry on the family farming tradition. Mr. Al’s oldest farming memory goes back to riding the tractor on his daddy’s lap as a little boy and Mr. Al farmed in middle and high school while participating in FFA and 4-H groups, but it wasn’t until 1979 that Mr. Al started farming on his own.
In 1979, it was corn, soybeans, peanuts and tobacco that dominated the Clark Farm fields. Mr. Al stopped doing tobacco in 1990, but continued on with conventional farming. At one point, Clark Farms raised cows and hogs but that stopped several years ago as well.
Mr. Al and his wife, Debbie, have two sons, John and Rene. Both are married and Rene and his wife have a daughter. Mrs. Debbie is a retired teacher, having taught at Pinewood Christian Academy, in Jenkins County, and in Portal. Both John and Rene were raised working on the farm, but work in different industries today.
The farm in present day consists of 260 acres where peanuts, corn, and soybeans are grown – all organically. The farm also consists of a few chickens, but not on a large scale. They’re mostly for farmer’s markets and things of the sort, which is a smaller part of the operation that is transitioning to selling the eggs to grocery stores.
As Bulloch County’s only organic farmer, Mr. Al hasn’t always gone the organic route. It wasn’t until 2007 that the organic certification was obtained. “I couldn’t compete with the rent [for farmland]. It’s so competitive. We farm between 300-400 acres altogether and most people are farming 1,500 to 3,000 acres and this is just works for me. I like it.”
It makes sense, though. Mr. Al does most of the work himself, with just one other gentleman for part-time help. “It’s a sharp learning curve, though. You can see the weeds in the field. We have to pull them by hand, a cultivator, or a lightning weeder that shocks the weeds. I don’t have a chemical that I can use to get rid of them. We deal with them mechanically, not chemically.”
And becoming a certified organic farm is no easy feat. The land must cycle through three calendar years without the use of chemicals and pesticides before certification is a possibility.
Organic farming also entails more paperwork, including keeping daily logs and filing reports for recordkeeping. Everything that is used has to be approved by one of the organic certification groups so it can be tracked, which is a bit different than conventional farming. Mr. Al says he doesn’t have fewer resources than a conventional farmer, just different ones.
That’s mostly because organic farming is still a small operation in Georgia with less than 3,000 acres of organic farmland in the entire state. In Bulloch County alone, there are 100,000 acres of row crops and Mr. Al farms the only acres in the county – a mere 250.
Mr. Al is part of the Organic Valley co-op out of Wisconsin, which entails 1,800 farmers from across the United States. 75% of Clark & Sons Organics products go through the co-op, and some Clark & Sons Organics products serve as feed for animals in the Organic Valley co-op as well. Organic Valley is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so Mr. Al doesn’t deal with USDA himself, but just co-op representatives, who ensure he’s adhering to all the standards. His land is checked at least once a year, and sometimes spot-checked in between annual visits. Clark & Sons Organics is set to receive a new certification with Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) in the next couple of week. Mr. Al also networks with Georgia Organics.
Farming has evolved over the decades Mr. Al has been in the agriculture community. The prices have changed the most. “Corn was bringing $3-4/bushel back in 1979 and tobacco brought $1/pound and now tobacco is bringing $1.50/pound now. Soybeans were bringing $13-14 in ‘79 and ‘80 and now they’re bringing $10-11, but the fuel costs are up, the inputs are up across the board. They’re out of kilter.”
The uncertainty is the downfall of farming and requires a firm reliance on faith. Every year is a learning experience, no two years are the same and everything is outside the control of the farmer. Everything.
Farming isn’t, and hasn’t ever been, just a job for Mr. Al. It’s a lifestyle. “It’s probably the best lifestyle you could have, that’s my opinion.”
“I just love to see things grow. When I was a little boy, we used to go to the store in Portal, Mr. Jim Trapnell’s filling station. It’s where people would gather up, and they would tease me and ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I always said, “I’m gonna be a deer hunter and a farmer.” and I still enjoy deer hunting and farming.”
As it stands now, neither of Mr. Al’s sons are in farming, but he’s not worried about the future of the farm. His hope is that at some point, they’ll want to farm or their children will want to carry on the family farming operation- something his sons already know how to do. And with the size of the farm as it is, the pair could do it part-time. After all, Mr. Al worked 28 years at the U.S. Post Office while he farmed and raised a family.
But the industry of farming is at a fork in the road, Mr. Al says. “I’m afraid we’re going to lose an entire generation that is hard to replace. It’s not something you can learn in a book – the land, the climate. It takes experience. It’s the best teacher, but it’s the most costly one. I’ve only seen one man who was not raised on a farm make it on a farm. We’re not seeing new farmers come into farming.”
When asked what it takes to be a good farmer, Mr. Al said, one must be a people person, have an eye for details, a strong faith, and a willingness to watch over the crops.
He said of a sign he saw on the road once, “The best fertilizer for a crop is the farmer’s shadow.” And Mr. Al agrees.