In his forty-five-year career as a diversified farmer, Jerry Ray has never worked for anyone but himself. This means that when things go well—in the ordinary course of fat years and lean—he earns the rewards. And when they don’t, he accepts the full weight of responsibility. It’s an old-fashioned ethic that defines his approach to life in general.
Jerry Ray’s success has earned him the honor of being selected as the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for Tennessee in 2019. He also garnered that title in 2008. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award to be announced during the Sunbelt Expo farm show, October 15–17, in Moultrie, Georgia.
Ray’s farm operation in and around Tullahoma, Tennessee encompasses 1900 total acres with 1,780 acres rented and 120 acres owned. His business is 50 percent cattle (stocker calves) and 50 percent crops. He says, “We live in a rapidly urbanizing area between Lynchburg and Chattanooga, where buying land to farm is not viable, given current land prices.” The overwhelming majority of his rented land contracts harken back to former times and to something he is comfortable with; they are agreed upon by a handshake.
Last year his per acre yields were180 bushels of corn from 600 acres, 61 bushels of full season soybeans from 600 acres, 55 bushels of double crop soybeans from 200 acres, 70 bushels of wheat from 200 acres, and 3 tons of grass hay from 300 acres. His stocker calves enterprise yielded 1,420 head produced per year with 2.8 lbs. of gain per day.
Ray says, “My stocker calves are sold in trailer truck load lots on a local video board sale. The average weight is about 900 pounds and purchase weight is about 550 pounds. Most of the corn is sold to a local chicken processor to be used in chicken feed, with this market paying a premium of about 35 to 50 cents. About 5000 bushels of corn is feed for the stocker calves. The total cost for producing a stocker calf is approximately $200, including feed, veterinary supplies, fix cost, land, hired labor, my labor, interest, and death loss. I turn 2.5 groups of stockers per acre with a stocking rate of 5 head per acre. My total return over time for my stocker operation has been $150 per head overall cost. Using these methods also allows me to keep two full-time, year-round employees, Shawn Adams and Nathaniel Lewis, on my farm.”
Ray changed his calf feed ration to include corn instead of a purchased commodity feed, a decision that resulted in a savings of $24,000 a year, with the rate of gain remaining the same. His soybeans are stored, sold at harvest, and forward priced. The latter method made possible a price of over $10.00 per bushel last year. He also uses basis contracts as a tool in marketing his grain. Wheat is sold as flour and milling wheat to end users, with about a 50 cent market premium. The wheat straw is either sold or fed to the stocker cattle. Straw is baled in small squares and sold to wholesalers and retailers.
Ray notes, “I started farming full time in 1976 after graduating from the University of Tennessee, where I majored in Plant and Soil Science. My grandfather was my inspiration and guide to working the land. I began farming with about 300 acres and a net worth of $130,000. Today I farm about 1900 acres, feed 1420 stockers, and my net worth has grown considerably.” He has also completed the University of Tennessee Master Beef program, Advance Master Beef Program, and the Beef Quality Assurance Program.
In his early years of farming, Ray enrolled in the Rapid Adjustment program sponsored by Tennessee Extension and the Tennessee Valley Authority. This training introduced him to efficient principles of record keeping, farm management, and financial planning.
“Since records are a vital part of my business,” Ray says, “I keep crop, livestock, and financial records. Maintaining good accounting practices allows me to analyze data and make actionable decisions that increase farm productivity and profitability. I read, study, attend meetings, conferences, and seminars, and ask questions to continually learn more about how to improve my farm business. This includes regularly accessing information from the University of Tennessee Extension Service.”
Ray applies technology such as variable rate seeding and no-till planting, resulting in impressive water conservation, less soil erosion, and improvement of soil quality. He also uses a global positioning system for his sprayer and yield monitors for his grain harvesting equipment. He adds, “I do soil tests for my cropland every other year and practice crop rotation. In February I seed a heavy rate of ryegrass in my cattle feeding areas to prevent soil erosion and runoff in streams. This practice also maintains the natural beauty of the area.”
Such beauty is shared with many groups who come to Ray’s farm for educational tours. He has hosted the Farm City Day in Moore County for first grade students for the last twenty-five years, giving children an opportunity to visit a working farm and learn about animals, equipment, grains, hay, and experience a petting zoo.
As part of his local leadership and community service, Ray has been a member and/or held office in a number of professional organizations including the Farm Service Agency, the Co-op Board, Moore County Livestock Association, the Moore County Agricultural Committee, and the Moore County Farm Bureau. He has been a youth coach for the Booster Club and Hoops Club and served on the finance, parish, and parsonage committees of his church. He’s also been extremely active with FFA and 4-H Clubs on the local level. On the state level he is a member of the Lower Middle Tennessee Cattlemen Association and the Tennessee Cattlemen Association. He also won the Tennessee Cattlemen Association Stocker of the Year Award in 2017 and was named Conservation Farmer of the Year for Moore County in 2019.
One of Ray’s biggest career challenges has been availability of good cropland in his native area, adding, “Many farms in the county have been divided up and sold in small lots for residential and commercial development. This has created a situation of reduced acreage available for farming while increasing the purchase prices.”
His primary solution has been to rent land and diversify both crop and livestock enterprises to maximize returns per acre. And he’s answered the call to educate those who are new to the rural environment about the nature of production agriculture so that it can continue to thrive. He has presented talks about stocker production, marketing, and feeding distiller grains in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Ray’s wife, Barbara, has been a constant source of support throughout their forty-plus-year marriage, fulfilling the roles of “chief go for” and office worker, as well as homemaker and mother. She is active in their local church and outreach charity work and yearly assists with the Moore County Farm City Day. The couple has two children. Son Christopher, who’s married to Lacey, works full-time at the Jack Daniels Distillery in nearby Lynchburg and, on the side, feeds about 400 stocker calves a year, sharing equipment on the family farm. Daughter Jacqueline works as a bookkeeper at a local accounting firm and enjoys a steady relationship with Joe-Joe Dobson of Tullahoma. The Rays are thrilled to have a fourteen-month-old grandson, Jackson, to dote on. Since Jerry Ray doesn’t consider farming to be actual “work,” it’s not surprising that much of his so-called leisure time is spent going to industry-related seminars, sometimes accompanied by his son.
About this long and fulfilling farming career, Ray says, “I enjoy what I do so much because it’s given me a life of independence and a sense of accomplishment. Growing things, even at times on small profit margins, has brought its own special joy. I’ve learned patience and humility from Mother Nature and made strides in the art of getting along with others, mellowing out, and not sweating the small stuff.”
Dallas Manning, University of Tennessee Extension Area Farm Management Specialist, nominated Jerry Ray for Farmer of the Year. He admires his friend and colleague for his excellent job management, record keeping, and community involvement and describes Ray as just “an overall great farmer and great guy.”
As the Tennessee winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Ray will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Florida, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply. Ray is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a tractor for a year from MF Product, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI, and a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute edition 22 rifle from Reinke Manufacturing Co., Inc., the irrigation company, through its partnership with Henry Repeating Arms.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 30th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Tennessee include: James R. Graham of Newport, 1990; Burl Ottinger of Parrottsville, 1991; Dwaine Peters of Madisonville, 1992; Edward Wilson of Cleveland, 1993; Bob Willis of Hillsboro, 1994; Bobby W. Vannatta of Bell Buckle, 1995; George McDonald of Riddleton, 1996; Jimmy Gaylord of Sharon, 1997; Jimmy Tosh of Henry, 1998; Eugene Pugh, Jr. of Halls, 1999; Harris Armour of Somerville, 2000; Malcolm Burchfiel of Newbern, 2001; Ed Rollins of Pulaski, 2002; John Smith of Puryear, 2003; Austin Anderson of Manchester, 2004; John Litz of Morristown, 2005; Bob Willis of Hillsboro, 2006; Grant Norwood of Paris, 2007; Jerry Ray of Tullahoma, 2008; Richard Atkinson of Belvidere, 2009; Brad Black of Vonore, 2010; Mac Pate of Maryville, 2011; Steve Dixon of Estill Springs, 2012; Richard Jameson of Brownsville, 2013; John Keller of Maryville, 2014; George Clay of Pelham, 2015; and James Haskew of South Pittsburg, 2016, Mike Robinson of Belvidere, 2017, and John Verrell of Jackson, 2018.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Jerry Ray’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of August 5–9. The judges this year include Cary Lightsey, Lake Wales, Florida, who was the overall winner of the award in 2009; John McKissick, long-time University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Georgia; and David Wildey, Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016.