Jerry Ray of Tullahoma, Tennessee, started farming 45 years ago on just 45 acres that once belonged to his grandfather. Over the years he added 75 acres to his holdings, and the veteran of an occupation that is more calling than profession rented additional property and became steward to some 1,900 acres in Moore County. Today he raises corn, wheat, soybeans, hay and lots of cattle — more than 1,400 head of stocker cattle. Ray has been named the Tennessee Farmer of the Year by University of Tennessee Extension.
A 1976 graduate of the Department of Plant Sciences within the UT Institute of Agriculture, Ray grew up one generation removed from farming. “My father did not farm, but my grandfather had a farm. His farm was small and he was only a part-time farmer, but I enjoyed working with my grandfather on his farm. After a while I was at my grandfather's farm more than I was at home. It was at this time that I decided my career choice would be farming,” Ray wrote in his nomination application.
Ray says his path to success included employing the best knowledge available because much of the land he used to start his farming operation could be classified as marginal cropland. “For this reason having a strong livestock enterprise was always important to my farm,” he says. “At times during my farming career I was not sure whether I would survive or not. I was doing what I enjoyed, so I kept working, learning, and managing. It has been good, but not easy.”
Among the tools Ray has used to foster his success is production, marketing and financial management information available through UT Extension. He also attends the Middle Tennessee Grain Conference and the Tennessee/Kentucky Stocker Conference each year to learn the latest farming technologies. He is a participant in the UT MANAGE program and because his operation is 100% no-till, Ray makes it a point to attend UT’s Milan No-Till Field Day.
The Tennessee Farmer of the Year for 2019 also maintains detailed records of his operation. “Maintaining good records allows me to analyze data and make actionable decisions that increase farm productivity and profitability,” he says.
This year’s competition is not, however, Ray’s first rodeo. He earned the title once before in 2008. The two-time state winner is extremely pleased and honored to have won the recognition a second time.
Ray will be introduced as the 2019 Tennessee Farmer of the Year in August at the Tennessee Farm Bureau President’s Conference in Franklin, Tennessee, and at the UT Institute of Agriculture Ag Day celebration scheduled for October 5 in Knoxville. He was nominated for the honor by Dallas Manning, a UT Extension area specialist for farm management who serves several Middle Tennessee counties, including Moore County. Farmers from across the state were nominated for the honor by their county extension agents or by area farm management specialists.
Ray has been involved in many agricultural and community activities. He has been a member of the Moore County Farm Bureau for more than 30 years and a Farm Service Agency member for 15 years. In 2006 he served as the county’s Farm Service Agency President.
Ray has been an active member of the Tennessee Cattleman’s Association for 25 years and was named Stocker of the Year in 2017. Locally, he has been a member of the Moore County Livestock Association, serving as secretary and treasurer for five years, as well as an active member of the county’s Co-op, serving on the board numerous times and as chairman in 2011 and 2012 and secretary and treasurer in 2009 and 2010.
Ray and his wife Barbara are both active members of the First United Methodist Church of Lynchburg, Tennessee. Ray says Barbara often serves as his right hand and “go-for,” which means she helps around the farm by “going out for parts or whatever is needed.”
As Tennessee Farmer of the Year, Ray will compete in the Southeastern Farmer of the Year competition at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Georgia, October 15-17. The Southeastern Farmer of the Year competition chooses from among the top farmers from 10 southeastern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia) and is sponsored by Swisher International, Inc. The award recognizes excellence in agricultural production and farm management, along with leadership in farm and community organizations. The award also honors family contributions in producing safe and abundant supplies of food, fiber and shelter products for U.S. consumers. The overall Southeastern Farmer of the Year will be announced at a luncheon on the opening day of the expo.
Although Ray’s son, Christopher, is employed full-time off the farm, he is involved in farming. The younger Ray feeds about 400 stocker calves a year. His dad says he helps around the farm after work and on weekends. Ray’s daughter, Jacqueline, is a bookkeeper at a local accounting firm. Both Christopher and Jacqueline participated in 4-H in their youth.
Christopher has a young son, Jackson, who is just a toddler. Who knows? Maybe the “farming gene” will skip a generation and Jackson will be the next generation of Rays to farm full time in Moore County.