Clark Gerstacker is a familiar face in both the state and national capitals. He’s a fourth-generation farmer on a 127-year-old Midland farm that he runs with his brother, Kirk. But he’s also a staunch advocate for farmers everywhere, visiting legislators to tell the story of agriculture and its inherent needs and concerns. He dedicates at least 30 days a year to going to bat for farmers.
“Our industry is 100% dependent on what happens and doesn’t happen in Washington, D.C.,” Clark says. “Our advocacy groups in Michigan are vitally important to our livelihoods and bottom lines.”
His work both on and off the farm is being celebrated, earning him the title as a 2020 Master Farmer, which was awarded Jan. 30 during the Great Lakes Crop Summit.
He says he never pictured himself as a Master Farmer. “I have enjoyed the advocacy work I’ve done for growers, but it’s something anyone can do — it doesn’t really make me special,” he says. “I’ve been blessed to have the support of my family at home and my brother and friends on the farm. It has been crucial for ‘making it work’ on both fronts.”
Clark has been part of the leadership of numerous organizations in Michigan and nationally.
“He exemplifies the characteristics of a Master Farmer,” says his nominator, Jim Zook, who is executive director of the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan. “He is an accomplished leader and has been a meritorious representative of the agriculture industry. He is respected by his peers and is viewed as a leader.
“Clark is the farmer who others go to for advice when they are considering something new on their farming operation. He has a deep understanding of the importance of keeping our state’s rich agriculture industry on the forefront of change and possesses a true ‘big picture’ view of the farming industry.”
Advocacy and education, Clark says, is increasingly important as production agriculture now makes up less than 2% of the population. “The industry talks about that a lot, but there’s a lack of education — a lack of knowledge," he says. "There are so many things driving our industry today, but are being held up by public perception and lack of information. It’s going to continue to be an issue for us.”
Without fanfare or a single camera, and by coincidence, Michigan Rep. Annette Glenn was visiting the farm the day he provided the Master Farmer interview. “I want legislators to visit farmers — come talk to us,” Clark says. “We’ll provide the knowledge and firsthand information they need to make educated decisions.”
The same is true for the media. He says, “If a newspaper calls you, it’s crucial to take advantage of every opportunity to share our message. We all have our voice. Make sure we are using it in the right places.”
Clark’s great-grandfather bought his first parcel of land in 1892 and continued growing the farm. In the 1980s, and considering the farm is on an urban fringe, the farm transitioned out of livestock to cash crops exclusively.
Clark and Kirk farm 1,700 acres, including about 200 acres of sugarbeets, 800 to 900 acres of corn, 200 to 400 acres of soybeans and the balance in dry beans.
Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of room on the farm for Clark, 51, and Kirk, 58. So, Clark went to school at Michigan State University, where he got a manufacturing operations degree. For seven years after graduating, he worked for Frito Lay in Detroit. But he remained connected to the farm by spending his vacation time back home.
It was during one of those home visits he met Jennifer Rajewski, who would become his wife on April 5, 1997.
About the same time, his dad was nearing retirement. “He said to me, ‘Here’s this opportunity, what do you think?’ ” Clarks explains. “And, I said, ‘I don’t want to be 50 and wish I would have.’ ”
So, after returning from their honeymoon, Clark moved home, changed careers and two days later was planting sugarbeets. Jennifer, who comes from a nonfarm background and now works for Dupont, got thrown into it, explains Clark, who says she admits it was a big adjustment coming from the city.
Today, they have a 19-year-old daughter, Peyton, who is a sophomore at Saginaw Valley State University studying mechanical engineering and playing volleyball, and a 15-year-old son, Hudson, who is a freshman in high school and engulfed in sports — football, basketball and baseball.
“It’s sometimes a challenge trying to balance work and sporting schedules,” says Clark, who also notes that the kids were involved with 4-H steers. “But it’s been a great partnership with my brother, who also has two kids and gets it.”
Clark does all the planting, while Kirk tackles harvesting. “I do welding, he does torch and fitting work,” Clark says. “It really has balanced out.”
With their crop mix, they tend to use a minimal tillage rotation — ripping in the fall and lightly tilling in the spring. They also use filter strips and some cover crops where they can.
“We are in the Kawkawlin watershed, so we are very focused on protecting water.,” Clark says. “It’s a priority watershed in the Great Lakes region.”
Clark looks to incorporate proven technology on the farm. “Kirk and I talk. We want to be profitable enough, or big enough, to at least play with the technology and be at that level,” he says.
They use GPS, autosteer, planting prescriptions and variable-rate application of seed and fertilizer. “Those are things in today’s world that pay dividends.”
In the past few years, margins have become more critical. “We continually look at how to remain profitable, and that means looking at every acre,” Clark says. “We’ve spent a lot of money in drainage tile the last two decades, and after a year like this, we still want to put more in.”
A lot of thought is put into sizing equipment accordingly, so the brothers can do most of the work themselves. “We do, however, have great friends and neighbors that help us out in the fall with trucks and working ground,” Clark says. “The collaboration of support has been amazing, especially in a year like this past year.”
Powering through challenging times means, “You need to tackle the one issue that you need to tackle at that time,” he says. “Don’t get bogged down with the other things; it’s the one that is impacting your business today.”
He gives back to the community by being active in his Lutheran church, has served on the Larkin township’s fire department for more than 20 years, and has helped to coach baseball and football teams.
Clark is most proud of his family and their relationships with the community and people in the industry. Two years ago, the farm celebrated its 125th anniversary. “It was awesome the folks that came out; a really enjoyable day that meant a lot to my folks and the whole family.”
For those entering the industry, Clark offers this advice, “Set yourself up to be successful by having the right people around you, and recognize if it’s not in the cards, change the cards you’re dealt. A tough environment requires that you surround yourself with the right people.”