“Johnny Vegetable Seed” watches over the family farm — Clemson University’s and his own
By Charmaine Smith-Miles
Reprinted with permission
CLEMSON — When Christopher Ray was a senior in high school, he produced $70,000 in vegetables and other crops on his father’s farm.
Ray’s father, Severn Malcolm Ray, owned an insurance business and farmed the hundreds of acres that the family owned in Lexington, Richland and Orangeburg counties. As his son grew up, he put him to work on that land.
“I think he had those farms to keep me working everyday,” Ray said. “I never got into trouble. I was always too tired to get into trouble. I wasn’t your typical kid. When everybody else was hanging out, I was looking for another piece of land to farm. The more he made me do it, the more I loved it.”
In 1990, Ray became the president of South Carolina’s chapter of the Future Farmers of America and won the Star State Farmer Award for his cash crop. Those feats earned him respect in the farming community, but also caused his father to become concerned.
“That’s when my father started getting scared,” Ray said. “He didn’t want me to just stay on the farm. He knew that was a hard life. He wanted me to go to college.”
So Ray did.
He applied to one university: Clemson. It was the university he wanted to attend because of its rich history in agriculture and science.
Now, he has fulfilled his father’s dreams and his own. He has three degrees hanging on the wall in one of his offices on this campus — one for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture and his doctorate in plant breeding and genetics. All of the degrees are from Clemson University.
And he was recently named as the director of the university’s five on-campus farms and other farms across the state. It’s just another role of about eight that he serves with Clemson University. They are all connected to agriculture.
“He’s earned this post, doing outstanding work in every role we have asked him to take on in his 15 years with Clemson University’s Public Service and Agriculture,” said George Askew, who works with the university’s Experiment Station.
To this quiet man, with his Southern mannerisms, titles don’t mean much. He’s simply a farmer who likes to plant things and who likes to study how those things grow best.
He is the keeper of the farms for this university just like he was for his family’s land.
He still oversees some of the family’s land, which has been handed down from generation to generation since it was granted to his ancestors by the king of England.
He travels across the state and monitors the work at each of the university’s farms and research and education centers. He helps the staffs at each of the centers and farms to work with one another.
“Some people ask me how I work at eight jobs,” Ray said. “I don’t see it that way. It’s not hard, because it’s what I’ve done all my life.”
It’s work that he loves. He loves this land, in particular the Calhoun Field Laboratory, also known as the “Clemson Bottoms,” which are located on Perimeter Road, near the university’s football stadium. He’s conducted research projects there, and he knows the 80 acres, which were part of the university’s founder, Thomas Clemson’s 814-acre bequest to South Carolina, well.
“Dad used to say that I went to Clemson for school, and I never came home,” Ray said. “He’s pretty accurate.”
He’s stayed because this is the work he was meant to do. He’s married now, has a six-acre farm of his own off Liberty Highway, near Bishop Branch Road, and every planting season, he’s outside with his hands in the dirt.
Every year, people can ride by his home on Liberty Highway and see part of his handiwork in the display of a huge field of sunflowers.
“It’s something I can’t explain,” Ray said. “I can’t get enough of growing things. I like to smell that dirt in the spring. I’m a Johnny Vegetable Seed, I guess.”
This story was originally printed in the Anderson Independent-Mail newspaper and on the Independent-Mail website.
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