Mike Clayton retired Dec. 31 after 38 years as district conservationist for Caldwell and Lyon counties with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Most people would consider that quite an achievement in itself. For Clayton, it’s only one of many long-term commitments he’s made in life. Clayton farms on land surrounding his home just outside Princeton and has served as a bi-vocational pastor for years.
“I’m prepared to go home and enjoy my farm,” he said. “I’ve been fighting a rare form of cancer for six years. I just couldn’t give (the USDA job) my 100% all in the last six months.”
His office colleagues praised his knowledge, dedication and skill.
“Mike is very conservation-minded, works well with farmers and wants to help them,” said Frank Yancey, supervisory district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Every time I’ve gone out into the fields with him, it’s been an education. He’s very passionate about what he does.”
Caldwell-Lyon district conservation technician Arthur Dunn praised Clayton’s approach to working with clients.
“Coming out of the field of education, I’ve encountered a lot of good teachers,” he said. “Mike’s an excellent teacher. He challenges you and gives you the opportunity to think and grow.”
Born in Madisonville, Clayton grew up in Webster County on a beef cattle and tobacco farm working with his father and brothers. He then worked for the USDA in other areas of Kentucky.
He and his wife, Karen, have made Princeton their home for the last 15 years. Many residents know her as a technician for the local CVS Pharmacy.
In the midst of all those duties, for 25 years, the couple homeschooled their five children. The oldest is now 34, and some are married with children of their own.
Clayton’s varied interests and roles have intermingled over time.
“God has spoken to me pretty loudly twice in my Christian life,” he said. “The first was in 1983. I was a first-semester senior at Iowa State University as a transfer student from Murray State. I felt a calling to go up there as a Christian missionary with my brother and sister-in-law.”
That calling led to a career in conservation.
“I didn’t realize how incredible Iowa State University was, especially for a degree in agronomy,” he said. “I got a job working at an agronomy farm. A professor walked in the class and said to look at jobs posted on the bulletin board. I saw the USDA Soil Conservation Service and I just leapt in my heart. That’s the one I wanted. I went to one job interview my entire college career and got the one job and have been working in it my entire life.”
The second calling sent Clayton overseas to southwest Asia.
“There was an overseas opportunity detail that came out,” he said. “So, I went to Iraq and Afghanistan to help put together a poultry processing association for 15 months as a USDA advisor. We wrote 15 grants and all were funded.
“You have to find out what the local farmers want to do and find culturally acceptable ways to get them done. We helped them make an agricultural supply chain work to get chickens growing.”
As for teaching farmers in the Middle East, Clayton said he felt like he was in a different world.
“I felt kind of like Dorothy walking out of Kansas into Munchkinland,” he said. “God gave me the grace to accept things as they were and to see if I could make a difference.
“But the biggest perceptual blindness was when I was stationed between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. That’s the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of agriculture — rich in cultural heritage and ethnic groups — but everything south of Baghdad had to be irrigated. I was really happy with that project.”
Clayton said there were a number of takeaways from that experience.
“People are people everywhere, and all the Iraqi and Afghan farmers want is the what we want — a little better life for our children,” he said. “I’ve learned as much from the local farmers here and farmers in Iraq and Afghanistan as they’ve learned from me.
“I came home and thought I was done. I had never missed Christmas before. Not being home, that was tough.”
Clayton said that his career in conservation has been rich in learning, service and experience.
“I’ve learned so much and met a lot of different people,” he said. “The people are what makes it all well worth it, along with the technical and financial assistance we’ve been able to provide them.”