Grower Spotlight: Beth Clanton (Seminole, Texas)

June 1, 2009

Giving Thanks to an Extraordinary Example for Us All

I met many wonderful people on my journey through the West Texas farmlands, but few as remarkable as Beth Clanton.

Eleven years ago, Clanton was a second grade school teacher in Seminole, Texas. Her husband was a peanut and cotton farmer, and together, they had two daughters.

Towards the end of the school year, Clanton decided to take a leave of absence from teaching—a break she viewed as an opportunity to spend more time with her girls, and her husband John.

Over the course of their marriage, Clanton had joined her husband in the fields on occasion, but she’d never really taken the time to understand the intricacies of farming.

She calls her decision to take a sabbatical: “the divine intervention.”

After classes ended for the year, Clanton started to work with John every day. She met with his consultants, got to know his “people” (like the John Deere owner), and put faces to the names she’d so often heard, but never met.

It was a welcome change from the classroom. But that very summer, on the last day in July, her life changed in a way that she could have never expected—John died suddenly in a plane crash.

Devastated but determined, Clanton decided that she wanted to see John’s final crop through to the end. It’s what he would have wanted; but for anyone familiar with farming, the harvesting months are the most important—and most difficult—parts of the job.

Clanton admits feeling a little helpless at the time—a rare divergence from her ironclad I-can-do-anything attitude. After all, she lived in a farming community, and most people were busy with their own crops.

But with the help of her husband’s only full-time worker Johan, as well as family, and friends, Clanton was able to complete the harvest. To her great surprise, the community also rallied around her. Clanton remembers their support as if it were yesterday, describing an incident that seems fit only for a movie.

Unbeknownst to Clanton, her neighbors—both friends and strangers—showed up unannounced and joined forces to help Clanton complete her harvest. One morning, just as Clanton and Johan had arrived at the farm, they noticed the headlights of ten combines lining her property. The group had come to lend her a hand, and that day worked straight through the night.

The vision of those combines brought tears to my eyes, and eleven years later, still brings Clanton to an emotional pause.

In the end, she finished the harvest. Clanton and Johan built the last module of cotton and called it a season. After Johan headed home, she remembers sitting by herself, just around midnight, looking out onto the farm.

It was then that Clanton realized she had to make a difficult decision. She’d invested so much of her strength and energy into finishing the harvest that she hadn’t taken the time to grieve, let alone consider the future.

At that point, a lot of people expected her to retire the farm. But one thing you’ll learn about Beth Clanton is that she doesn’t typically do what other people expect—and as we looked out onto her cotton fields, the bolls brilliantly shining in the sunlight, one can only guess which path she chose.

That winter, she sought advice from her family, her friends, and her accountant about next steps. Most encouraged her to sell the business and move on from the farm. But it’s moments like that when Clanton says her infamous attitude takes over.

Knowing that she had a lot left to learn, she decided to continue her husband’s legacy—one that she has so admirably made her own.

Today, Clanton and Johan are still a team, and she couldn’t imagine what her life would be like if she had sold the land and returned to teaching. Clanton believes that working on the farm keeps her connected to her husband. When he died, she saved his leftover seeds, and each year plants a few in his honor.

She’s proud of what she has accomplished, but she’s careful not to let it show. In a male-dominated profession, it’s almost as if Clanton considers her role as a farmer a never-ending challenge to prove herself. A challenge that she’s happy to take.

Had I met Clanton under any other circumstance, I can’t say she would have told me about her life. She would be just another farmer in West Texas, end of story. But I will say what she won’t—that Beth Clanton is an unbelievable woman, a true farmer, and a loving mother of two.

Her story is inspiring, and though she may started a bit later than most, her character is consistent with farmers all across this nation: kind, hard-working individuals who exude old-fashioned farmer values, and gritty perseverance.