Beyond organic: Local farmer Michael Clark’s produce thrives despite growing pains

Carrots and asparagus also grow in the Planet Earth greenhouses. Photo: John Robinson
Carrots and asparagus also grow in the Planet Earth greenhouses. Photo: John Robinson

Soul searching

After Clark’s third year of engineering school, he went looking for a summer job. Seeing as how he was specializing in electronics, he answered a help-wanted ad for a stereo repairman. “The guy said, ‘Can you tell me how to fix it?’” Clark recalled. “I said, ‘I can diagram the circuitry.’ The guy said, ‘Yeah, but can you fix it?’ I couldn’t.”

Clark went back to his professor frustrated that after three years of electronics training he couldn’t fix a stereo amp. “I was ticked off,” Clark said. “My professor said, ‘We don’t want you to quit, so why don’t you take a sabbatical and see if you can get your hands on something that you like and then come back?’”

Clark told me this story back at the Planet Earth farm as I stood shivering in his 40-degree food prep area in the underbelly of a towering barn structure, trying to jot notes on a pad while wearing thick gloves. The prep area looks like an engineer set it up, with a computer monitor above the sink, more like a laboratory than a kitchen.

Before entering UVA, the engineering school’s summer reading list for incoming students included Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which first introduced Clark to Eastern thought. After mulling over his professor’s advice, Clark went to India. He studied meditation and metaphysics at an ashram—a retreat for spiritual reflection—in Poona, India for four months under the tutelage of Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Clark returned from India with a task. He was to serve as a human bridge between the world of the decadent western values of materialism and individual accomplishment and the realm of enlightenment, life lived for the greater good.

“It was my mission to bring beauty to the world with my feet stuck in the muck,” Clark said.

Clark graduated UVA and eventually went to work for Sperry Marine (now Northrop-Grumman) testing and designing housings for shipboard radar systems.

“We basically had to make it so the radar could take a hit from a missile and keep working,” Clark said, as he dumped olive oil and handfuls of garlic cloves on top of the basil in a large Cuisinart and hit the switch. “It would be like driving a Volkswagen into your computer and expecting it to keep working.”

In the mid-’80s, Clark went to Denver to apply for a job with defense contractor Martin Marietta Corporation (now Lockheed-Martin) on the design team working on how to shoot missiles from a launch pad floating in space, as part of the eventually failed Strategic Defense Initiative.

Clark said that none of the engineers could figure out how to do it since the missiles would have pushed the launch pad away and there would be nothing for them to thrust against. “They couldn’t make it work.”

A former electrical engineer, Clark outfitted his greenhouses with an automated monitoring system. Photo: John Robinson
A former electrical engineer, Clark outfitted his greenhouses with an automated monitoring system. Photo: John Robinson

By now, the vibrant green frappe that is Clark’s signature pesto was smoothing out in the food processor. He scooped it into small, round containers and slapped labels on the lids before putting a dozen or so units in a large refrigerator.

Clark’s Denver initiative was all part of his mission to span two sets of ideals: western and eastern. “I was working from the inside,” he said, half chuckling. But he is very sincere about trying to reconcile those opposing sets of values.

Still, why the heck would a spiritual pilgrim, out in the world seeking bliss and higher consciousness, want to go to work for the defense industry at its most megalomaniacal moment?

“I think it was just wanting to further my career, my profession as an engineer. You want to move forward,” Clark said. “I was at Martin Marietta wearing red and orange clothes with a string of beads around my neck and a picture of the guru. And they were ready to hire me.”

Clark walked into a room full of engineers at Martin Marietta, all sitting around some $120,000 gizmo that, “they couldn’t figure out how to turn on,” said Clark.

It was a machine that Clark was well-acquainted with and regularly used in his work at Sperry.

“They said, ‘You can work this thing?’”

“Well, yeah.”

“’You’re hired,’” they told Clark.

But Sperry offered him a substantial enough salary increase to keep him in Virginia. Soon after, in 1984, Clark bought his first six-and-half-acre plot of land in Greene County, the first few acres of what is now part of the 15-acre Planet Earth Diversified.

“In the late ’80s, I started to see the beginning of the end,” Clark said of his career in high-tech. “They were buying out people’s pensions and laying people off.”

So after 15 years on the job, Clark quit engineering and became a full-time farmer, as opposed to an engineer who worked from 7am to 4pm, went home and, “milked goats until I fell asleep and farmed all weekend.”