Known as the “Doctor of Agronomy,” Luke Jenkins has taken his extensive knowledge of turf from Super Bowl stadiums to a family farm.
Founded more than a century ago, 44 Farms in Cameron, Texas, has been run by four generations of the McClaren family. But what really sets the successful black Angus cattle and beef operation apart isn’t the McClarens’ history of tradition, but their innovative approach to farming the rich land along the Little River. Their secret? Luke Jenkins, the so-called Doctor of Agronomy and turf-tender extraordinaire.
Jenkins’ own roots are humble yet sturdy, reaching deep into the black marsh soil of Louisiana. He hails from a town in the southern part of the state so small he’s not sure it would come up on Google Maps. His mother worked for the school board; his father worked in the sheriff’s office. Together they had a small ranch with a few cattle and crops, mostly corn and vegetables. The food they produced ended up on their own kitchen table and those of their neighbors and extended family.
When it came time for the young Jenkins to select a college major, the choice was an easy one: agriculture. He enjoyed his studies, but after graduation he found himself in unrelated jobs. Then he came across an opening for an assistant at a 36-hole golf course, and he decided to apply.
Jenkins got the job and quickly discovered he had a knack for managing the turf. After about four years he cold-called Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, wondering if they might need help with their athletic fields. Although the call was unsolicited, it’s not as though Jenkins didn’t have LSU ties. His wife had gone to school there, as had his brother. And then there were the season tickets his family had to Tigers games — for nearly 50 years running. “It was definitely a part of our childhood, a part of our fabric,” Jenkins says. So LSU was not, forgive the pun, unfamiliar turf.
The university decided to take Jenkins on and put him in charge of the stadium. At that time, in the early ’90s, the facility was mainly used for football. Once a week, Jenkins had to make sure the elevators were in good shape, that the A/C was working — and, most importantly, that the gorgeous green turf was ready to be ripped to pieces by victory-hungry football players.
The work wasn’t easy. “After each game, we worked on the divots, filling them in with sand,” he says. “We went into an intensive mode of bringing the grass back and getting it ready for another week of a bunch of big guys running around on it, trying to tear it up.” But within a year of being there, Jenkins proved himself up to the task, and the university decided to expand his, ahem, turf, to include the entire athletic department grounds.
Jenkins’ grass of choice was Bermuda. “I was responsible for growing the field, keeping it up all year, and getting it ready for game day,” he says. He was also in charge of painting the field and, in the case of the baseball diamond, managing the dirt.
Jenkins loved the job and the literal connection to the earth. “The turf is a living organism, and so it’s something that changes with a lot of different climactic factors,” he says. “You have to get a feel for it.”
It wasn’t too long before the NFL came calling. The New Orleans Saints were building a new training facility, and might Jenkins be interested in giving his input on their plans? He was, but he had to wait until the LSU season was over. He drove down and gave his advice. They called again a few weeks later. Would he like to maintain the Saints’ new practice fields? With his LSU boss’ blessing, Jenkins switched teams.
After Super Bowl XXXI came to New Orleans in 1997, Jenkins found himself traveling around and outside of the country to work on the crews of a number of other high-level competition fields, including those for the World Series and all-star baseball games. But it wasn’t until he moved to Houston to work for the Astros that he met Bob McClaren, who at the time was the team’s president of business operations.
McClaren also happened to be a fourth-generation descendant of the founder of 44 Farms, S.W. McClaren. The pull of the family business turned out to be a strong one, so in 2002 McClaren decided to leave the Astros to head up the Angus operations at 44 Farms. Several years later he offered Jenkins a job managing the turf and forage for his cattle.
Jenkins — who, despite all of the prestige and travel his career afforded him, had longed for a farm — couldn’t say no. “The opportunity to come back to agriculture and manage the forage and the farming side was something I’d always dreamed about doing,” he says. “I wanted to get back to the production side of agriculture.”
Not that his job at 44 Farms required him to give up his other career. “Bob has been really good at the ranch about letting me still go and keep my fingers in some of that stuff,” Jenkins says. He’ll travel, work on a field, direct people all day. And then, when he’s finished, he heads home. “I get back to the ranch, where I grow turf for our cattle to forage on instead of growing field turf.”
Though the connection might not be immediately obvious, the two aren’t as different as you might think. Grass is grass, whether it’s feeding a cow or being torn up by cleats. And working in those stadiums gave Jenkins some unique challenges to overcome — like the Astros stadium with its retractable dome. He developed a unique expertise, and nickname, in the process. It was in Houston that Jenkins became known as the “Doctor of Agronomy.”
“We were trying to grow grass under a roof,” Jenkins says. “The basic part of agronomy or grass production is that grass needs sunlight to photosynthesize, and grass has to be able to photosynthesize to reproduce. When you close a roof on it, it doesn’t do well. So I was doctoring a lot on the grass, working with it.”
Since 44 Farms hired Jenkins in July 2007, the ranch has become the fourth-largest black Angus seed-stock operation in the country and the largest in Texas. The farm’s focus is the development of high-quality Angus cattle and to be a leader in the development and sale of premium Angus genetics. “But to have an outstanding herd of quality Angus cattle, they must have access to great and nutritious forage and grain,” explains McClaren, owner and CEO of the company. “So the farming operation at 44 Farms has the highest priority. Quality nutrition for the cattle is essential for the end product and it’s the right thing to do.”
McClaren was so satisfied with the results of his genetics program that in 2012 he got into the branded beef business. 44 Farms Angus Steaks can now be found in more than 50 Texas restaurants. McClaren says it’s thanks to Jenkins that whether in “drought or rain,” his cattle are provided the best.
“I wanted Luke on our team because he is a man of character first and foremost,” McClaren says. “He is all about quality in everything he does.” McClaren first saw that quality back in 1999, when Jenkins joined the Astros. “I knew he possessed the knowledge to do amazing work, but then I saw his uncommon devotion to quality. He wanted to make sure that the players played on the very best turf. Well, he has focused that same passion to these cattle. He is a farmer at heart. He gets up early and stays late to be able to provide our cattle with the most nutritious and wholesome grass and grains as are possible.”
Jenkins is thrilled to be back on the farm. “We get so busy in our lives working and with our families and kids. There’s so much going on. But I see so many beautiful sunrises and sunsets. It always keeps me grounded. When you see that baby calf, or you’re down on the river at a certain time of the evening, you can’t take it for granted. That’s one of my favorite parts of being back out and working this ranch — being out in God’s creation every day.”
For more information on 44 Farms and 44 Steaks, visit www.44farms.com.