Georgia farmer jumps into politics

Sure, it may be a long shot. But don't bet against Cleve Mobley. A 41-year-old farmer from Waynesboro, Ga., Mobley whipped the odds by even farming in the first place.

Now he's running for Congress in Georgia's newly-created 12th Congressional District. Why, after a 16-year struggle to put the farm in the black, would Mobley opt for the hassles of political life?

“For the people of this district and for my country,” he says. “For the ag community. For my farmer friends. After 16 years of farming, I've gotten some debt load off me so I can have a little freedom to enjoy life. Now I'm taking on a whole new project that'll make life tough again.”

It'll take more than just farm votes to win election in the new district running all the way from Savannah to Augusta and Athens. A Republican, he's aiming for broad spectrum backing from small business owners, educators and average citizens.

“I understand what people go through to make a living and educate their children,” he says. “I'm right in there with them. I've struggled. I've worked hard. I love to farm, and I built it from zero. I've spent time in Washington testifying for agriculture before congressional panels, and I've done everything I could do to help in the capacity of a producer. A friend told me I've been politicking all my life, I might as well be paid for it.”

Mobley watched his father farm and eventually go bankrupt. That didn't kill his love for the land, though. As a young man, after working in construction and landscaping, he almost went to work in a nearby nuclear plant. A talk with his mother, banker, and a machinery dealer turned his attention back to farming.

So in 1985, just as many farmers exited the business, Mobley started farming. Drought and disaster immediately struck east Georgia. He wrongly figured cotton couldn't fail. His first crop yield is easy to remember: zero.

That didn't deter him. He kept adding farms to the business. Landlords gave him 10-year leases in return for installing center pivot irrigation systems. Looking for additional cash flow, he started a custom cotton picking business, working in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas before heading home for the Georgia harvest. The cotton pickers required trucks to haul them. That put him in the trucking business, as well. Later, he organized a group of 22 cotton farmers to build the $4 million Screven Gin Co.

He thrived through drought and low prices. His farm grew to 2,800 acres of cotton, 500 acres of corn, 250 acres of peanuts, 300 acres of wheat, and 800 acres of pasture with 350 cow-calf pairs. He had no time for hobbies. “Farming is my hobby,” he'd say.

He courted his wife, Marlette, a city girl from Augusta, by taking her to fields, showing her how to scout cotton for worms. She found his courtship technique delightfully different from his competition and surprised herself by agreeing to marry him.

Now she manages the farm business and gave his political campaign her blessing. “When I was first asked about running for Congress, I didn't want to do it. But Marlette said I was not going to be happy with myself unless I gave it a shot. It's going to be a hardship on her, too, but she's 100 percent with me on it,” he says.

Once elected, he'll concentrate on trade policy, education and transportation issues, he says, all of which impact his district. He'll also carry his farm background with him through the halls of Congress.

“Larry Combest (House Agriculture Committee chairman) has already said he needs me on the ag committee. He wants a real farmer on it. I'd be the only true farmer, the only actual producer, on it. I'd be the only one who has gone through the turmoils of agriculture, who can understand what the guy out in the country is facing,” he says.

He's committed to educating the public about farm policy and the realities of farm life. “I'd like to see some displays in key places. A bale of cotton makes 2,400 pairs of jeans. A bushel of wheat makes 69 loaves of bread and farmers get $2 for that wheat. We've gotta shake ‘em and say, ‘Hey, look at this,’” he says.

The difference between farm income and what the final product sells for is, “Staggering,” he says. “Ag is the Number One industry in the nation. It's a factory in the dirt, you just don't see the plant. People have to understand that.”

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