The “Doc” Owens Farm Story
Many of us dream of having our own parcel of rural property for recreational interests such as hunting, perhaps combined with timber for investment. Some of the more ambitious among us may hope to try our hand at living off the land – raising crops, tending livestock, or even some aquaculture interests.
These pursuits, of course, are for our own enjoyment or benefit. But we recently learned of a person who had similar dreams, yet he pursued it to help his fellow man.
Clarence Burgess Owens spent his early childhood in the midst of the Great Depression. He and his brother Emiel worked as field hands picking cotton and cutting cedar logs with their father, who was a crew chief in Smithville, Texas. Clarence joined the Army and was part of the first integrated reconnaissance team after being recruited specifically for his accuracy with a rifle. He fought during World War II and when he came out of the military he completed his Bachelors at Prairie View A&M, one of the more prominent all-black colleges at the time. When he decided to pursue postgraduate work in Texas, he was prevented because of segregation. He relocated to Ohio State and there finished his Ph.D.
Clarence’s older brother also pursued higher education, receiving his Bachelor of Science in horticulture from Prairie View A&M University and later a Ph.D. in economics and finance from Ohio State.
Clarence relocated to Tallahassee to become a professor at Florida A&M University, where he was on the faculty for 39 years and earned the nickname, “Doc.” He also married and raised a family of three sons and three daughters.
Doc Owens was quite a visionary and had a huge passion for his field of work – Agronomy – which is in the area of Agricultural Science. His life was devoted to education and doing research, even in remote areas of the world. His oldest son Burgess recalls traveling to Africa with his father as a five-year-old in the mid 1950s on a research mission.
In the 1960s, Doc Owens purchased a 100-unit low-income apartment complex and HUD project on Holton Street in Tallahassee. It became a laboratory of sorts, as Doc used it to mentor young people. He started a science club and an entrepreneur club for children using the clubhouse for meetings. He invented some educational “kits” that were built around science, math, geology and other subjects. The idea was to get the kids to learn practical applications of science; for example, going out and collecting samples from wooded areas of the neighborhood, all the while learning about an important subject matter and developing problem solving skills along the way.
Doc Owens occasionally took kids to Disney World to inspire them. “He wanted them to know that no matter how young, they could think themselves into a better place,” said his son, Burgess. “That’s what this country is all about.”
Convinced that education was the way to change a person’s future, Doc Owens created another “laboratory” on a 418-acre tract in Decatur County, Georgia, about 30 minutes north of Tallahassee. He bought the parcel in 1976 in hopes to inspire entrepreneurism in the youth he met through the housing complex. He saw the farm as an educational model he could use to get young people engaged in their studies, focusing on biology, environmental science and chemistry and the things that happen when you raise cattle, fish and crops. He built in lessons on how gravity and solar energy work, too.
Doc Owens built a round, elevated structure overlooking the lake that was designed to be a place of education, like a bioscience facility. He designed it himself, to make people ponder its size and shape. The walls were floor to ceiling windows, so kids could observe and ask questions. When they asked, “Why round?” he would talk to them about the idea of having no edges.
In the center, Doc planned to have a big fan that was generated by a combination of solar and hydraulic energies.
Doc Owens believed that the most important thing his generation owed the next was an education. He felt a person could be empowered and have confidence with an education; they could think their way through any problem. His goal was to get groups of people involved in creative, critical thinking – something he thought that society had lost, and that the black race, in particular, needed most.
Burgess Owens remembers taking a summer off and visiting his father on the farm. He was an NFL player at the time, playing ten seasons for the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders, and spent the entire summer working with his father raising the crops – watermelon and corn, mostly. The area was experiencing a severe draught, so the younger Owens was tasked with getting irrigation piping from one field to the other. After only a few weeks, Burgess couldn’t wait to get back to the big city. The country life wasn’t as glamorous as he had imagined. “It gave me a new appreciation of what farmers do,” he said.
Doc Owens died in 2012 at the age of 86, but his legacy lives on through what he inspired in his own children, his 23 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren, plus untold numbers of FAMU students and youth he mentored through the housing complex. His Doc Owens Farm, now on the market, is yet another legacy. We look forward to watching its new chapter unfold…