Down on the farm

Note: This story was originally featured in the Winter 2015-16 issue of Berry magazine.

Jeff Manley (88C) coverYou won’t find any soaring office towers sprouting from the rolling fields of west-central Georgia, but what Jeff Manley (88C) has built as general manager of The Rock Ranch is no less impressive.

Often learning by trial and error, the Jonesboro, Ga., native has turned a once unassuming cattle ranch an hour south of Atlanta into one of the state’s leading agritourism destinations, drawing as many as 100,000 visitors annually for school field trips, business meetings, company picnics and family day trips.

At first glance, there’s nothing extravagant about the 1,500-acre property marked only by a simple mail box on the side of a two-lane highway. Yet during a recent fall it welcomed guests from 23 states and seven foreign countries. Once on site, visitors roam lush you-pick fields, camp out in replica Conestoga wagons, participate in such seasonal events as “Pumpkin Destruction Day,” and delight as children play on farm-themed attractions. The goal is to provide a daylong experience for guests that creates “life memories” and strengthens bonds.

“The ambiance of a farm builds family,” Manley said. “I believe there’s a gene in us that craves the outdoors and contact with the land. There’s a fascination with how things grow and feeling dirt between your fingers and toes.”

In creating such experiences, Manley finds himself at the crossroads of Georgia’s two largest revenue producers – agriculture and tourism. The combination is proving to be an economic powerhouse for Georgia, generating an estimated $142 million statewide in 2013 according to the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

Though he downplays his own accomplishments, Manley is an undeniable voice of influence in the industry. His contributions include recent service as president of the Georgia Agritourism Association and current membership on the governor-appointed board of the Georgia Tourism Foundation.

“Jeff truly is a pioneer and a visionary,” said Adam Pugh (02C), business development director for The Rock Ranch. “He was creating agritourism when no one else knew what to call it.”

Planting a seed

Visionary was not a word used to describe Manley in his younger years. The eldest of four siblings growing up in a broken home, he spent his adolescence “heading for a dead end,” struggling in school and working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

One of the only constants during this time was his unlikely friendship with Truett Cathy, which began when Cathy took notice of Manley, then 12, sweeping floors at the local pharmacy to earn money.

“Dog gone it, he just really cared,” Manley said of his old friend, who passed away in 2014. “You could tell he felt for you and that he saw something in you that maybe you didn’t see.”

With a Sunday school invitation serving as the catalyst, Cathy poured time and influence into Manley’s life. Early on, that meant driving well out of his way to pick up Manley for church. As Manley grew older, Cathy continued to offer sound guidance and a steadying hand, particularly when he sensed his young friend going astray.

“You couldn’t say no to him,” Manley chuckled, recalling the insistent dinner invitation that once kept him from running afoul of the law with his teenage friends. “He was just tenacious. And I think he had this intuition – he sensed mischievousness.”

Fertile soil

It was Cathy who first introduced Manley to Berry, providing vital direction at a time when the teenager was already on academic suspension from two different colleges.

“He knew I loved the outdoors,” Manley related. “I’d go to his farm all the time. He said, ‘I really think you’d like it at Berry. Drive up there with me, and let’s just dream a little bit.’”

Manley remembers being amazed by the scope of the campus, but before he could gain admission as one of the first participants in Cathy’s new initiative – the WinShape College Program – he had to talk his way off academic suspension at one of his former institutions so he could successfully complete the requisite courses demanded by a skeptical Berry dean.

“I had all kinds of hoops to jump through,” Manley said. “But that’s how bad I wanted to go.”

Berry wasn’t without its challenges – Manley had to work especially hard to overcome his rudimentary reading skills – but the outdoor setting and work emphasis were a natural fit. Sensing that “a new day” had come, Manley quickly secured not one, not two, but three on-campus jobs, gaining valuable experience and earning much-needed income while working simultaneously on the paint crew, at the horse barn and in the preschool. Later, he shifted his work focus to the mountain campus ropes course, though he continued to paint on his own.

At the same time, faculty members such as Bob Frank and Steven Bell were making their own investment in him, not because he was friends with the WinShape founder – that wasn’t common knowledge – but simply because they cared.

Opportunity takes root

Manley was a newly minted Berry graduate preparing to take an on-campus job at WinShape the first time he visited The Rock Ranch. Cathy was thinking of purchasing what was then a run-down piece of property – but only if Manley would agree to live and work there. When Manley asked what they might do with it, Cathy responded, “I don’t know. It’s just an opportunity.”

Three decades later, that opportunity has turned into a way of life for Manley and his wife, Dr. Haley Hall Manley (89C), a local physician. Together, they have raised three children on the property.

Initially, Manley focused on the ranch’s Brangus cattle operation, but a downturn in the market forced him to explore additional revenue streams. A call from a local judge seeking a place to hold a Sunday school picnic hinted at a different future, and from those humble beginnings a booming business was born.

“I’ve got this great picture of our first petting zoo; it’s got a borrowed goat, a borrowed sheep, and that’s it,” Manley reflected. “I look at our programming now and compare it to what we had back then and think, ‘Why’d anybody want to come back?’”

But come back they have, delighting in their interactions with Manley’s customer-service oriented staff – if you don’t smile five times during your interview, he won’t hire you – the delicious produce and the many curiosities on site. A milestone in the property’s development came in 2006 when Pugh was brought on board as the first staff member dedicated solely to agritourism.

The success in agritourism came as a surprise to Cathy, who once had remarked to Manley, “Nobody’s going to drive to The Rock, Ga., to see this.” Years later, as he marveled at the 3,000 people roaming the farm on a cold October day, Cathy wondered aloud what might have been possible if he’d been more supportive.

“Not one thing more,” Manley assured him. “I wouldn’t have worked as hard. It wouldn’t have been my own. You’ve left me be and given me the freedom to do this, and that’s more valuable than any money you could have given me.”

Today, Manley honors his mentor by working to cultivate the lives of his employees and customers in addition to his cattle and crops. He’s also appreciative of the support he receives from Cathy’s son, Dan, a Berry trustee who shares Manley’s belief in the power of the family farm and his late father’s love of agriculture.

Future harvests

Manley’s enthusiasm for agritourism and his work at The Rock Ranch is contagious, as is his love and appreciation for Berry. Casting an eye toward the future, he can’t help but consider Berry’s potential as both a destination for tourists and a source of agriculture leaders.

Through involvement with the college’s Student Work and Enterprises Advisory Board, he now has the opportunity to lend his knowledge and expertise to these efforts, which include the agriculture-based student enterprises under The Berry Farms umbrella and planned construction of a LifeReady Campaign-funded “store front” on Martha Berry Highway.

“A lot of the things that I do at The Rock Ranch I thought about while I was in college,” he said. “My mouth just waters thinking about Berry’s potential.”

Magazine cover photo by Mary Claire Stewart