Farm Leader Jack Murray has plenty to keep him occupied

From: The News Gazette

Don Dodson

CHAMPAIGN — A farmer’s work is never done, if Jack Murray’s schedule is any indication.

Besides farming with his cousin and their sons, he sells seed corn and serves on the board of a grain cooperative and ethanol plant.

Plus, in the past, Murray:

— Helped his daughters set up a catering business.

— Coached baseball and wrestling at Fisher High School.

— Served on school and drainage boards.

— Ran a very successful snowmobile business.

“Jack’s like the Energizer Bunny. He doesn’t slow down for anything,” said close friend Dustin Ehler, who once worked for Murray.

Mike Estes, president of Fisher National Bank, has known Murray since the first grade.

“He’s always willing to work on projects, put in time to get something done and take the lead if needed,” Estes said. “If you need an Indian, he’ll do that. If you need a chief, he’ll do that.”

How does Murray make time for it all?

“I’m going to sleep when I’m dead,” he said. “I don’t require a lot of sleep. My biggest weakness is saying no to people.”

Murray — The News-Gazette’s Farm Leader of the Year — farms 3,000 acres in northern Champaign County and southern Ford County with his son, Christopher; Jack’s cousin, Mike; and Mike’s son, Matt.

All four are involved in Murray Seeds, which sells Pioneer seeds.

Jack Murray is quick to point out almost everything he’s involved in — the farming operation, the grain co-op, the ethanol plant — requires a team.

“I’m a team player on many teams,” he said.

Murray, 56, and his wife, Patti, live in a farmhouse 9 miles north of Champaign. The home was built in 1913 and has housed several generations of Murrays.

The first family member to farm the land, in 1870, was Peter Murray. An Irish immigrant, he worked for the Illinois Central Railroad long enough to get money to buy a farm.

The farming tradition was carried on by Peter’s nephew, Harold Murray — Jack’s grandfather — and later by Harold’s sons, John and Jim.

About 25 years ago, those brothers turned the operations over to respective sons Jack and Mike.

Now Jack and Mike are getting their sons — Christopher and Matt — ready to take over the business.

That’s one of the things Jack enjoys — “watching the young people get better at doing things than we do.”

Maybe that’s the coach in Murray speaking. From 1985 to 1996, he was the Fisher youth wrestling coach, and from 1994 to 2000, he was assistant baseball coach at Fisher High School.

While Christopher was growing up, Jack also coached Little League, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle and American Legion teams.

Jack also encouraged his two daughters, Lauren and Annie, to pursue their culinary passions.

He helped them acquire equipment for their L.A. Gourmet Catering business and helped them plan their Pear Tree Estates events center, slated to open this fall  21/2 miles north of the High School of St. Thomas More.

Estes said he always admired Jack’s dedication to family.

“I’ve seen how he and Patti raised those kids. They did things as a family,” Estes said. “I thought, ‘When I have kids, I hope I can raise them that way.'”

Jack Murray was born April 6, 1956, to John and Betty Murray. He was the fifth of seven children. He attended Fisher Grade School and Fisher High School, graduating in 1974.

He then went to the University of Illinois to study agricultural engineering, but ended up switching to agronomy his junior year.

That decision benefited him when he went into the seed business.

“We’re all four agronomists farming together. No one else can offer that type of background,” he said.

Jack married Patti Keith in the summer of 1978, after graduating from the UI. Their marriage came as no surprise to anyone.

They had been seeing each other since high school, when Jack was a senior and Patti was a freshman.

“Her father wouldn’t let her date me until she was 16,” Jack said. Until then, they had to go out in groups, usually accompanied by Jack’s brother, Tom, and Patti’s sisters.

Patti got her bachelor’s degree from Eastern Illinois University, and after having the three children, earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois.

Today, she’s a librarian at Prairie Elementary School in Urbana.

Jack said she’s a favorite of kids at school.

“They think of her as a grandma. They hang onto her. They love her to death,” he said.

Jack said a grade school teacher told him she knew, when he was in first grade, that he would be a farmer.

“I like the farm life,” Murray said. “I wanted to do what my dad did.”

When he enrolled at the UI, he fully intended to return to the family farm.

“I was going to be a farmer with an engineering degree. I loved math and physics, that side of it,” he said.

While in college, he worked as warehouse manager for Great Planes Model Distributors and gained a broader understanding of business.

Plus, he had a pretty good head for mechanics. During winters, he did mechanical work for Neil Kesler, who operated a snowmobile business.

Eleven years after Kesler sold that business, “friends talked me into starting a dealership,” Murray said.

From 1992 to 2000, Murray had a Ski-Doo dealership at his farm.

“In 1996, it was the largest dealership in the state, and in 1997, I was dealer of the year,” he said.

The Murrays held “grass drags” for snowmobile racers from June to December on land near their home. He started the Central Illinois Snowchasers group.

But when two Pioneer sales representatives stopped selling in 2000, the company asked Murray, already a Pioneer representative, whether he could pick up their business.

Murray agreed to do so, but closed down the snowmobile business — much to the relief of Patti, who ran the Ski-Doo office, he said.

Today, the Murrays continue to enjoy snowmobiling, spending snowy weekends at a home in Hayward, Wis.

Murray’s family has long been involved with grain elevators. His dad was president of Thomasboro Grain for 20 years, and his uncle, Jim, was president of the Ludlow Co-Op Elevator Co.

So it was only natural when Jack’s father-in-law, Don Keith — who had been president of Fisher Farmers Grain & Coal — asked Jack if he would join that co-op’s board of directors.

Jack sat on that board from 1987 to 2009, serving as president the last four years. When that co-op merged with Grand Prairie Co-Op in 2009 to form Premier Cooperative, Jack served on the new co-op’s board as well.

“I’ve been around elevators all my life,” he said.

Roger Miller, Premier’s general manager, called Murray a “get-it-done-type individual” who invites input from others and listens to it.

“He’s got a good management style,” Miller said.

When five cooperatives collaborated to establish the One Earth Energy ethanol plant in Gibson City, Jack joined that venture’s board of directors and today is board president.

“It’s the largest farmer-owned ethanol plant in the state,” Murray said, adding that One Earth employs 46.

The plant, originally licensed for 100 million gallons of ethanol production a year, has been relicensed for 115 million gallons. The plant annually uses 36 million to 40 million bushels of corn, most of it grown within 50 miles of Gibson City.

Last year, while corn prices were at record highs, the plant was unprofitable for several months, but corn prices have dropped and the plant is projected to show good profits for February through April, Murray said.

Unlike some ethanol plants, One Earth Energy remained open all of last year and is “running full-bore” this year, he said. Plus, in the last year, it’s begun making corn oil.

Murray said ethanol production has become much more efficient in recent years, with the plant requiring only 50 percent of the natural gas use originally projected.

When organizers did research for the plant, it was calculated the plant would need 4 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol. Now, only 2.7 gallons of water is needed for that, he said.

One of Murray’s latest projects has been helping his daughters plan the events center.

The 13,000-square-foot center, on County Road 1000 E (North Mattis Avenue extended), will have a stone-and-cedar exterior and be located beside a small pond. It’s designed to accommodate groups of 400 to 500.

Murray said most spaces in Champaign-Urbana that can accommodate those numbers are booked a year out, and without such space, L.A. Gourmet Catering was having to “turn away too much business.”

Having their own events space will make it easier for Lauren and Annie to control quality, Murray said.

The two sisters started their catering business in September 2006, after graduating from the UI’s hospitality management program that May.

On another front, Murray and his farming partners are adding new products at Murray Seeds, including tools from Tremont-based Precision Planting.

Murray said his favorite thing about farming is taking out the crop.

“Harvesting has got to be the best part — seeing what the year has brought to you. Last year was the worst harvest we ever had. At least we were insured, so it wasn’t a financial disaster, just a disaster in general,” he said.

Farmers, like everyone else, continually need to experiment and innovate, Murray said.

“If there are new technologies, you need to try them. They may not always work, but you need to try them,” he said. “People who don’t try new stuff are boring.”

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