Oklahoma’s Sustainable Agriculture
July 12th, 2011
Last month, NSAC Policy Associate Helen Dombalis traveled to Oklahoma where she explored the state’s many sustainable agriculture endeavors.
Policy Advocacy and Research: GIPSA, Conservation, and Beyond – Yukon and Oklahoma City
Helen was joined by sustainable agriculture advocate and farmer Kathy Moore of Anichini-Moore Ranch & Farm and co-founder of the Oklahoma Composting Council. Kathy resides in the state’s third district, represented by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-3rd/OK). Kathy and Helen had a productive meeting with Lucas district staff in Yukon to discuss NSAC priorities including the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rule as well as conservation programs. Prior to taking the reins of the full agriculture committee, Congressman Lucas chaired its subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Rural Development, and Research.
Kathy and Helen then met with Kefy Desta, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the Plant and Soil Sciences department at Oklahoma State University. Kefy’s work includes a focus on sustainable agriculture including nutrient management in organic production, waste management, and alternative crops.
Farm to School and Specialty Crops – Oklahoma City
The group expanded and met Chris Kirby with the Department of Agriculture and administrator of the Oklahoma Farm to School program. Following a multi-year successful Farm to School pilot with seedless watermelons, in 2006 the Oklahoma State Legislature passed the “Oklahoma Farm to School Program Act” creating Chris’s position along with the program’s website, which serves as an important resource for farmers, ranchers, school personnel, and consumers throughout the state. Since passage of the legislation, the state’s Farm to School programs have grown to around 75 in number and include several universities, with demand exceeding supply. The state has also formed numerous partnerships with nonprofits and the public sector to advance the Farm to School program.
Chris treated Kathy, Kefy, and Helen to a tour of Cannon’s Corner, an eight-acre urban farm in Oklahoma City with vegetable and fruit production. The farm is a participant in the state’s Plasticulture Program for small farms, funded by state dollars and the federal Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which aims to increase the competitiveness of specialty crops. Cannon’s Corner operates a roadside farm stand and also provides food to the Farm to School program for educational purposes in taste tests and cooking demonstrations.
An On-line Food Hub: Oklahoma Food Cooperative – Oklahoma City
Next, Helen and Kathy met with Bob Waldrop and Chelsey Simpson, founder and President respectively of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, an on-line food hub. Once a month, the coop’s 4,000 or so members from across the state place on-line orders for products from about 100 of Oklahoma’s producers. The OK Food Coop aggregates products on a single day just prior to its monthly distribution day, at which time products are delivered to customers at nearly 40 pick-up sites throughout the state.
At the meeting, the group discussed challenges for food hubs including labor expenses for aggregation, packing, and distribution; increased competition from direct marketing channels such as farmers markets and CSAs; burdensome labeling requirements for small ranchers; and serving the state’s most rural, remote areas. Opportunities include diversification of products, such as the addition of regional foods (e.g. Texas citrus and Arkansas rice), as well as adding more non-food items to maintain a year-round customer base.
NSAC is currently exploring policy options to support food hubs as well as other components of local and regional food systems.
Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture – Poteau
Helen then traveled to Poteau in the eastern part of the state near the Arkansas border to visit the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a long-time NSAC member and supporter. Located on about 4,000 acres and in operation since the mid-1960s, the Kerr Center has extensive experience in sustainable agriculture. Along with some farm consultation, the Kerr Center has been engaged in state and federal policy and was involved in establishing Oklahoma’s Food Policy Council. Additionally, the Kerr Center bridges the gap between research and farming: with operational horticulture, natural resources, and livestock programs, the Kerr Center offers an array of educational opportunities including field days and workshops and conducts a variety of research. More recently, the Kerr Center got involved in Farm to School programs and remains an advocate for local and regional food systems.
USDA has supported the Kerr Center’s work to advance sustainable agriculture research and education. Its horticulture program received a Specialty Crop Block Grant for an heirloom sweet potato trial, using twelve varieties to explore ideal growing conditions. Its natural resources program received funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Its livestock program received funding through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to conduct on-farm research to reduce disease in livestock. In August 2011, the Kerr Center will partner with the University of Arkansas, the recipient of a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) grant.