An overcast sky hung over the Varner family barn on a late summer morning. Gray clouds lingered in a thick ceiling above, a reminder of recent rains that softened the lane leading up to its door. A harvested wheat field lined one side of the lane, round hay bales the other. The backside of the barn exposed more hay waiting for a visit from a nearby dairyman. The Varner family welcomes the cool, damp weather and the promises it brings.
Keith and his wife, Lori, sat atop the grassy hill near the barn on the tailgate of a white pickup truck, a Finding Nemo sippy cup mixed in the bed with tools. Just a year ago, they welcomed the third and fourth generations back to the area and farm. Their son, Brandon, stood near them holding 2-year-old daughter Brinley; Audra, his wife, had 4-month-old Kylie tucked in the crook of her arm. And Cade, their 7-year-old son, dressed in plaid and boots just like Dad and Grandpa, bounced from place to place until settling on Grandma's lap.
It's been more than 50 years since the Varner family began working with the Noble Research Institute. Keith's father, Jack, initiated the time-tested relationship. Keith continued it. And now the tradition is beginning to move in the direction of the third generation with Brandon.
Three generations of the Varner family have participated in the Noble Research Institute's agricultural consultation program.
Keith was 2 years old when his father, a construction worker at the time, bought a Ford dealership in Grandfield, Oklahoma, in 1960. At the same time, Jack bought a piece of farmland the "Hoover 80" in partnership with another man. Jack began farming, and he continued to buy land, piece by piece. With his time torn between the dealership and the farm, he eventually realized he was spending more and more time on the farm. So he decided to sell the dealership and farm full time.
In those days, the Noble Research Institute served farmers in a 100-mile radius. Jack's farm west of Grandfield was 99 miles away. "We were just barely in," Keith said. But they were, and the consultants visited regularly. "I grew up with those guys," he said. "I always looked up to them. They were smart. They were my heroes."
As Keith grew older and more involved in the operation, he liked to ask the consultants questions and bounce ideas off of them. He enjoyed farming, but Jack encouraged him to go to college and find an off-farm job because of the economic instability.
After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in 1982, he moved back to Frederick, Oklahoma, just 30 miles from home, to work at the First National Bank. In 1990, married to Lori by that time, a position came open at a bank in Guymon, Oklahoma clear out west in the Panhandle.
"I went to work in the banks," Keith said. "But I got tired of putting on neckties every day. And I just like doing this." He smiles as he speaks, and his outstretched arm reveals a black-smeared hand, evidence of his morning's work.
There were other reasons to come home, too. Keith already had partnership in his father's operation, but 275 miles away is a difficult distance to maintain active involvement. And, by 1992, Jack's health was beginning to decline.
Starting out, Keith rented 700 acres from his father. His brother, Doug, moved back, and for a time the two owned a custom haying operation. They baled and sent alfalfa hay all over the world. "That was my passion when we first moved here," Keith said.
Though the brothers eventually took separate paths, Keith and Lori continued expanding their operation to 3,000 acres, most of which they now own. They grew alfalfa in the summer, and they grew winter wheat and raised stocker cattle in the winter. They've grown sudan grass, cotton and milo, and they've tried sesame and corn.
Brandon was about Cade's age when he started helping his dad on the farm. Just like Keith, Brandon grew up around the Noble Research Institute consultants. While he was in college at OSU studying agricultural economics, he interned at the Noble Research Institute under James Locke, looking at ways to manage greenbrier. Brandon and Audra, who married during Brandon's freshman year at OSU in December 2006, even rented a house from Chuck Coffey, a consultant at the time.
When Keith and Lori moved back to southern Oklahoma after two years in the Panhandle, Brandon was about 4 years old. No one could have known then that 19 years later Brandon and his family would also spend two years out west.
After graduating from OSU with a master's degree in agricultural economics in 2011, the young Varner family moved to southeast Colorado. Brandon worked across the state line and time zone in Big Bow, Kansas, as an agronomy manager for a cooperative there.
Like his father, Brandon had farm ties that pulled him back home. He was a partner in Keith's cow herd, as well as in his maternal grandfather's.
"I was just so far away," Brandon said. "Things were going on here that I was part of but wasn't really around for. I wanted to be around."
By August 2013, Brandon moved his family back to Oklahoma, where he works as an assistant manager for a cotton gin owned by Tillman Producers Co-op in Frederick. He also farms 300 acres, and Keith's goal is to bring him in closer to the family operation and to continue growing it. "My dad helped me get started," Keith said. "I rented 700 acres from him, and now we're at 3,000 acres. If Brandon can take 3,000 and triple that, it'd be pretty neat. And it might take that much to support a family these days."
Working with the Noble Research Institute has meant a lot to me ... There's been some times when I just needed someone to hold my hand.
— Keith Varner
Brandon Varner (left) and Keith Varner represent the third and second generations to work on the family farm near Grandfield, Oklahoma.
As father helps son through the generations, one tool they've passed down has been the "wealth of help" from the Noble Research Institute.
"Working with the Noble Research Institute has meant a lot to me," Keith said. "There's been some times when I just needed someone to hold my hand."
Keith values understanding the land he works with, so he regularly sends the Noble Research Institute soil, hay and water samples to test. The Noble Research Institute consultants have also helped the Varners develop their pasture rotation system and supplemental feed rations, as well as provided recommendations for soil fertilization.
The past three years of drought have affected the Varners' operation. While they were a typical stocker cattle and wheat enterprise, they also planted and depended on alfalfa. Three years ago, it became too dry for alfalfa. Noble helped provide counsel, and they soldiered forward. Today, Keith sees some hope in the damp ground below him. "If the weather allows us, I don't see why we can't go back."
Brandon likes the idea of returning to alfalfa but knows they need to watch the weather and markets. Looking toward the future, father and son have also been adopting technologies like auto-steer for their tractors. They've adopted no-till practices, too, and the Noble Research Institute has used the GreenSeeker, an optical measuring device that detects plant nitrogen requirements, across their wheat fields to help them better understand their soil's nutrient needs.
Through it all, the Noble Research Institute has been there to visit, answer questions or just provide encouragement. "A lot of times, they come out and tell us we're doing what we need to be doing," Brandon said.
"And that's OK," Keith added. "You think you're doing the right thing. You hope you're doing the right thing. But we really value what they say. It's reassuring."
Though two, now three, generations of Varners' hands have been "held" in some small way by the Noble Research Institute, it's their hands that have worked this land. Cared for it. And passed it down. Remembering the past, living in the present and thinking toward the future.
Lori holds Brinley's hand as they walk down the gentle slope. Brinley stops, her white cotton dress sways in the breeze as she bends down to the grass trying to capture the bugs and butterflies hiding within. She giggles as she twirls when a grasshopper jumps away, her short curls bouncing. Later, Brandon whirls her into the air, her smile and laughter exploding again. Her brother, Cade, fearlessly climbs the tractor wheel, his eyes full of energy and playfulness. Kylie quietly nestled next to Audra, who watches her children and husband play.
"It's nice to have them back," Lori said. The sky has lightened now. Keith, watching beside her, grins. His eyes emanate what looks like laughter, joy and pride in the next generations of Varners.