Silverware clinks around a crowded dinner table. The aroma of piping hot food wafts in and tickles taste buds. Laughter fills the space as family trades jokes and jest. Then the food arrives a tall glass of milk, buttered rolls, leafy spinach salad, savory beef and a rich slice of pecan pie. The clamor quiets, and all thoughts turn to an activity essential to life eating. In a few minutes, the food disappears and focuses shift back to the daily grind. Across the world, this scene plays out each day, again and again. Mealtime brings people together, provides them respite for a few moments and fuels their day.
Behind each plate of food is a team of farmers and ranchers. They come from different backgrounds, fill different parts of the plate and do things a little differently. But they are bound by a common understanding this is not a job, this is a way of life. These are the faces of agriculture. These meals are the fruits of their labor. And for all their challenges, they love feeding the world.
Matt Gorges moved from Kansas to southeast Oklahoma to start a grazing dairy with a little assistance from the Noble Research Institute.
"I never wanted to push farming on my children. To do this, you have to want to do this."
— Matt Gorges
A dairy dream
The day begins at 2:20 a.m. for Matt Gorges. His cows graze in paddocks as far as three-quarters of a mile away and as close as his backyard. By 3 a.m., he's out the door and bringing them up to the milking barn for their first milking of the day before setting out to do chores until it's time to milk again in the afternoon.
"Some days I may be able to get a nap. Some days, not," he said, sitting at his family's dining room table. His wife, Diane, and six children, ranging in age from 11 to 21, are a big help, although he's losing hands with his oldest son, Kolbe, beginning his own dairy in Texas and his next oldest, Blaise, going off to college soon.
"I never wanted to push farming on my children," Gorges said. "To do this, you have to want to do this." Kolbe has been helping his father since he was 7, and now he's bought 87 heifers from him. "He'll do just fine," said Gorges, his words spoken with an underlying appreciation and pride.
Part of this gratification stems from watching his son grow up as a dairyman. Gorges, originally from Kansas, didn't grow up on a farm. However, his family's livelihood depended on dairy farmers. His father hauled raw milk from dairy farms to processing plants, and his parents spoke highly of those dairymen. "I looked up to farmers because my dad looked up to farmers," he said. "I was fascinated by them."
At 17, Gorges had his chance to enter the business alongside two older brothers. With $5,000 in each of the boys' pockets, the trio leased land and bought cows from an uncle in Kansas who was leaving the business. Learning as they went, they operated a conventional dairy they brought hay and grains to the cows, the cows ate, and they milked the cows. "It was everything hectic and exciting," he said. "I was too young to know any better," he added, laughing a little. "It doesn't take long to lose the romance."
After dairying on two farms with family for 19 years, Gorges was ready to go out on his own. The brothers had run a productive dairy the third most productive in Kansas but productivity doesn't necessarily equate to profitability.
Gorges was interested in starting a pasture-based grazing dairy. Instead of bringing feed to the cows an expensive practice pasture provides most of the daily intake for the cows. With help from his extension agent and specialists at the University of Missouri, Gorges decided to move his young family to southeastern Oklahoma. Land was less expensive and rain more plentiful, both important factors for a pasture-based dairy.
The MU research specialists encouraged Gorges to contact the Noble Research Institute for recommendations on soil health and forage production. "They've helped us in just about every way," said Gorges of the Noble Research Institute's consultation program. "It was one thing to buy feed and entirely different raising feed for grazing. You have to be just as concerned with your forages as you are your cattle." That was 18 years ago, and now the Noble Research Institute is also helping his son Kolbe as he starts his dairy.
By 2 p.m., it's time for the afternoon milking. Swish, swish, swish, milk is pumped by machine from the cows' udders and into tubes that transport it to large stainless steel tanks, where it's cooled. Every other day, Dairy Farmers of America, a nationwide milk marketing cooperative, picks the milk up and takes it to a processing plant, where it is pasteurized and bottled or made into products like cheese and yogurt. Even with help from family and a few employees, the milking will not conclude until about 5 p.m.
With fluctuating milk prices and environmental conditions, it's not easy to predict where the operation will be financially from year to year. Regardless, the knowledge that he's fulfilling a childhood dream and raising his children there keeps him going. "The long hours don't bother us," Gorges said. "I enjoy what I do. I just want to keep doing this and keep enjoying it."
Fourth-generation farmer Jimmy Kinder keeps up with the latest information and technology from the Noble Research Institute to benefit his land and operation.
"Farming is a system. Each component soil, forage development, economics, livestock is a piece, but it's really all about how you put those pieces together."
— Jimmy Kinder
A generational endeavor
Jimmy Kinder was running a tractor by the time he was 9 years old. He wanted to drive earlier, but his dad insisted he be able to push down the clutch with one foot.
"I've always known I wanted to be a farmer, and I was blessed to be born into a family where that was possible," said Kinder, a fourth-generation wheat farmer from southwest Oklahoma. "I guess you could say farming was genetically imprinted in me."
At age 14, Kinder and his father were preparing to harvest a wheat crop the first crop Kinder felt ownership in after all his hard work that summer when a storm hit. Very rarely did his father tell the family to get to the cellar, but this time he did. The wind was howling, and the hail pounded against the ground. "You couldn't hear yourself think," Kinder said. "But I was aware of what that hail was doing to the crop outside."
When it was over, Kinder's mother, brother and sister headed back to the house, but he followed his father over to where the field was where those amber grains of wheat should have been.
"I asked Dad, 'What are we going to do?'" he said. "I'll never forget his reply: 'We've got to start thinking about next year's crop. This one's gone.' It was like that entire year's income check was lying out there on the ground, but you had to move on."
Learning the tough lessons that come from working directly with Mother Nature didn't deter Kinder from making farming his profession and passion. By the time he graduated from Cameron University, he was farming enough land to make it his full-time career.
Kinder stands tall, wearing a Noble Research Institute cap and looking across his wheat fields. It's not too far from the site of his childhood home and just a little farther from where he and his wife, Margaret Ann, live with their youngest, Whitney, and raised their two older children, Brad and Bryson.
The fields are bright green, and cattle graze some of them. Each generation of Kinders has grown dual-purpose winter wheat. Planted in the fall, the wheat sprouts up like grass. During the winter months, the wheat goes dormant, so Kinder and other cattlemen who raise stocker cattle weaned calves from cow-calf operations allow them to graze out on wheat fields. In late winter, Kinder has a decision to make. He can either keep the cattle on the wheat, or he can pull them off and move them to other pastures to allow the grain to develop into what could eventually be harvested, sold to his local cooperative and shipped by truck or barge to domestic or international mills to be ground into flour for bread.
"Farming is a system. Each component soil, forage development, economics, livestock is a piece, but it's really all about how you put those pieces together," Kinder said. That's where the Noble Research Institute has helped, giving him access to a multidisciplinary team of consultants who offer their counsel at no cost. These experts keep up with the latest information to ensure Kinder's wheat and cattle operations are in balance.
In 1999, Kinder began experimenting with no-till farming. Instead of breaking the earth to prepare for planting, seeds are planted directly into the soil, reducing erosion and conserving soil moisture and health. "Fifteen years later, I can brag and say I have better soil," he said. "That's a big deal to me because I'm able to give back a better farm than I received to the next generation."
Susan Bergen sought advice from the Noble Research Institute when she began growing fruits and vegetables.
"It's a privilege to be involved in agriculture, and I hope to never stop farming."
— Susan Bergen
Farming was not in Susan Bergen's frame of reference growing up. However, she always held a love of the earth, a trait fostered in her near Boston, Massachusetts more than 1,700 miles away from where she now farms in Stratford, Oklahoma.
"I grew up in a family of dirt diggers," she said. Her great-grandfather was a plant hybridizer, and her family always kept fresh cut flowers on the kitchen table.
When she moved to Oklahoma City to work as a stockbroker and met the man who would become her husband an Oklahoma cowboy her world completely changed. "We would be going down the road, and he'd be talking about agriculture. I'd be looking at the birds, looking at the trees. I had no clue what was going on," she said, laughing at the memory.
In 1998, Bergen entered the world of agriculture with full force after she and her husband bought land on the Gerty Sands aquifer near Stratford. Perfect for growing peaches, they planted 9,000 trees, and she took charge of managing and marketing the 6,000 pounds of fruit they produced.
"It's shocking how hard farming is," she said, thinking back to her beginnings. "And there are so many ways you can do things wrong." Bergen reached out to the Noble Research Institute and Steve Upson, soils and crops consultant, who helped her learn how to manage insects, irrigate and fertilize. "They gave me the courage to start and keep going, knowing that help was only a phone call, or many times a car ride, away."
The peaches were a success, and she found grocery stores asking what else she could produce. Upson helped her determine additional crops that would be successful in her area, and, although the peach trees yielded their final crop in 2014, Peach Crest Farm is now a 330-acre-USDA certified organic "farm for all seasons." In February, you can find kale, spinach, turnips, arugula and bok choy growing in her fields.
Bergen has made it her mission to provide high quality produce to her customers, and some of her favorite consumers are children. "I'm intrigued by children's closed minds and re-engaging them with real food," she said. She became involved in Oklahoma's Farm to School initiative at the encouragement of Program Administrator Chris Kirby. At the recommendation of Upson, her first Farm-to-School crop was cantaloupe.
During her winter planning months, Bergen visits school administrators and kitchen staff. Cutting board and fresh vegetables in hand, she conducts three training sessions before a school starts offering fresh produce for lunch. "They tell me they don't like sweet potato, and I say, 'I didn't like it either,'" she said. Then she cuts off a slice and gives it to them raw. "They say, 'This is good!'" she said. "Good food is shockingly good."
Within the 13 years since she began farming, Bergen has been able to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to 68 school districts in Oklahoma, reconnecting tens of thousands of children with fresh produce. "This all started with the Noble Research Institute being able to support a new fruit and vegetable farmer in Oklahoma," she said. "It's a privilege to be involved in agriculture, and I hope to never stop farming."
Zeno McMillan uses the Noble Research Institute's voice of advice and confirmation to continually improve his ranch, leaving it better for the next generation.
A return to ranching
A winding dirt path leads through the rocky hills of the Arbuckle Mountains. Miles from the main road, unknown to most, is McMillan Ranch. A final bend gives way to a wooden gateway, and Zeno McMillan steps down from his horse.
Later he explains the horse's name is "Vangus," renamed thusly by his 5-year-old daughter, Rory, who, at the age of 2, couldn't pronounce the horse's original name "Vegas." McMillan and his wife, Becca, thought the new name was appropriate for a horse on a ranch with Angus cattle.
Like many ranchers in the Southern Great Plains, McMillan runs a cow-calf operation. Calves are born in the spring, and he helps their mamas guide them on their growth path until they've been weaned in the fall. He's been around ranching his entire life. It's a lifestyle he doesn't take for granted. One that's made special because of the years he spent away from it.
Growing up, McMillan worked alongside his father, Terry, and older brother, Ty, on the central Texas ranch his great-grandfather put together. When he went off to college Texas A&M for his bachelor's degree and Angelo State University for his master's degree he always looked forward to leaving the city and returning to the ranch during the summers.
The ranch wasn't big enough to support three families, so after college, McMillan paved his own path. First, he worked for the Texas General Land Office and then as the assistant and later full superintendent at a golf course. "At the time, you do what you have to do," he said. "But the farther away I got from the ranch, the more I appreciated it. The more I hoped to go back."
About three years down the road, Ty, who'd gone back to the family ranch after college, came across an opportunity to sell the Texas ranch and buy property in the Arbuckle Mountains. Zeno jumped at the opportunity to join his brother in the ranching endeavor. "It was like a dream come true," McMillan said. "Looking back, I wouldn't change my time away from the ranch. I learned so much. It's made me appreciate what I get to do more."
Operating a cow-calf operation is a solitary life. Cattle take priority, which means functions in town aren't always attended. Every day is a continued effort to ensure his cattle have access to fresh food and water. McMillan's trained eye can spot any health issue, which is immediately addressed. During calving season, he checks heifers every couple of hours day and night to make sure he's available to help pull a calf if its mama has trouble.
Their welfare is his concern because they are his family's livelihood. The Noble Research Institute is a voice of advice and confirmation for McMillan. "They have the means and brains to answer questions through research and provide tangible answers," he said. That's a valuable tool for McMillan, who is constantly looking to improve his operation. "I like being able to look back and say, 'I did that. I made that improvement.'"
In the end, McMillan surveys a winter pasture and the cattle grazing nearby before repeating a lesson he learned from his father. "The land really isn't mine," he said. "We're just stewards of it for a short time. I've been given this opportunity to work here, and we are responsible for improving this land, leaving it better for the next generation. That's what I try to do every day."
Scott Landgraf lives out his lifelong ambition of pecan production alongside his family with support from the Noble Research Institute.
"There is a continual process preparing for the next crop. There's a strategy, but there is no recipe."
— Scott Landgraf
The best is yet to come
Tucked beyond an orchard of pecan trees, just off a busy highway, is Scott Landgraf's home. Inside, a little pair of shoes belonging to his 2-year-old granddaughter graces the kitchen floor. The atmosphere alludes to everything you might associate with pecan pie warmth, family, tradition and hope for the future. "My father and I used to climb native pecan trees," he said, launching into his family's history.
In 1946, his father, Bill, bought the farm they still grow pecans on. Bill started clearing the land with only the help of an ax and a few other handheld tools. "I'm still pulling out stumps today," Landgraf said. "That reminds me of all the work my father put into this place."
When Landgraf was born two years later, his mother, Leota, would take him out to the clearing and sit him on a stump to watch his father's progress. By the age of 5, he had his own position in the "pecan pick- up" line. His father would climb a tree and flail the pecans out with a 30- to 45-foot flailing cane, which was placed between branches and shaken. By the time he was 10, he was picking up pecans that fell into water and selling them for his own money.
Later Landgraf went off to Oklahoma State University and studied soils and water, then he returned home and took a position at the Noble Research Institute. "The Noble Research Institute had a great influence on my father and how he produced pecans, and they enabled me to have an education I couldn't have got anywhere else," he said. During his 30-year career at the Noble Research Institute, Landgraf also continued helping with his family's pecan operation.
In 1976, he and his wife, Janice, began planting their own pecan trees. Just as Landgraf had been outside watching his father clear land for pecans, the couple had their firstborn son outside in a playpen while they planted trees. In the 1980s, Janice began selling pecans in gunnysacks under the carport, and from there it was a continual progression of growth. First, sales moved to a farm shop, then they built a storefront visible from the highway. Over time, that shop has been expanded.
"It takes unbelievable patience," Landgraf said. "We've had to grow into this operation." The pecan business comes with great risk. It takes an investment of up to 10 years of caring for trees before they produce a crop; the traditional holiday sales season is only two months long; and once the harvesters are put away, the real work begins. "There is a continual process preparing for the next crop," Landgraf said. There's pruning, fertilizing and spraying for pests to consider. "There's a strategy, but there is no recipe." But the best is yet to come, it seems. The Landgraf sons, Jeff, Wes and Justin, and their families are interested in the business. "It's bigger than life to have my family around," he said. "Farming is my golf game, my going to sports it's what I do. It has been a lifelong ambition, which I am now getting to live out, and I'm grateful for that blessing."