I am the son of a farmer. Although I did not grow up on a farm, my dad had three, and owned a commercial hatchery–a factory that produced living things–baby chicks–literally by the millions, which is incredible for me to think about now. We lived in a town of 1,500, where my family were both farmers and agribusiness owners, a vocation that went back at least three generations. So you would think the needs of rural towns, farms, and agribusinesses would be top of mind by nature. But, alas, those days were a long time ago, and I now live in a large city, moving a year ago from a mid-sized city where I had lived for almost 25 years.
So, I must confess, when we began work in Oklahoma after the tornadoes last July, farms and agribusinesses were not on my radar. Until, that is, a visit to El Reno. El Reno, about 20 miles west of Oklahoma City proper, is a farming community. And when my colleague and I visited, they were put on our radar, like a huge Aircraft Carrier, right in the middle of the (very small) Canadian River that flows near there. A well-known advocate for farmers was at our meeting, and without malice or anger, but with plenty of emotion, told us of their plight.
The HUGE, as in the widest tornado in recorded history, twister that struck a year ago today not only leveled the largest livestock sale facility in the area, but strewn millions of pieces of debris across the farmland of Canadian County. Our farm champion pulled other farmers, and those sympathetic to their cause, to literally walk tens of thousands of acres in an effort known as “Field of TEAMS”. In a voluntary effort to rid farms of dangerous crop and livestock injuring/killing debris, picking up literally millions of pieces of anything and everything. We were struck by the scope of the effort, and her resolve to keep farmers and agriculture-based businesses in the forefront of recovery efforts.
Their plight was mentioned in our report, and our sister recovery function, Community Planning and Capacity Building, performed a survey of rural businesses, but there was little more. As with all efforts in the recovery process, we cannot lead, we are there to support. Upon returning, however, an unlikely champion had emerged. Sadly I cannot divulge this person’s name due to their position. But they were absolute and insistent that the rural and agriculture businesses still needed help. Thanks to this person’s persistence, and to the prior-expressed willingness of Oklahoma State University (OSU) to help, a meeting was set with them to see if they would help. OSU runs the state agriculture extension service, and is known as a leading university nationally in the ag sector, so they were a natural.
So, a new initiative was born, one that has been heartily endorsed by the Oklahoma Resilience Strategy Steering Committee, to address rural recovery and resilience, not just in Canadian County, but in all counties (including Oklahoma county-home to Oklahoma City-of which a large part remains rural). OSU is already discussing ways it can help bring rural and agribusiness stakeholders together to better respond when disaster strikes, and to work with others to establish a web-based portal for information and communication among and between farms, rural communities, agribusinesses, and those that can assist them in time of crisis.
Going back to my roots, to helping those that literally feed us, especially the family-owned local producers like my Dad, is pretty cool. Prior to his passing, Dad resigned himself to the fact that none of us would, or really could in the rapidly consolidating poultry industry, take over his business, his farms, his life. That had to be a disappointment to him, although he never mentioned it. So, it’s back to my roots–in a different way, I’m still connected to the livelihood that fed me, and that now feeds all of us. Dad, if you’re looking down tonight, I haven’t forgotten. I am still, and will always proudly be, the son of a farmer.