About the Kerr Center
For over forty years the name Kerr has been associated with progressive ideas, including land stewardship and sustainable agriculture. Robert S. Kerr was Oklahoma's first native-born governor, a wealthy oilman, and eventually a powerful U.S. senator. However he never forgot the lessons of land stewardship he learned as a boy growing up on a small farm.
Field of Dreams
(article on the Kerr Center in Oklahoma Today magazine, 1992)
Enchanted with the beauty of southeastern Oklahoma, Senator Kerr came to Le Flore County in the 1950s. He built what was to be his retirement home and established a ranch and prize herd of registered Angus.
Senator Kerr believed strongly in the promise of Oklahoma, and that it was possible to heal her land and conserve her natural resources. After he died suddenly in 1963, his wife and children established a private non-profit foundation in his name to engage in scientific, educational, and charitable activities.
The Agricultural Division-1965-1985
In line with this purpose, the Agricultural Division of the Kerr Foundation was established to provide farmers and ranchers in the area with free technical assistance and information on how to improve their operations. Wise stewardship was emphasized.
The "ag division" was headquartered on Senator Kerr's ranch, and its focus was largely on cattle. The organization led a hard fought local (later national)educational campaign against brucellosis, a serious cattle disease. Before long, the foundation gained a reputation as a source of honest, reliable, science-based information. (Oklahoma was certified brucellosis free in 2001 and Kerr Center was honored for its part in this victory).
In the mid-80s, foundation trustees recognized that Oklahoma agriculture was in crisis. Environmental and financial problems on the farm needed to be addressed with fresh ideas that emphasized long-term solutions. So in the best Oklahoma pioneering tradition, the organization made a fresh start, reorganizing as the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
The Center runs on the earnings from its own endowment, grants, and donations. (It has no connection with the energy company co-founded by Senator Kerr, the Kerr-McGee Corporation.)
By adding the word "sustainable" to the organizational name, the Kerr Center joined the search that is going on worldwide for new farming practices and better marketing and food distribution structures.
A sustainable agriculture will preserve our natural resources, protect our natural environment, and improve the quality of life for farmers and ranchers. The result will be strong, resilient rural communities that will be a source of strength for the nation as a whole. (Read the Kerr Center vision statement, mission, and core values).
The Center continued to do a variety of educational activities during its first years, including hosting field days and tours, producing a newsletter, and continuing the brucellosis campaign. The center of operations continued to be the ranch south of Poteau. However in 1986, the Vero Beach Research Station (now the independent Florida Center for Agricultural Sustainability) was established in Florida, to work with citrus, and in 1990 the Kerr Angus Ranch was established near Coyle, Oklahoma, to work with livestock.
The emphasis was on research and demonstration projects. After all, how could specialists advise farmers about how to make their farms sustainable if they hadn't done it themselves? Some projects included multi-species grazing with sheep, cows, and goats, trials of berries and other horticultural crops, weed control with geese, crossing-breeding cattle for the hardiest, most efficient cattle on grass, Neem oil and biopesticides for citrus, use of draft horses, production of alternative crops such as shiitake mushrooms, sweet sorghum, and Christmas trees. Field days were held periodically and a series of Progress Reports, describing the center’s projects, were published.
In 1989, a group of farm managers, ranch workers, and researchers headed by Kerr Center president Horne collaborated on guidelines for evaluating both the economic and ecological sustainability of the Center's projects. The creation of this canon of concerns was certainly a first in Oklahoma and was a significant contribution to the national debate on just how to make farms and ranches sustainable.
Horne's activities have helped keep the Kerr Center in the forefront of the sustainable agriculture movement. He was part of a small group that testified before Congress on behalf of what would become the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. He then served as head of the administrative council for SARE's southern region for two terms, a voluntary position. Horne also served on the sustainable agriculture task force of President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development.
In 1991 the Kerr Center opened the Overstreet-Kerr Historical Farm. Located ten miles south of Sallisaw, Oklahoma (home of John Steinbeck’s Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath), the restored 1895 home and farm showcases farm life and agricultural practices before World War II. The farm is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For almost twenty years visitors were treated to tours of the beautifully restored 14-room home, saw original farm buildings and display of antique farm equipment. They also learned about heritage breeds of livestock and poultry, heirloom variety fruit trees, and could picnic under the trees.
New Directions: 1996-Present
Oklahoma Producer Grants
In 1998, the Oklahoma Producer Grant Program was created to offer Oklahoma farmers and ranchers grants for researching or demonstrating innovative farming practices.
The Oklahoma Producer Grant Program awarded 48 grants between 1998 and 2008. Results were shared with the public at over 20 field days, and a series of free educational fact sheets are available online.
Farmers and ranchers all over the state have had projects funded, for both research and demonstration. Projects addressed at least one of the eight priority areas of sustainable agriculture, such as improving water quality, minimizing risk by trying innovative marketing strategies, building soil and managing pests sustainably through organic farming practices, and looking at new crops adapted to Oklahoma conditions. Topics have included rotational and multi-species grazing, sunflower biodiesel, vermicomposting, alternative crops and eggmobiles.
The program required collaboration with ag specialists from Extension, NRCS and other non-profit organizations in the state.
For its efforts in helping Oklahoma producers improve the quality of our natural environment, the program received an Award of Excellence in 2000 from the Keep Oklahoma Beautiful organization.
Stewardship Farm and Ranch
Also in 1998, the Kerr Ranch was re-christened the Stewardship Ranch. Conserving natural resources with an emphasis on clean water, is a major focus on the Ranch. To that end, staff specialists are implementing a number of "best management" or conservation practices.
Developing buffer strips along waterways is one such project. Upgrading habitat to benefit waterfowl and fish, instituting cell grazing, building limited access watering points and freeze-proof watering tanks, and building a stabilized stream crossing (the first in Oklahoma) are other efforts.
Extensive tree planting has formed the core of the center’s agroforestry project.
The Stewardship Ranch won a prestigious Merit Award at the 2000 national meeting of the Soil and Water Conservation Society for its conservation efforts.
The Kerr Center’s beef cattle program has the goal of developing a sustainable production system that balances production level with production cost. The system must be forage-based and rely on grazing management practices to maintain soil fertility and promote plant diversity.
The Kerr Center uses a combination of modern and heritage breeds of cattle, all selected based on their compatibility with the climate of southeastern Oklahoma. A herd of heritage-breed Pineywoods cattle on the Cannon pastures accounts for about a third of the Center's beef cattle count, with the remainder made up of an Angus/Gelbvieh herd at the Headquarters Ranch.
“Rotation” and “pasture” are watchwords of sustainable management for the Kerr Center’s livestock programs, which work to develop animals that thrive with minimal inputs in the vegetation and wildly varied weathers of eastern Oklahoma.
Horticulture and Organics
Horticulture projects since 1996 have included demonstration plots of blackberries, table grapes, Muscadine grapes and blueberries.
In 2008 a five-acre organic vegetable demonstration site was established. Heirloom varieties of sweet sorghum, okra, tomatoes and squash have been grown and evaluated and an organic soil building program is in place. Also on site: hoophouses, a greenhouse, and an herb bed.
Small Scale Organics: A Guidebook for the Non-certified Organic Grower and Farm Made: A Guide to On-Farm Processing for Organic Producers are among the many resources on organic agriculture produced by Kerr Center and available free to farmers.
Education forms the core of the Kerr Center’s mission, guiding and uniting all of the center’s many activities. The work of education can take many forms, but some of the most important are those that reach the next generation.
In recognition of that fact, the Kerr Center offers internships to college students seeking hands-on experience in agriculture. In 2008-09, four interns came to the center in Poteau. They learned practical skills in a hands-on setting, focusing on the Kerr Center’s program areas of sustainable livestock raising and organic horticulture.
To date, interns have been instrumental in helping to launch the pastured poultry operation and herb garden, as well as playing active roles in maintaining the meat goat herd and heirloom vegetable trials.
In addition, roughly a quarter of interns’ time is reserved for academic endeavors, including reading and study, film screenings and independent research of individual interest. This aspect of the internship can qualify for college credit, and has also contributed several reports to the Kerr Center’s files of online informational resources.
Rural Development and Public Policy
In 1996, the Sustainable Rural Development and Public Policy program was established to assist rural citizens and decision makers. In establishing the policy program, the Kerr Center began to expand its educational programs both geographically and conceptually.
The program prepared and distributed information on issues such as the impact of CAFOs, biotechnology/biodiversity, farmland preservation, fair, competitive markets, and food policy. It also sponsored educational events in tandem with the Rural Community Care Task Force of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, and with the American Farmland Trust and the Trust for Public Land.
In 2001 Jim Horne was named co-chairperson of the Oklahoma Food Policy Advisory Council. The council was a joint project between Kerr Center and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The council was comprised of a diverse array of Oklahomans. Its first project addressed improving nutrition in our schools while at the same time creating opportunities for farmers through a farm-to-school program.
In such programs, school cafeterias serve high quality, fresh produce bought from local farms. The Kerr Center and the Oklahoma Food Policy Council worked for five years to establish a state farm-to-school program. Along with the delicious fresh fruits and vegetables come lessons about food and nutrition, even gardening and cooking. Kids get excited about healthy food, and their eating habits change for the better.
Seeing the program as a “win-win” for both school kids and farmers, the council organized a pilot project in 2004 and 2005. The success of the pilot, along with the Kerr Center’s extensive educational outreach and the support of children’s health advocates, led to legislation in 2006 establishing a state farm-to-school program, one of only a few in the nation. Since then the program has expanded all over the state.
For its groundbreaking work on the farm-to-school program, the center and the food policy council received the Champion of Children’s Health Award in 2007, given by a consortium of health organizations in the state.
The Oklahoma Food Policy Council was also named a “Partner in Advancing Public Health” by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The award recognizes “substantial contributions by a state or local partner” to the state’s efforts to prevent obesity and other chronic diseases.
The Kerr Center has also done extensive work on farmland preservation, sponsoring workshops and supporting Land Legacy, Oklahoma’s leading land preservation organization.
Since 1985, the Kerr Center has worked with farmers and communities to establish viable community foods projects such as farmers’ markets. In 2002, the center turned its attention to the larger food system, from farm to table.
In 2004, the Kerr Center received a grant from the USDA’s Community Food Projects Initiative, a national competitive grant program. The Kerr Center project “Building a Foundation for Food Security in Oklahoma” was the first project in Oklahoma to be funded by this program.
Along with farm-to-school efforts, the grant funded an assessment of Oklahoma’s food system, in which basic information about food security, health and agriculture in the state was compiled in a user-friendly format. The report—Closer to Home: Healthier Food, Farms and Families in Oklahoma was published in 2007 as an Oklahoma Centennial Report.
In 2008, a second community foods grant was awarded to Sustainable Green Country to support a Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign in northeastern Oklahoma, and to support school gardens. The Kerr Center brought Buy Fresh Buy Local to Oklahoma and has provided staff and web support to the campaign.
The business of the Kerr Center is education. The Communications program is responsible for disseminating information about issues in sustainable agriculture and food policy, as well as Kerr Center events and programs.
The Kerr Center accomplishes this through both the spoken and the written word, at events and in cyberspace. Publications are available on line or though our office (many are free of charge). These include Field Notes, the Kerr Center newsletter, reports, facts sheets, brochures and information packets.
The guidelines formulated in the late ‘80s to evaluate the sustainability of the center’s projects form the basis of the book by Kerr Center president Jim Horne and Communications Director Maura McDermott, The Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a Sustainable Agriculture, published in 2001 by Haworth/Food Products Press.) Written to appeal to a broad audience, he book has been called a must- read for anyone involved in agriculture, students, policy makers, indeed anyone interested in their food and the future of agriculture.
The Kerr Center also sponsors and organizes educational events such as workshops, short courses and conferences. Major conferences have included the Oklahoma Rural Development Conference in 1997 and Bringing in the Sheaves: A Symposium on Hunger, Farming, and the Fairness of American Food System.
From 2000 through 2008, the center sponsored the Future Farm series of conferences every two years. These popular events have featured some of the most interesting and innovative people involved in sustainable agriculture and food policy from around the country.
The Kerr Center was honored for its educational efforts by the Oklahoma Sierra Club in 2002.
Hoeing the Row Out (History of Kerr Center from 1965-1995)
Field of Dreams (article on the Kerr Center in Oklahoma Today magazine, 1992)
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