Kerr Center Staff

Leading the Way: Jim Horne and the Kerr Center

Under the leadership of Dr. James E. (Jim) Horne, President and CEO, the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture has worked for over twenty years to develop sustainable food and farming systems in Oklahoma, the region, and the nation.

Jim Horne was an early champion of sustainable agriculture and its promise of more opportunities for independent family farms, protection of natural resources, fair and open markets, vibrant rural communities and healthy food for all. In 1987, he was one of only a few agriculturists to testify before Congress about the need for a sustainable agriculture program in the USDA.

Although at the time, colleagues in universities and government were uneasy, at times even hostile towards the ideas of sustainable agriculture, Horne was steadfast in his belief that “sustainable agriculture is the only sane way.” To paraphrase the country song, Horne and the Kerr Center were sustainable “when sustainable wasn’t cool.”

This steadfast commitment to sustainability forms the foundation for the Kerr Center’s many and varied educational programs. But commitment alone does not guarantee success. Over the years, Horne has been remarkably adept at staying attuned to the needs of both farmers and the greater society and has shaped Kerr Center educational programs to meet those needs. This knack for identifying trends and opportunities, along with a willingness to lead—to take a chance and risk failure--is what makes the Kerr Center an effective agent for change.

In 1965, the agricultural division of the non-profit Kerr Foundation had been established to reach out to farmers in southeastern Oklahoma, the poorest part of the state, neglected by Extension and with longstanding environmental problems due to deforestation. The foundation filled the void, offering free consultation to farmers and ranchers. It also led a successful local, then national educational campaign to eradicate the cattle disease brucellosis (also contagious to humans). Farmers resentful of government-forced vaccination programs trusted the foundation to give them accurate information and were persuaded, slowly but surely, to vaccinate their cattle.

Times changed and the farm economy began to slide. By the mid-1980s, with the national farm crisis at its height, Kerr Foundation trustees recognized that Oklahoma agriculture too was in trouble. 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 in 1985.

Jim Horne led the organization through this pivotal change. He faced many challenges, not least of which was the resignation by half of his staff the day after the term “sustainable” was added to the foundation’s name. Horne forged ahead, adopting the policy of leading by example and through practical demonstration. He has trusted that skeptics will in time recognize the “rightness” of sustainable agriculture, calling as it does for an agriculture that is environmentally responsible, socially just and economically viable. In the end, he has said, it is hard to argue with these principles.

Reaching Out
The task of educating farmers, the agriculture establishment and the general public about sustainable agriculture began in earnest in 1986. The Kerr Center ranch--4000 acres of pasture, river bottom and crop land—was the center of activity. The Kerr Center established a variety of projects to demonstrate the principles of sustainable agriculture. These included multi-species (goats, sheep, cattle) grazing, trials of alternative crops, and sustainable pest management strategies.  Annual field days, Progress Reports and the Kerr Center newsletter brought results to farmers and the general public.

By 1989, Horne and his staff had identified the key concepts of sustainable agriculture and implemented them on the Kerr Center’s ranch and farm. Horne and his co-author Maura McDermott popularized these concepts in his 2001 book, The Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture, published in 2001 by Haworth/Food Products Press as part of its Sustainable Food, Fiber and Forestry Systems series. Put at the top of New Farm’s list of important books about sustainable agriculture, the book has been called “a blueprint for farmers,” as well as a practical, accessible introduction to sustainable agriculture for “anyone interested in the future of agriculture.” The Next Green Revolution has been read widely and used in sustainable ag education across the United States. It was recently reprinted in India and other South Asian countries.

The book was one part of a greater effort by the Kerr Center to broaden its educational efforts—geographically and topically-- to reach a larger audience. Dr. Horne and his staff realized that consumer desires and concerns were driving change in agriculture more than ever before, and that educational efforts aimed at them could be the key to building support for sustainable food systems. In 1998, the Kerr Center’s free quarterly newsletter was rechristened Field Notes. The newsletter had functioned as a reliable source of information for farmers since Horne had penned its first article in 1974. With the encouragement of Dr. Horne, the newsletter’s size and content was expanded. The readership of Field Notes has since grown from 5,000 to over 15,000, and is read by policymakers, educators and the media as well as farmers, ranchers and ordinary citizens.  The Kerr Center’s launched its website at about the same time and it has since evolved into a comprehensive educational resource with over 100 publications online and available for free download.  

Beginning in 2000, Horne and staff produced a series of “white papers,” as part of a public policy initiative. In 2003, Horne co-authored Seeds of Change: Food and Agriculture Policy for Oklahoma’s Future, which addressed ongoing concerns of the center—soil and water quality, energy conservation, free markets and concentration in agriculture, farmland protection and local food systems and community food security.

Horne believes that change is more likely to occur when people are exposed to others like them who have tried something and were successful and who can then serve as models. With this philosophy in mind, the Kerr Center held the first of its Future Farms conferences in 2000. Horne and staff actively seek out dynamic speakers who can bring the best ideas to Oklahoma City. Speakers have included innovative farmers, food entrepreneurs, ag educators, chefs, food activists, and health advocates all interested in sustainable food systems. Attendance generally reaches 500 or more.   

In 1998, the Oklahoma Producer Grant Program was established to promote “farmer to farmer” education. To date, almost 40 grants have been made to farmers around the state for instituting sustainable agricultural practices, trials of new crops, and value-added enterprises. Grant recipients are required to hold at least one field day on their farm to pass along the knowledge they have gained to other farmers. These too have been well-attended.

In 2001 Kerr Center sponsored the groundbreaking Bringing in the Sheaves: A Symposium on Hunger, Farming and the Fairness of the American Food System. For the first time in Oklahoma, people working against hunger connected with advocates for fair and free markets, and with farmers who wanted more opportunities to market their produce locally.

At that event, the Oklahoma Food Policy Council was established, one of the first in the nation. Jim Horne was named chairman.  He invited people from diverse backgrounds to serve as members. The council, a joint project of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Kerr Center, adopted as its mission “Bringing Oklahoma Food to Oklahoma Tables.” 

Horne identified “farm-to-school” as an initiative that could have a big positive impact on both children’s health and family farms. In such programs, school cafeterias buy high quality fresh produce from local producers. In comprehensive programs, children learn about nutrition, gardening, and cooking and visit farms and meet farmers.

Calling the program a “win-win” for farmers and schoolkids, Horne and the council got to work. Their first step was devising and mailing out a survey to school food service directors to gauge the level of interest in farm-to-school. Nearly 67% replied, a remarkable number for a mailed survey, and over half of these were interested in buying locally. The survey also yielded valuable information about what kinds of foods schools might buy locally and what questions and concerns cafeteria managers had about the program.

The council with extensive staff support from the Kerr Center published the survey results and an overview of farm-to-school programs around the country in the Oklahoma Farm-to-School Report. Many food service directors had indicated on the survey that they wanted to buy locally but didn’t know any farmers. In response the Kerr Center and the council compiled The Oklahoma Food Connection 2003: A Directory of Agricultural Producers, Crops and Institutional Buyers, listing farms as well as schools interested in the program.

Taking the next step required reaching out again, this time to people in state and federal agencies directly involved in the school lunch program, such as the state Departments of Education and Human Services, and the Department of Defense’s Farm Fresh Program. What followed was a council-sponsored series of meetings and workshops during which the nuts and bolts of a farm-to-school pilot were worked out. Council members faced a number of challenges—contacting interested farmers and schools, assuring quality and reasonable price, working out ordering details, and finding a distributor willing to be a part of the effort.

Dr. Horne’s people skills and the good will of all involved resulted in an overwhelmingly successful (and smooth-running) pilot project in 2004. Four school districts served Oklahoma-grown watermelons in school lunches during the first month of the school year. Most had never served Oklahoma-grown watermelons, although Oklahoma is a major melon producing state. “The best watermelon I’ve ever eaten, period,” opined one of the school food directors, and the kids agreed. The council worked with the Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom program to create a “watermelon curriculum” with lessons in science, math, and health that met Dept. of Education standards. The melon deliveries were well-publicized; most of the television channels in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa covered the pilot project, which also rated front page stories in the two major metropolitan daily papers.

The enthusiasm was contagious. The pilot grew from four to six districts in the fall of 2005, with the large Tulsa school district added. Again the program was popular. But in the months that followed, momentum slowed.

What happened next was crucial to the ultimate success of the project. Dr. Horne and staff, aware of the concern in the state about rising child obesity rates, began to reach out to children’s health advocates such as the Oklahoma Fit Kids Coalition, attending meetings and giving out packets of information on farm-to-school. Many had seen the media reports on the program and were excited about the program’s potential to improve school lunches and kids’ eating habits. The result: these influential grass roots groups, backed by major health care providers in the state, would push for a statewide farm-to-school program.

Soon after, the Kerr Center sponsored a farm-to-school workshop attended by parents, teachers and school officials as well as key policymakers. Farmers and school officials from other states with successful farm-to-school programs were speakers. Next, the Kerr Center helped organize speakers for farm-to-school hearings at the state capitol. Dr. Horne testified to the positive impact the program would have on Oklahoma agriculture.

The hearings led to the introduction of a bill establishing a state farm-to-school program. As the legislative process proceeded, Kerr Center again provided educational support, distributing farm-to-school information packets and answering questions raised by legislators.

Five years of effort by the Kerr Center and the Oklahoma Food Policy Council paid off when farm-to-school legislation passed both houses of the legislature unanimously.  In June 2006, the Oklahoma governor signed a bill establishing a statewide farm-to-school program and funding a full-time coordinator, one of only a few such programs in the U.S. with such support. Since then, the program, has grown dramatically, from six to almost forty school districts.

Healthier Food, Farms and Families
Today, the success of the farm-to-school program serves as inspiration for the Kerr Center’s ongoing farm-to-table initiative. With the recent publication of the groundbreaking report Closer to Home: Healthier Food, Farms and Families in Oklahoma, Kerr Center has provided Oklahomans with a blueprint for a healthy, sustainable, community-based food system. Two years in the making, the report features extensive research and original analysis. It is the first attempt to look at Oklahoma’s food system from field to table. It is also the first time that information about diet, health, hunger, and poverty has been combined with information about farming and small scale food processing to paint a picture of Oklahoma’s food system, from field to fork.

Closer to Home proposes that making locally grown fruits and vegetables more available in communities across the state should be an important part of the campaign to improve public health. The report further proposes that Oklahoma’s family farms and rural communities would benefit if local markets were expanded. As part of the effort to expand local markets, Kerr Center has worked closely with the Oklahoma Farmers Market Alliance. The center is sponsor of the Oklahoma “Buy Fresh Buy Local” campaign. Coordinated by the FoodRoutes Network, the campaign is part of a multi-state, national effort to connect consumers with locally-produced foods.  

Horne and Kerr Center continue to work with a number of grassroots environmental groups. In 2002, Land Legacy, Oklahoma’s only statewide farmland preservation program, was established in partnership with the Kerr Center. In 2003 Horne and the center received an award for environmental education from the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club. The center’s educational programs have also been recognized with a merit award from the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Back on the ranch where it all started, the Kerr Center continues to demonstrate best management practices that protect soil and water to local ranchers and visiting groups. The ranch is also helping preserve the rare Pineywoods breed of cattle, in the process educating Oklahomans about the importance of biodiversity on the farm.

In 1987 Jim Horne testified to Congress about the need for sustainable agriculture. Not long after that, the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Development (SARE) Program was established. Today Kerr Center coordinates SARE’s Southern Region Professional Development Program (PDP), the first private organization to do so. PDP gives grants to programs that teach ag professionals about sustainable agriculture. So the work continues. While much progress has been made, much remains to be done and the Kerr Center is proud to be a part of the effort. As Jim Horne has said, “The spirit that drives this movement will never die.”

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