Everyone was listening to Burlington High School vocational-agriculture teacher Keith Kisling.
Including, Kisling himself.
It was the early 1970s, Kisling was 28 years old and still pretty fresh out of Oklahoma State University.
“When I was teaching I was telling the kids that there’s just not very many young farmers coming back and the potential to farm is going to be pretty big,” he said. “Not only did I convince them to come back, but I convinced myself and that’s when we got started.”
On Wednesday, Keith Kisling of Burlington, received the Governor’s Outstanding Achievement in Agriculture Award during a special ceremony hosted by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and sponsored by the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives at the state Capitol.
This is the highest award given by the Governor to honor distinguished Oklahoma agriculture producers. The prestigious award honors leaders in the agriculture industry who exemplify personal values, performance, and achievement. Recipients are recognized for having high standards of conduct, leadership, innovation, and accomplishments in agriculture and as serving as a role model for Oklahoma agriculture’s young people.
Also on Wednesday, Jimmy W. Kinder of Walters, received Governor Fallin’s Agriculture Environmental Stewardship Award, Randy Gilbert of Tecumseh, received Governor Fallin’s Outstanding Public Service in Agriculture Award and the Governor’s Outstanding Legacy in Agriculture Award was presented posthumously to Larry Watkins of Stillwater.
Following his own advice
After what Kisling told the students, giving up his position of four years as vocational- agriculture teacher, seemed like the right move at the time to the 28-year-old. He knew that with several farmers in the area approaching retirement, land would likely be available for leasing. Kisling was surrendering a salaried position for a job with two paydays a year: one when the cattle come off wheat and the other when harvested wheat is sold. Still, it seemed like a good move. He believed in agriculture.
“I will never forget,” he said. “We had saved about $12,000 from teaching, and the first year of farming, we lost $12,000 on cattle. But it got better.”
A lot better. Why? He believes in agriculture.
As full-time farmers and ranchers, Kisling and his wife Marlene have built a thriving agricultural operation growing wheat, wheat pasture, cattle, irrigated corn, soybeans, alfalfa hay, grass hay and sorghum. The couple also operated a feedlot for stocker cattle.
Kisling’s operation employed three individuals, as well as himself, before he started transitioning his operation to his son Chad. The feedlot today is used to start the stocker cattle before they go on the winter wheat to graze and gain weight.
Kisling irrigated a field of alfalfa and corn silage and bough corn to feed the cattle when they came off the winter wheat in March, and then sold by June 1.
However in addition to his roles in production agriculture, Kisling has and continues to champion the ag industry not only locally and statewide, but nationally and internationally.
Onboard with many boards …
Kisling has been a member of the Burlington Cooperative for more than 50 years. He served on the Oklahoma Wheat Commission and the U.S. Wheat Associates board, holding the positions of chairman, vice chairman and secretary on the latter. During that time, Kisling traveled to Cuba, including meetings with that country’s leader, Fidel Castrol. Kisling even helped with the planning of details that led to a shipment of grain from his region – from Johnston’s Grain in Enid – to Cuba.
Representing the wheat growing-community as vice chairman of Value Added Products, the frozen dough plant in Alva, Kisling spoke to the House Committee on Agriculture on Closed Co-ops. VAP was created as a closed co-op with the goals of complete vertical integration, plant to plate, creating product lines using Hard Red Winter wheat from the region. Kisling even traveled to Germany to purchase the specialized equipment necessary for the plant.
He has never hesitated to lend his time and voice to agriculture.
“You know, I always thought if we had a bad crop here in Burlington, Okla., the price would go up. Not true,” he said. “The reality of it is, how good of crop does Canada have, Australia have, and now the Russian crops. So our export market is what really makes a difference. How big of crops do those countries have that export wheat and are in competition with us? And when I found that out, that’s when I got involved with the Oklahoma Wheat Commission and U.S. Wheat Associates, going through the chairs of U.S. Wheat and being able to travel some and go to countries that were our exporting competition you might say. We were also going to those countries and explaining how much better our quality is than those other exporting countries. It did give me an overview of wheat.”
Kisling was one of the closing speakers at the World Trade Summit in Sharm EI Sheikh, which is located between the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea. The Summit hosted dignitaries from 20 Middle Eastern countries. In his time with U.S. Wheat Associates, the farm-raised Oklahoman traveled to 17 countries to help maintain old markets and open new markets to buy United States’ produced wheat.
He said he was the only one in the room wearing boots and jeans, however, he added, “Those people want to hear from a farmer, they want to hear a farmer’s perspective.”
He has served on the Oklahoma Farm Bureau board of directors since 2014 and served for four years as Oklahoma’s representative on the American Farm Bureau Federation wheat committee. In 2006, the Kisling family was chosen OKFB Farm Family of the Year, and Keith received the Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award from OKFB the same year.
“The Farm Bureau has meant so much to me,” he said. “I owe a lot of thanks to them.”
In 2006, he received the Oklahoma Wheat Commission’s Staff of Life Award for Exceptional Leadership and Marketing, in 2008 he was presented with the “Mr. Wheat” Award from the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association, in 2010 he was awarded OSU’s Distinguished Agriculture Alumni award and in 2014 he received the Triangle Insurance Lifetime Achievement Award. Kisling served as chairman of the Oklahoma FFA Foundation from 2014-2016 and now serves as past chairman. Kisling has served on the Oklahoma Agriculture Mediation Program board since 2014, and he is a past president of the Oklahoma Plains Grain board. Kisling was also appointed by then-USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to serve on the Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture Advisory Committee from 2010-2016. The committee examined the long-term impacts of biotechnology on the U.S. food and agriculture system and USDA, and provided guidance to USDA.
Committee service is a big part of Kisling’s story. He graduated from OSU in 1970, but rather than moving the tassel over and moving on, he has continued to give back through service.
“I’d do everything I can to be on a board or committee at OSU, and I’m on quite a few,” he said. “In fact, Career Tech people call me “Plywood” for a nickname because I’m on so many boards. It’s OK, I’m trying to give back.”
At home, faith and family have provided a solid foundation for the Oklahoma native. Kisling has been a member and leader in the Driftwood Christian Church for nearly five decades. And, Keith and wife Marlene have been married 49 years, raising three children and now also enjoying eight grandchildren.
“This is a Kisling Farms’ award in my opinion,” he said. “I’m glad for the honor and it is really a big honor, but I couldn’t be up there if it wasn’t for my family.”
Larry Watkins of Stillwater, Governor’s Outstanding Legacy in Agriculture Award
This award presented posthumously to Watkins honors individuals who made significant life-long contributions to Oklahoma agriculture. This distinguished award recognizes posthumously the unique or extraordinary contributions these individuals made to Oklahoma and establishes role models for the agricultural industry.
Teacher, director, servant, spokesperson, leader, mentor – a man of many hats, Watkins played many roles throughout his life, all of which involved agriculture. At events and meetings alike, he could always be seen wearing a suit with cowboy boots.
Watkins grew up in Purcell, Okla., where he was heavily involved in FFA. It was during this time that he discovered a deep passion for agriculture, which would serve as a foundation throughout his life. He pursued a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education from Oklahoma State University, graduating in 1969. After serving his country, he returned home to teach agriculture. His students achieved success both in and out of the classroom, and his program was named the 1974 Top Single Vocational Agriculture Department in the state. Though he left the classroom after five years, he continued to be a voice for agricultural education, 4-H and FFA throughout his lifetime.
“Even stronger than his passion for agriculture was his passion for the possibilities in people,” said Watkins’ wife Natalea.
Watkins utilized his agricultural background as the director of the Agricultural Development Division for the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. Through his recruitment initiatives, the city became known as the Horse Show Capital of the World. These equine events brought in more than $9 million annually to the area. He also planned and managed the world’s largest youth livestock show, now known as the Oklahoma Youth Expo (OYE), and the National Finals Rodeo.
In 1979, Watkins began a 30-year career with the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives. In just five years, he was promoted to executive vice president and CEO of the company. As in his other roles, he excelled in this position. Watkins oversaw 30 cooperatives and the 60-member board of trustees and managed the $3 million budget for the company.
Watkins worked with industry groups from the Oklahoma Farmers Union, now known as the American Farmers and Ranchers, to the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, and from legislators to congressmen as a spokesperson for rural issues. National honors came his way for the Good Neighbor Program, which encouraged cooperative members to round up their bills in order to help their rural neighbors in times of need.
Watkins had a passion for horses and enjoyed ranch life on a property west of Stillwater. He bred and trained quarter horses and won a championship buckle in ranch sorting on a mare from his breeding program. Along with his wife Natalea, he supported Turning Point Ranch, a therapeutic riding center in Stillwater where horses are utilized to help children and teens with emotional, physical or mental disabilities. Watkins’ mare, Chiquita, is the longest-serving horse in the program.
Supporting rural Oklahoma and the future of agriculture were of the utmost importance to Watkins who served on the OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Dean’s Advisory Council and was a member of the Board of Directors for several groups, including the Vo-tech Foundation, Rural Enterprises Incorporated, Oklahoma Self Insured Guarantee Fund, Sirloin Club of Oklahoma, and the Southwest American Livestock Foundation. He also dedicated his time to groups like the Oklahomans for Energy and Jobs and the National Rural Electric Statewide Managers Association.
Not surprisingly, Watkins was honored by many organizations for his dedication to agriculture. His devotion to his alma mater and the agricultural industry led him to being named the OSU Agricultural Education Distinguished Graduate by the department and the 2003 CASNR Distinguished Alumni. Because of his involvement with youth in agriculture and promoting opportunities through livestock exhibition, he was named the OYE Honoree in 2004 and was given the highest awards from both state and national FFA associations.
Even after his death in November 2016, Watkins’ legacy continues to live on. His passion to improve rural Oklahoma and agriculture continues through the many lives he touched. Both his children, Jennifer Roysdon and Rick Watkins, were involved in FFA and attended OSU. His oldest granddaughter Hope Watkins is pursuing a master’s degree from OSU in agricultural communications. Larry Watkins loved being a “Papa” to his grandchildren.
“In his final years, struggling with cancer, he made time to continue to mentor former students and staffers who led community organizations, banks, classrooms, electric cooperatives and businesses from Oklahoma to Washington D.C. and beyond,” Natalea Watkins said. “Their service, paying it forward, is the legacy that made him most proud.”
During his last two years, he continued teaching through a young adult Sunday school class at Union Hill Baptist Church in Purcell. He bought each member a new study bible, but he didn’t tell them that within the pages he hid a $100 bill. The point was that while the teacher can lead and inspire, the student must put in the work to reap the rewards.
Watkins’ wife Natalea said, “He had time to think of how he wanted to be remembered and said, ‘I cared and I tried.’ He would be so honored by this award and it’s indication that others noticed his efforts, but anyone who knew him would expect him to use a line he repeated so often, ‘It’s better than I deserve.’”
Randy Gilbert of Tecumseh, Governor’s Outstanding Public Service in Agriculture Award
This award presented to Gilbert honors individuals who have made outstanding contributions of public service to Oklahoma agriculture. This award is given to those who work diligently to improve public perception of agriculture in Oklahoma and have given unselfishly of his/her time and talents to the advancement and betterment of the Oklahoma agricultural industry.
Gilbert’s life motto, not surprisingly, is lead by example. Through his business and time, he continuously gives back to his community and state, with agriculture being one of his top priorities.
He grew up heavily involved in FFA and was destined to pursue agricultural education. He obtained his bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma State University and began teaching as an agricultural education and FFA advisor in Lawton. Gilbert pushed his students, many of whom were from the urban area and were new to agriculture, and exposed them to the industry. He took his students on many trips and allowed them to see the agricultural process from farm to plate. Although he was only at Lawton for five years, he left a lasting impact on his students, many of whom he still has strong ties with even 30 years later.
Gilbert returned home to his family’s business, Gilbert and Sons Trucking, but his devotion to youth and agriculture did not stop with his teaching career. He began his dream of ranching with the purchase of 20 cows in 1989, and the next year he was able to purchase 120 acres of land. He immediately began serving his community, volunteering at the Pottawatomie County Junior Livestock Show and County Free Fair. Thirty years later, he’s still on the board of directors for both shows. While agriculture is his passion, promoting the future of the industry is even more of his passion.
If there is an agricultural event being held in the state, there is no doubt Gilbert will be in attendance. He is truly a public servant and has given his time through many roles, to include the Soil Conservation Board, Oklahoma Youth Expo board of directors, the American Farmers and Ranchers State board of directors, and as chairman of the Oklahoma FFA Foundation board of directors. He has also served on the State Board of Career and Technology Education for 16 years, a position appointed by the governor. Gilbert’s life revolves around service and making a difference in the lives of others.
Through his experience teaching and relationships built across the state, he dedicates his time to enhancing agricultural education and serving as a voice for the industry on local, state and national levels. He’s the first in line to join the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, American Farmers and Ranchers, the Oklahoma FFA Association or Oklahoma 4-H at the capitol to meet with legislators. He’s also volunteered at the International Finals Youth Rodeo since its inception 25 years ago.
Gilbert understands the importance of promoting the agricultural lifestyle and believes agriculturalists must continuously strive to serve as role models for younger generations.
For his outstanding service to Oklahoma FFA, Gilbert has received numerous awards from local FFA chapters as well as the Honorary State and American FFA Degrees. He was named Oklahoma FFA Champion for his career success as a former FFA member and given the Oklahoma FFA VIP Award, the highest FFA honor available at the state level. The Gilberts have also been named the Pottawatomie County 4-H Emerald Family of the Year, the Oklahoma Limousin Breeders Association Family of the Year, and have received countless recognitions from outside the agricultural industry as well.
Aside from his long list of volunteer roles and his business, Gilbert still finds the time to be involved in production agriculture. With his wife Suzanne, he has 120-head of Limousin and crossbred cattle on about 1,200 acres. The farm also produces more than 600 bales of hay each year. The Gilberts have two daughters and three grandchildren.
“I admire Randy Gilbert for a lifetime of unrelenting public service to community and state,” said Kent Boggs, Oklahoma FFA Association executive secretary, “for having a strong and unwavering commitment to the agricultural youth of Oklahoma, for having an undisputed reputation for honesty, integrity, loyalty and common sense, and for having a dogged work ethic that has created a highly successful career in business and agriculture.”
Jimmy W. Kinder of Walters, Governor Fallin’s Agriculture Environmental Stewardship Award
The award presented to Kinder recognizes Oklahoma agriculturalists who are leaders in developing and adopting outstanding environmentally innovative agricultural practices. This award highlights the efforts of an Oklahoma agriculture producer who is a steward of the environment and is dedicated to conserving the natural resources of Oklahoma while helping to ensure a continued supply of food and fiber.
Kinder is a fourth-generation farmer and rancher from Cotton County and an early innovator in Oklahoma agriculture. His family farms 5,500 acres of wheat, canola, sesame, and grain sorghum. They grow 2,500 acres of grass and run stocker cattle.
Kinder has implemented the agricultural production methods of no-tillage cropping, crop rotation, cover crops and stocker cattle grazing. His agricultural production system offers superior economic, agronomic, environmental and social benefits.
Some 20 years later, Kinder’s production system has become an inspiration to other farmers and ranchers.
“We live in exciting times,” Kinder said. “A conservation renaissance is happening on farms and ranches across Oklahoma. God willing, this generation has the capability to begin repairing soils, soils that were damaged almost 100 years ago during the dustbowl. Today, using novel sustainable practices that are economically viable and environmentally sustainable, the next generation will inherit better soils than we received. Never in history have we had this opportunity.”
Kinder’s production system uses less to get more, and the benefits go beyond production. Kinder says using no-till rather than conventional tillage reduces runoff and keeps the soil in place so the county doesn’t have to clean bar ditches. He also says the soil captures carbon dioxide and acts as a carbon sink, taking in more carbon than it emits, and he adds that no-till keeps nutrients in the soil.
Kinder has always had a presence in the agricultural community, but in recent years he has elevated his profile, maintaining a presence in the media to educate and promote environmental stewardship. Kinder has shared his production methods at national No-till on the Plains and No-till Oklahoma meetings. The Kinders farming operation was featured in a 2008 New York Times article, The Food Chain: Fields of Grain and Losses.
Kinder participated in the Farm Foundation Forum on Soil Renaissance at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. in 2014. Created in 1933, the Farm Foundation is an agricultural policy institute that connects leaders in farming, business, academia, organizations and government who collaborate on how to meet society’s needs for food, fiber, feed and energy. In 2016, the prestigious Foundation invited him to become a roundtable member.
Kinder recently returned from Washington, D.C. where he worked with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to advocate for funding for soil conservation programs and research.
He is a member of the Soil Health Institute, created by the Noble Foundation and the Farm Foundation in 2013. He participated in the Institutes’ Soil Renaissance resulting in Enriching Soil, An Action Plan for Soil Health, unveiled in May 2017. The Institute’s mission is to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of soil through scientific research and advancement.
Kinder and his wife Margaret Ann have been married for 38 years and have three children and three grandchildren. He said the rich soil he has created using emerging technology and his multi-faceted production system is the true inheritance he will leave to his children.
Kinder, a graduate of Cameron University, has served as the Cotton County Rural Water District secretary, the Cotton County Farm Services Agency chairman, and the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association board director. He participated in the Oklahoma Agricultural Leadership Program from 1984-1986 and received State Master Agronomist recognition from Oklahoma State University in 2009.
Kinder has served Oklahoma Farm Bureau at every level, serving as the Cotton County Farm Bureau president from 1990-2011, before becoming a state board member. He has served on the OKFB board of directors from 2011 to the present, with part of that time as vice president. Kinder also represents rural water interests on the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality board. As a board member, he has oversite over most of the state’s environmental policies and programs. He served as a Nonresident Fellow at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore from 2009-2017. As a Fellow, Kinder performed independent critical reviews of programs, processes and procedures for the Foundation. “I am overwhelmed to be the recipient of Governor Fallin’s Agriculture Environmental Stewardship Award,” Kinder said. “To me, this award recognizes a family tradition of over four generations to feed consumers from the land that God allows us to manage.”