Turning sustainable ideas into reality: Jim Horne’s very determined green revolution

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Chelsey Simpson, Community, Farming, Nature, Organic Gardening | Posted on 10-07-2009

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by Chelsey Simpson

Access Tour Alumni Association 2007 Jim Horne and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture have long imagined agriculture with an entrepreneurial spirit and holistic ideal that transcends conventional agriculture and big industry. Their creativity and innovation introduced a quiet and growing revolution in Oklahoma, and while they’ve taken their lumps from the powers that be, they’ve doggedly continued to help family farmers keep their farms and enriched Oklahoma in ways too numerous to compile here. This past June, Fresh Greens contributor, Chelsey Simpson, interviewed Horne for an article in Oklahoma Living magazine. She graciously shares a portion of that interview here.

More than 20 years ago, Jim Horne made a decision for which he was ostracized and temporarily blacklisted by mainstream agricultural institutions across Oklahoma: he decided to put the “sustainable” in sustainable agriculture.

When Horne made the unpopular decision to change the Kerr Center’s official name to the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture  in 1985, he took the organization, and perhaps even the state, in a new direction. From their farm and office in Poteau, the center conducts research, produces educational materials, hosts field days and offers direct support to farmers, all in the pursuit of their mission “to assist in developing sustainable food and farming systems.”

On a rainy morning in early June I sat down with Jim Horne to talk about the role he and his Kerr Center teammates have played in shaping Oklahoma’s agricultural landscape.

When did your thinking start to shift toward sustainability?

The change started in the 1980s for me because there were thousands of farmers who went bankrupt in the ‘80s, and these were not bad farmers, these were good farmers who were going bankrupt. There were cracks in the system, and I could see that we had built an agriculture system around agribusiness, and the [crop] prices would not pay for the inputs we were using. It seemed to me that there had to be a better way to farm using the tools of nature instead of just using solutions that you had to buy.

My father passed away at 42 years of age from acute poisoning from using chemicals, and that probably had a bigger impact on me than I realized. KerrDSC_0298

I understand that it created quite a bit of turmoil and that members of the board even resigned because you added the word “sustainable” to the Kerr Center’s name. 

Why was it unpopular? How could you be against it? To make something endure forever—that only makes sense. But it carried a connotation that a lot of Oklahomans felt was a threat to the funding of their institutions from agribusiness if we promoted farming that involved a lot less chemicals. We were singled out as a group of weirdos and naive tree-huggers because we started the process of asking, “How do we make sense out of farming this way?”

My approach was to ask, “How do you meet the needs of this generation without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs? How do we keep from destroying our ecological capital?” That was a pretty foreign thought for most people.

Professionally, it was probably the hardest time in my life. I really felt ostracized for this belief, and it was a belief that I wasn’t totally sure of. I kept struggling with how to implement farming with nature. That’s when I came up with the Eight Points of Sustainability, which is all in the book [I co-wrote with Maura McDermontt.] I started breaking it down into what would make sense to a farmer.

What kind of results did you see? Did the methods you promote manage to save any farms that were in bankruptcy?

I know it managed to save a few farms, but I can’t really say how many. So many farms were so far gone by the time we started this.

We have to move to a different style and we need our universities to do research to help us move us in this direction. We have been building that concept among everyone that we don’t want to go through this [mass bankruptcy] again—we have too few farmers already. Sustainability is a necessity, not a luxury.

KerrDSC_0320 How financially viable is the kind of farming you promote?

The whole idea is to keep every drop of rain that falls on your farm, on your farm. The waste from one enterprise—pigs or cattle or chickens—is used as fertilizer in another enterprise, and you use clover to smother weeds. That’s the kind of research that we are looking at and trying to promote because it reduces what you have to buy off the farm, and farmers who are doing it, yes, they are finding profitability. Yields are probably not quite as high, but we have less invested.

How can the general public encourage sustainable agriculture?

I think consumers are the farmers’ best friends.

We have this giant agricultural industrial system that is a worldwide competition, and only large, large farmers can really compete in that system. For a small farmer to compete in a global system is a disaster. What we can do is compete in a local system, and I think that is what is overlooked.

We have lost so many rural communities, particularly in western Oklahoma. What people are realizing now—and I think it is why sustainability is becoming more popular—is that having a neighbor is valuable.

A common argument against these methods is that if everyone farmed this way we couldn’t feed the masses. I’m curious what your response is when you hear that.

The typical response is that if we farmed sustainably, half the world would starve. My answer is that right now we produce enough calories in the world that every person could have enough to eat—it is all about political strife and corruption. My take is—and I have thought a lot about this—is it our responsibility to feed the world, or is it the responsibility of each community to feed their own? I think that is really what we need to think about. KerrDSC_0355

How do we equip people, whether they are in China or Oklahoma, to create their own local food system and how do we minimize the importation of stuff?

What makes you believe so deeply in sustainability and local food? 

I think the point that it comes alive to me is realizing how interconnected we are as humans and in nature. I think that God created everything with a purpose, and when we decide that we don’t need this or that we have gone awry.

We can’t impair our systems just so
we can live affluently today. It is better to work with those systems, and that’s what sustainability is all about.

A longer version of this article is available online.

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