Farmer at Heart
Secretary Reese tends to Oklahoma’s agricultural needs and remains a lifelong agriculture supporter.
Jim Reese was appointed Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture in 2011. Photo by James Pratt
Though he holds a cabinet-level job, Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese still finds time to do what he’s most passionate about: farming.
When away from the office, he wears a buttoned-up, short-sleeve white shirt and goes out to work the fields on his farm where he produces wheat, soybeans and sorghum.
Farm training came early for Reese. The fourth-generation farmer grew up watching his parents run a full-time dairy and wheat operation in northern Oklahoma. In his childhood years, the farmer-in-the-making not only observed his parents, but put his hands to the plow—literally—learning early on the particulars of farm life. From morning calls to milk cows to feeding calves and working hay machines, Reese’s young years were filled with memories at his family farm in Nardin, Okla.
“It was a typical life on the farm,” Reese, a member of Kay Electric Cooperative, said. “My siblings and I always had jobs. During the winter we would turn the lights on in the early morning hours to feed calves before catching the school bus. We would take shifts and do whatever needed to be done.”
Undeniably, young Reese was entrenched in farming. His great-grandfather, August Reese, started the farm near Blackwell, Okla. His grandfather Frank Reese continued the tradition by operating a dairy farm in Kay County, primarily for family provision, but Frank and neighbors loaded up excess on trailers to be retailed in nearby Blackwell. Reese’s work ethic may have been influenced by his dad, who after passing the dairy to two sons, Max and Ken, began working in the oil patch, roughnecking and checking wells at age 60.
It was in those early years that a passion for farming stirred in Reese. As a young adult pondering what the future would hold, he was clear on one thing: whatever job he took, he wanted to continue farming. It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that the farmer at heart holds Oklahoma’s post for Secretary of Agriculture. The farm boy from Nardin is now in charge of stirring a passion in producers and consumers while growing and developing Oklahoma as fertile ground for agriculture.
Reese was born to Darrell and Jeanette. He is fourth in a line of five children: Rod, Terre, Max, Jim and Ken. He recalls a happy, fulfilling and hard working childhood on the farm with his family. Everyone pitched in to help. His mother would bring meals to the field during harvest. The kids, and later their families, took shifts to run multiple tractors around the clock. His dad worked diligently ensuring the dairy operation was running smoothly and tending to wheat, alfalfa and grain crops to feed the cattle. Reese’s greatest lesson on the farm was learning he could do anything as long as he had determination, drive and creativity.
“We didn’t have a mechanical background, but we were not afraid to tear things apart and learn how to put them together,” Reese said, recalling his childhood. “My dad could fix or build anything. When things were broken or we needed to build something, we would take care of it ourselves. Initiative and inquiring minds can go a long way.”
He remembers his father visiting neighboring farms to learn their best practices and applying them at his own operation.
Reese attended Deer Creek-Lamont High School, Northern Oklahoma College where he studied drafting and design, and Oklahoma State University where he earned a degree in engineering technology. He continued to farm while going to school. Because of his love for farming, he turned down an opportunity to work for an engineering company in Houston, Texas. Instead, to stay close to his family farm, Reese’s first job out of college was at Ramsey Construction in Blackwell. For the next five years he would work full time but take a break in the summer for the wheat harvest.
The 1980s marked a meaningful decade for Reese. In 1985, he married his wife of 30 years, Margaret. A year later, his family received a call from a local educator asking if someone in the family would be willing to run for the legislature.
“At that time, I read the newspaper every day. I decided to run for the House of Representatives because I didn’t have a good impression of the legislature, and I thought I could make a difference,” he said.
That same year, 1986, Reese and Margaret found out they were expecting their first child, Joanna. In fact, Reese made a special announcement on some of his campaign signs, stating: “It’s a girl!” The couple was blessed with four kids: Joanna, Drew, Lainey and Spencer. Most recently they are proud grandparents of twin grandchildren, Rhett and Ellis.
Farmer and Legislator
Reese was elected as representative in 1987, serving agriculture-based counties: Kay, Grant and Alfalfa. He served from 1987 to 2001 and thoroughly enjoyed it.
“I loved that time,” he said with a deep smile. “The greatest aspect was helping people. State government impacts people’s lives and there are many opportunities to intervene and assist in both small and big ways. It’s very much a service opportunity.”
As representative, Reese advocated for agriculture programs and initiatives to further economic development in rural Oklahoma. His goals were to enhance and increase resources for rural economies.
“While the process often seems divisive and messy, most people are trying to do their best to benefit the state in their own way; they all care about the people they represent,” Reese said.
A friend of many, Reese enjoyed connecting with fellow legislators. One particular friend, now Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Todd Hiett, served with Reese for eight years in the legislature. Hiett credits Reese for encouraging him to serve.
“Jim was among the first to contact me about seeking election. I still like to tease him about lying about how easy and glorious service in the legislature would be. I was operating a family dairy at the time. Jim assured me it was possible to do both. Maybe for someone with Jim’s energy and stamina, but not for most!” Hiett said. “Although I enjoy teasing Jim, I am very pleased I chose to enter the public arena. I gained a tremendous opportunity to participate in Oklahoma’s history, serve people who otherwise would have no voice, and, most importantly, gain a great lifelong friend in Jim Reese.”
Reese’s tenure serving in the legislature was deeply gratifying to him. He recalls it with fond memories. “I was very thankful for the opportunity. I invested a lot during that time. I left something I really liked behind, but it was the right thing to do. The people I met along the way taught me innumerous lessons,” Reese said.
Before ending his term as legislator, Reese was appointed by the George W. Bush administration to the role of state executive director for the USDA Farm Service Agency. In this capacity, Reese administered agriculture programs following guidelines from the federal level.
“I knew the administrative experience would be good for me,” Reese said. “I administered the farm programs I had known for years. I was still involved in helping farmers, and we implemented a new Farm Bill in 2008.”
In 2011, while waiting in line at the post office, Reese received a call from Gov. Mary Fallin inviting him to serve as the state’s secretary of agriculture.
“Of all the people in Oklahoma who could have been selected, I feel honored and thankful it was me,” Reese said with a candid smile. “I’m thankful to the governor for the opportunity. I often wonder how a farm kid from Nardin had the chance to do this.”
The farmer at heart didn’t disappoint; on the contrary, Gov. Fallin shows considerable respect and gratitude for his contributions.
“Jim is passionate about agriculture and is a strong and effective voice for farmers and ranchers in our state,” Gov. Fallin said. “He has spent his life representing Oklahoma’s agriculture interests and its rural communities. No one has gathered more expertise or worked harder for Oklahoma’s farmers and ranchers than he has.”
As Secretary, Reese has set four priorities for Oklahoma’s agriculture: 1) increase food manufacturing; 2) increase agriculture processing; 3) increase agriculture exports; and 4) increase total agriculture cash receipts.
“We are certainly making progress in each of these areas,” Reese said. “We create $8 billion worth of agricultural products in livestock and crops; that is $8 billion that was not here last year. Two billion dollars is exported internationally. Exports create income for the state of Oklahoma.”
His vision is to empower producers throughout the state with needed resources as well as educate consumers on the value of local agriculture.
“Educating consumers is a challenge,” Reese said. “There are fortune seekers making claims about eating habits, but they have no science background. They are trying to get rich with information they know little about while we are striving to provide the safest, most affordable food supply.”
During his tenure, the secretary has been working to make Oklahoma more drought-resistant. In 2011, after the hottest summer ever recorded in any state, the Department of Agriculture began developing various drought-prevention and assistance initiatives.
“Since 2011 we have added numerous water resources; the legislature and the governor created a drought commission working with the Water Resources Board and the Conservation Commission to create solutions,” Reese said.
He cited the creation of additional water supplies for cities such as Altus, Tipton, Hollis and Guymon. The School Land Commission, the Conservation Commission, the Department of Environmental Quality, Water Resources Board, OSU, OU and others have all participated in efforts to reduce drought impact on Oklahoma.
“This is something to look back at and say we made a difference. Making Oklahoma more drought-resistant for the future is certainly an accomplishment,” Reese said. “We’re stronger because we’re much better prepared.”
Reese is proud of the Made in Oklahoma (MIO) Coalition. He champions the empowerment of local producers and businesses as they produce food products in their home state. As an example, Gina Hollingsworth is the owner of Southern Okie, a local business based in Edmond, Okla., that makes fruit spreads. Hollingsworth said the assistance she received from the Department of Agriculture and the MIO Coalition was invaluable for the growth of her business.
“I can’t speak enough about the MIO program and the Department of Agriculture. They have offered business development and marketing help and have been instrumental in the success of Southern Okie,” Hollingsworth said.
Through this partnership, Southern Okie has picked up national and international accounts. The fruit spreads are now available in local markets, retail centers and several states in the United States as well as in Germany.
To Reese, providing support to locally based businesses makes his mission rewarding.
“What we try to do everyday is make Oklahoma a better place to live. Whether it is for a beginning company, a food provider, or an agriculture producer, we want to help them succeed and improve the quality of life for our citizens,” Reese said. “As these food producing companies have success, Oklahoma is much better off.”
Who knew the young farm boy from Nardin would inspire and empower so many Oklahomans? His grandparents and parents sowed the seeds. His passion blossomed, and his career has borne fruit for farmers throughout the state.