For the Love of the Land
Positive attitude and unmatched work ethic have propelled Gene Rowe through seven decades of farming and life
Oklahoma Electric Cooperative member Gene Rowe has had a rewarding farm career spanning seven decades. Photos by James Pratt
Farmers love to talk about the weather, especially when it’s beautiful outside.
It’s Christmas Day 2019 and warm sunlight drenches central Oklahoma’s rolling pastureland. Gene Rowe, Nettie Clifton, his companion of 10 years, and her extended family gather on a 12-foot-wide porch that runs the length of the small farm house. The group basks in the unexpectedly cordial temperature. No white Christmas here, but no one is complaining.
Rowe and Clifton gently rock in a fire-engine red porch swing, watching a quartet of quarter horses graze in a nearby pasture. Pleasant weather inevitably elicits conversations about treacherous storms of yesteryear, and Rowe obliges with a doozy.
Through methodical words, Rowe recalls the 2009 “blizzard” when a foot of snow and high winds trapped Christmas guests at his house for a week. When the 79-year-old is asked about any other weather-related fables, he thinks for a moment then says, “I don’t really remember the bad weather. I really don’t think about it when there’s so much good to see.”
Choosing to focus on the good could be a life mantra for Rowe. He’s farmed for more than 70 years, facing drought, flood, pests, pestilence, economic busts and everything in between. Like every farmer, he willingly endures all the trials of agriculture because he loves the land. Unlike any other farmer, he has done so while overcoming cerebral palsy (CP).
A few days later winter has reasserted itself. The temperature has dipped, and the once-friendly breeze now cuts to the bone. The family gathers at Rowe’s house near Pocasset, a Grady County hamlet of about 150 people.
Rowe’s family moved to Dutton Road, Pocasset, in 1945 (just four years after his birth) and he has lived there ever since. Seventy-five years of family memories echo in these rooms. Faded photos hang on wood-paneled walls. A Norman Rockwell calendar swings from a nail near his desk. Decorative plates line the crown of the kitchen. One bares sketches of the United States presidents, the last one in succession is Gerald Ford. This is sacred ground.
After lunch, Rowe and Clifton adjourn to the den, a slightly more trying process for someone with CP. Caused by damage to the developing brain, CP often affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. It usually first appears in childhood.
Rowe takes measured steps with the help of his four-wheeled walker and Clifton’s reassuring hand on his lower back. His body is slightly curved like he’s carrying an invisible weight. His hands are stiff, limiting his fine motor skills. His speech is slower. This is the physical reality of living almost 80 years with CP.
Spend any time with Rowe, however, and the CP fades to the periphery. His words may be slow but his quick wit shines through. It becomes clear then that Rowe’s story is not at all about CP, but about a love for the land. His CP therefore is not the villain of the story; it is merely the backdrop—the perpetual companion that impacts his every move and every day yet is not his focus. And it never has been.
Rowe’s childhood may look daunting from the outside. He was born the oldest of four children (three sisters followed) in the early 1940s to a dairy family. Rowe, known as Junior then, would not have his CP diagnosed until he was 3 years old. He received treatment and learned to walk that same year. Even after the discovery, life never centered on his CP and there was no pity. His family and community treated him no different from any other child.
Rowe recalled his father teaching him to drive a tractor.
“He had me climb up onto the tractor. He said, ‘You’re going to plow this field. This is the clutch. That’s the brake. Here’s your gear shift. That’s it. Now plow.’”
And Rowe did. At 7 years old, he figured out how to make his body and the machine compatible.
Rowe shuffled when he walked but he grew strong. He lost his balance and fell but he always got back up, and he always went back to work. His father milked up to 100 cows a day and Rowe fed them all.
Each day followed a pattern: morning chores, school, a quick trip home for a snack, then evening chores and possibly a run to the local cotton gin, where he often ate dinner while the family cotton was processed.
School was fine, Rowe explained. He had friends, some who still live in the area. He never played sports because of the limited coordination, but all in all, “I really had no problems.”
The teenage years were difficult, however. He was always popular amongst his schoolmates. He dated a few times, but his adolescent experience was vastly different from his peers. They participated. He watched. They explored. He felt limited. He grew frustrated.
While his friends grappled with their changing bodies, Rowe learned to accept his.
“I had to choose not to focus on the negative stuff. That will drive you nuts,” he said. “You can’t keep thinking about what you don’t have. I learned to keep my mind on the good.”
Agriculture was the “good,” a salve that centered the restless teen. He worked the dairy morning and evening. He took agriculture classes during the day. He had saved a fair amount of money by the time he was a sophomore in high school. His father came to him and said, “It’s time to invest it.” The 15-year-old leased 160 acres next to the family farm then went to the Grandview School cattle sale and bought the first four cows of his career. By high school graduation in 1959, Rowe had been a professional farmer for three years. His future was cemented. He would be a farmer forever.
Forever a Farmer
Rowe walked off the graduation stage and prepared to settle into full-time dairy work. His father had other plans. Rowe Sr. sent his son to business school in Oklahoma City.
“I hated living in the city,” Rowe said. “But school taught me some important lessons about running a business that I use to this day.”
Rowe returned to the dairy a year and a half later. He worked with his father and farmed his own lease for five more years. He sold enough cows, borrowed a little money and bought his first farm. He farmed that land, while still helping his father, for another decade.
In 1976, Rowe diversified in classic Oklahoma tradition. He branched into the energy business, putting in a gas well. The move allowed him to expand his operation, which resulted in more land to work. That was just fine with him.
“I love what I do. I love working with my hands and being in the sunshine,” Rowe said. “I love the change of pace that happens in agriculture. It’s something different every day.”
Rowe has seen every trend and trial through his decades of farming. He’s lived through at least two “droughts of a lifetime.” His fields have been flooded out, frozen over and covered in grasshoppers. He’s watched markets gyrate more than an uneven washing machine on the spin cycle. He never went bankrupt. He never even worried about it.
“Even during the tough times, I knew I was going to make it,” he said. “I never think about not making it. I just keep going.”
For the majority of his career, Rowe handled most farm duties. Some jobs, however, required fine motor skills and more balance like giving shots or dehorning which required an additional set of hands.
He’s employed helpers through the decades, but one man (one family really) has worked with Rowe for the longest—Kevin Chiles. Rowe has known the 58-year-old Chiles “since the day I was born.” Their family properties have shared a fencerow for generations. Chiles recalled Rowe being his bus driver in elementary school and he remembers Rowe’s unmatched work ethic.
“It is amazing how much work he has done in his life. He worked seven days a week,” Chiles said. “I just remember how his arms were unbelievably strong. His body, well, that’s just the way God made him. His parents never let him feel sorry for himself. They said, ‘You’re a man just like any other man.’”
About 12 years ago, Rowe hired Chiles to be an extra set of hands and help build his cow herd. Chiles jumped at the chance to work for such an experienced farmer.
“What makes Gene so good is nothing’s going to happen that he hasn’t already seen and dealt with,” Chiles explained. “He knows how it all works. He’s one of the smartest men you’ll ever meet.”
The pair were kindred spirits. They both worked like stubborn mules, and they both relished every moment of the labor. Years have passed and arthritis stiffened Rowe’s hands. His balance has diminished, requiring him to first use a cane, then a walker. Rowe’s fought cancer and endured back surgery. Chiles, his wife, Tracy, and son, Andy have gradually assumed most of the day-to-day operations. Rowe still handles hauling hay (“He can sit in that tractor all day,” Chiles said) and makes the business decisions, but the Chileses are the horsepower behind the operation.
The collaboration has been fruitful. Rowe’s farms now include more than 2,000 acres. He runs several hundred cows and more than 100 stockers. Rowe and Chiles visit four or five times a week to get their plans aligned. Neither of them have discussed retirement and—most likely—they never will. However, Rowe has been leaving the farm more often these days. He’s got a pretty good reason though.
The Girl Next Door
Life beyond the farm has been good to Rowe. He’s the mainstay of his community. He attends church every Sunday and he’s a founding member of the Pocasset Lions Club. He’s also a proud member of Oklahoma Electric Cooperative with five meters spread across his properties. Everyone knows him and he knows everyone.
“In all my years, I have never heard anyone say anything bad about Gene Rowe,” Chiles said. “Everyone around here respects him, thinks the world of him. His word is good.”
His sisters have wrapped him in family. He enjoys his nine nieces and nephews, and 12 great-nieces and nephews. But he never married. About a decade ago, his barber introduced him to a retired nurse named Nettie Clifton. A bold phone call led to a first date (Braum’s for sundaes, of course) and soon the pair were inseparable. As Rowe retold the story of their initial outing, Clifton’s voice came echoing in from the kitchen: “He’s never done anything but work until he met me.” They both laughed.
Clifton loved to travel and, turns out, so did Rowe. The farm boy, who shuffled through life, was now being whisked around the country. The pair have traveled from Nashville to Red River, New Mexico. They’ve taken a Canyon tour, a Kansas City train trip and a Mississippi River boat.
“He’s so much fun to be with. He’s kindhearted and generous to a fault,” Clifton said. “He needs me and I need him.”
As much as Rowe loves seeing the world, nothing is as rejuvenating as returning home to emerald pastures dotted with black cows.
Agriculture is one of the most dangerous and physically taxing industries. Yet Rowe, a farmer who just happens to have CP, has navigated it for more than seven decades, using a simple formula. He works hard. He focuses on the positive. And when he falls down, he always gets back up.