Surviving and Sustaining at Gosney Farms

by R.E. Graalman Jr.

06/16/2016

One night in 1997, a concerned neighbor called John and Kris (Ratzlaff) Gosney of Cheyenne Valley, Oklahoma, with a surprise invitation and challenge. He told John he had some land that he couldn’t handle anymore and thought John might want to take it over. But there was a catch: he would agree to terms only if John would use organic farming principles.

John turned him down. He was in no shape to alter his work habits, and, more seriously, the Gosneys were dealing with the death of their only son, Johnboy, in a harvest accident. John had been burned out by his profession for some time anyway, and he was struggling to regain his zest for life. Kris was worried about him and their family’s future.

But weeks later, after more calls and visits, John began to listen more intently, knowing what was at stake. Kris vividly recalls him announcing late one night, “I’m going to try this.”

John wondered what in the world he would do without the “reliable” chemicals and pesticides that had become commonplace in farming for decades. history of banking were the norm—a sure and steady source of income, critical to contemporary farm practices, had been successful on a large scale, managing his own places and signing agreements to take care of others as well. He was renowned for his acreage. He couldn’t cite the exact figures, but liked to tease others by saying, “Well, I believe I have about 40 miles of fence I cover, enough to stretch from here to Enid.” What could he possibly do when his fields didn’t look the same as they always had? He needed to read about soil health, crop rotations, and how patience is the ultimate virtue for such an enterprise. The risks were many, some potentially devastating.

Sure enough, for a while their fields contrasted sadly with those nearby: others looking healthy, theirs paltry, uneven, bare in spots. It took three years before they noticed promising changes, and the amount of wheat yields increased ever so slightly. Even better, it was high quality, confirmed by the experts at the local elevators. As the wheat improved, so did the profit margins when the expenses of “medicating” the fields declined.

One day, a neighbor dropped by and marveled, “John, I don’t see any weeds out there. What herbicides have you been using?”

“Nothing,” John replied. “Not one thing.”

“Impossible,” his visitor scoffed and walked away unconvinced.

What once seemed impossible has become a sustainable success, which the Gosneys are reminded of every time Kris transports more than 100 five-gallon buckets of organic wheat flour, wheat berries, and other products around the state to various businesses. And now when they make speaking appearances at farmers’ markets and educational institutions, their compelling story of preserving the land, practicing healthy production, and promoting nutritional awareness is proudly told and enthusiastically received.

The future of their enterprise remains a mystery as they age. But for now, the Gosney story continues in an area of Oklahoma that would seem hostile to nearly any agricultural endeavor, where farm-savvy immigrants, many of them Russian-German, started eking out a living over 100 years ago—their best resources being winter wheat seeds (often brought from their new homes in the hems of skirts and cuffs of pants) and their determination to succeed.

No one knows for sure how the Gloss (or is it “Glass”?) Mountains, the flat-topped gypsum hills rising near Cheyenne Valley about halfway between Enid and Woodward on highway 412, were named. Local speculation says an early English visitor must have been the culprit. Seeing sparkling shards of rock (the result of high selenite content) one sunny day, he exclaimed he saw “glass” in the dirt, but it came out “gloss” instead. Residents delight in arguing this fine point of pronunciation for inquiring visitors.

But everyone does agree about the harsh conditions, lending to the area’s “stark beauty” (“with emphasis on stark,” John likes to say). Much of John and Kris Gosney’s extensive holdings are near these hills, where Cheyenne Valley’s tiny abandoned school remains visible just north of the road—a reminder of Oklahoma’s rural traditions and isolated educational venues.

The scenery and history of the area testify to the dichotomous experience of Cheyenne Valley life. Those glassy/glossy shards rest on a thin layer of topsoil, subject to drought, wind, and extreme temperature variation—sometimes as much as 80 degrees one way or another in just a few hours. Insects and other varmints are a constant presence, sometimes a menace. Rattlesnakes inhabit the fields and hills, and the area was a haven for pre-statehood robbers and gangs. Even as recently as May of 2011, the FBI tracked one Sandlin Smith, a suspect in the bombing of a Florida mosque, to a camp he set in the area, where he refused to surrender and was killed in a shootout with federal agents.

But the land hasn’t been completely unkind for some who reside there, as the abundance of oil pumps on either side of 412 illustrates. The ease of drawing a fortune from underground, compared to the difficulty of producing healthy crops on the surface, is an irony not lost on residents. John says it is hard to find a place where the struggle between man and nature is more frustrating: “Sometimes I’m moved to tears by a scene at dawn or dusk, but for such a beautiful place, it is difficult to accept how hard it is to grow crops.”

Even for those who do strike it rich, nothing really changes. A local banker once noted in regard to the fortunate few, “Most of them put their money away quietly and you’d never know they have it!” Their character, whether nurturing crops in hard times or depositing “easy money” in the banks, is resolutely consistent—“private and courteous to a fault,” he reports. “No one who is in trouble ever has to wait long for help out there.”

Such traditions shaped the lives of the Gosneys and Ratzlaffs throughout the late 19th, 20th, and now into the 21st centuries. The Oklahoma Centennial Farms Project recognizes operations that have been maintained by the same family for over 100 years, are at least 40 acres in size, and generate at least $1,000 in yearly revenue. The Gosney and Ratzlaff farms both made the list—a remarkable conjunction of long-term agricultural excellence through a marriage that seemed meant to be.

John, the strong and silent type, grew up with hard workers. His grandfather took random jobs on the railroad to make ends meet, walking 10 miles over rugged terrain to reach the station. John’s father returned to the area after World War II and negotiated an agreement with a landowner a few miles from the original family place. They built a house and resided there continually, using the same terms that were settled a half-century before. The place still stands next to a creek below the Gloss Mountains. John wears the traditions, it would appear, on his strong shoulders; his quiet demeanor reflects that of a bygone-era western movie star, and his crushing handshake can cause a visitor’s knees to buckle.

John vividly remembers when better times came for the family. His dad drove up one day in the late ‘50s with a truck bed filled with fertilizer that would ensure sturdy and consistent crop growth. The family all pitched in to spread the materials, thus joining a trend in farming that swept the area and helped lay the foundation for modern corporate farms.

Kris’s abilities are also “come-by naturally.” Great-grandfather Ratzlaff made the Land Run of 1893, filed his claim, and returned to Kansas to bring his father back to the dugout he had constructed. He dutifully went about his first legal responsibility to “improve the acreage” by planting 1,000 trees, one of which still stands. On that property, the first baby in Major County, Kris’s uncle, was born. One day while Mr. Ratzlaff was gone, the notorious and violent Yeager and Black gangs visited the house. They requested nothing more than food and promised to depart after a meal. So, naturally, Mrs. Ratzlaff prepared a good spread for all. Kris also recalls her grandmother taking eggs and other goods to town for sale, perhaps presaging Kris’s current drives around the state with organic wheat and meat products from their farms.

John Gosney and Kris Ratzlaff met at Fairview High School in 1964, when John transferred from Cheyenne Valley. After college at Southwestern in Weatherford, they returned to Fairview to assist in their family enterprises and start some of their own. They began a family—a boy and then two girls—and John began to rent farms at the usual “split” between owner and operator: 1/3 of the crop to the former and 2/3 to the latter. He also took odd jobs to make ends meet. Eventually, as their acreage grew, their primary challenge became obtaining loans to finance chemicals and equipment. Then they hoped for good weather, waited for a decent harvest, and paid off their notes—over and over it went, and tedium set in.

When son Johnboy was two years old, John and Kris found some business opportunities, and some variety, in custom cutting, which became family tradition for over a quarter century. Today, John’s mood lightens when he describes following the trail of wheat from Texas north and westward—a summer-long conjunction of farming skill, familiar faces, and technical know-how. His voice softens when he talks about the beauty of the plains and the northwest—“especially Idaho, and not just for the beautiful mountains but the amazing crops they can grow there, on occasion as much as 100 bushels per acre.” (In Oklahoma, 35 – 40 bushels is considered excellent.) After the girls reached school age, Kris stayed home with them to work on the farms and take care of local business, leaving the summer travel to John and Johnboy. She is proud of her abilities, both on the business and heavy labor side, although she laments that she can no longer repair machinery as she once could: “I still know how, but am not strong enough.”

Johnboy grew to love the lifestyle, local and beyond. He decided one summer to cut wheat in California, so after finishing their regular stops he took the whole operation farther west, moving equipment over the mountains, from farm to farm. He would introduce himself to families by saying, “Hello, I’m John Gosney from Cheyenne Valley, Oklahoma, and I’m here to cut your wheat”—an introduction that at least once led to a doubtful response: “That’s great, sonny, but where’s the boss?!”

But the notion that this summer work is a carefree and lucrative getaway is misleading; it’s exhausting and stressful. A sudden storm can bring the whole operation to a halt. If the heads of the wheat have drooped, hardened, and ripened, even the shortest delay can cause the crop to decline in quality. Timing is everything, and the farmers and roaming harvesters all know that finishing a job in time can be the difference between decent money or not for all involved.

Near the end of the 1995 season, the Gosneys’ lives were shattered when Johnboy, age 27, died in a harvest truck accident in Idaho. As is her way, Kris recounts the story with direct and factual precision. John falters momentarily when asked if he ever worked in Idaho again, then says, “Yes, five more years. Johnboy would have expected it. That’s why I went back.” When asked about the emotional barrage that came with the offer to transform his work practices, especially as he also dealt with such a bitter personal loss, he quietly confides, ”I wasn’t so sure I was going to make it.”

Eventually the Gosneys managed to reinvent themselves through study, hard work, and experimentation, in spite of countless frustrations.[1] They found the notion that they were preserving the land for future generations appealing, and when they met young families around the state who showed interest in their organic crops, they felt part of a new generation who wanted a healthier world for their children.

In 2009, John took a call from a woman who had recently attended one of his farm tours. She asked if John would meet her father who, after hearing her report, wanted to learn more. On the appointed day, the visitor’s car stopped in the driveway, and John and Kris excitedly recognized the tall, older man who emerged from the passenger side—Henry Bellmon, two-time Oklahoma governor, U.S. senator, war hero, educator, and certainly one of Oklahoma’s most famous farmers. In modest Bellmon style, he introduced himself, apologized for interrupting their day, and went immediately to the point.

“I understand you’re raising high-quality wheat without commercial fertilizer or other chemicals most of us rely on,” Bellmon said.

“That’s right,” John said.

“Well,” Bellmon replied, “I just wanted to hear how you do that because it seems very unusual to me.”

For two hours, John explained their methods. Two years later, John and Kris won the Henry Bellmon Sustainability Award for Environmental Stewardship for their outstanding contributions to the state of Oklahoma.

But the future of John’s farms is uncertain now, and the years are slipping by. Kris and John have pondered what might become of their labors, and how their land and know-how might be passed to another generation when they can no longer handle the demands. John reveals the truth of such an endeavor: “It’s a hard life, very hard.” He’s not so sure many would be willing to undertake such a difficult existence.

“These farms have been a part of God’s plan for several generations, and we’re all the better for it,” Kris adds. “I have to think that plan is still in effect, and I’ve experienced some peace as a result.”

Kris pauses and a quickly glances at John before she continues. “I suppose he’ll just keep on goin’ for now.” There’s a longer pause. “He just can’t bring himself to talk about that much yet. I understand. I do understand.”

Footnote:

1. More about John and Kris’s practices can be found in Eco-Farm, An Acres U.S.A. Primer by Charles Walters and C.J. Fenzau, which offers a fascinating and eclectic view of the organic movement that incorporates numerous social, academic, scientific, and philosophical principles, many of which are on view at farmers’ markets, small and large, around the country.


Originally published in This Land: Spring 2016