Farm Talk

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April 1, 2014

Gardens are gateway to agriculture says Okla. Hall of Famer

Parsons, KS — Gardening is a gateway connecting agriculture with a public  increasingly removed from the farm, according to a long-time leader in the Oklahoma horticulture industry and the newest member of the state’s Agriculture Hall of Fame.

Rodd Moesel owns American Plant Products and Services Inc., of Oklahoma City with his wife Dona. His induction ceremony was held in conjunction with the state Ag Day celebration at the capital.

Only 17 individuals have received the award, considered the state’s highest ag honor, and Moesel is the first horticulturist.

In an interview, Moesel said Oklahoma, with its long growing season and proximity to heavily populated Texas, has a thriving horticulture industry, including being a national leader in tree and shrub production.

In addition, it’s not widely known but some of the largest and most sophisticated nursery operations in the U.S. are located in northeast Oklahoma.

“Cherokee County is number two in the country in production of container nursery products,” he said. “Several giant operations in the Tahlequah and Park Hill area are wholesaling container nursery stock to nursery centers and chain stores. It’s breathtaking when you see them.”

Horticulture programs at land grant colleges in Oklahoma and elsewhere are booming, too, with many students pursuing careers in landscape design, environmental policy and ecology. Opportunities abound for students eager to get their hands in the dirt, Moesel said.

“We’re struggling to get as many students on the production side of the horticultural field as we need,” he said. “That’s one of the projects I’ve been working on the last couple of years is coming up with more funding for scholarships in that area. It offers the same rewards as planting a field of wheat or canola and watching it grow.”

That doesn’t mean the industry is recruiting students from traditional farm backgrounds. Based on the average age of farmers, Moesel said agriculture in general should groom more future leaders for all facets of the industry, including many young people from urban backgrounds who have never been introduced to “the joys of either feeding the stomach or feeding the soul.”

“A lot of the folks coming into agriculture are going to have non-ag backgrounds, but they still feel that call to nature. That’s starting to happen already,” he said.

In fact, Moesel believes the popularity of gardening is one of the best vehicles the agriculture community has for reaching out and connecting with a public that is increasingly removed from a life on the land.

“It’s been my experience in talking to a lot of garden clubs that it does help give them a context, an understanding of the challenges farmers face and how difficult it is,” he said. “There’s something in our genetic code that makes us want to have interaction with nature, so there’s a natural curiosity there. And we all have to get better at telling our story and reaching out.”

Moesel’s story began growing up on his family’s truck farm near Paul’s Valley, which eventually became a greenhouse business. When he went to Oklahoma State University, he needed a way to pay his tuition and ended up making thousands of terrariums — those miniature desktop gardens that were popular at the time — and selling them to banks to use as promotional gifts.

As consumer preferences changed, Moesel diversified his fledgling business and moved on to doing things on a much larger scale, eventually designing and constructing hundreds of research, educational and privately owned greenhouses in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and around the country, as well as selling a wide range of nursery supply products into the wholesale market. The homegrown business — which Moesel likes to say sprang from a $500 4-H scholarship — now brings in $6 million a year.

Moesel has worked with the Noble Research Foundation in Ardmore, one of the two most sophisticated greenhouse operations in the country, and helped countless small garden centers spring up in recent years. The one group he won’t do business with is the big-box chain stores.

“My background is in being a small business. Independent nurseries and gardening centers: that’s where my heart is. That’s the customer we want to support,” he said.

“We deal with lots of customers, some who are traditional and some who are wanting to be all organic and pretty hard-core about it,” he continued. “I think there’s room in the marketplace for all of them.”

“What I tell people is it’s hard to be organic in our part of the country — we have so much bug pressure in the south — but try to key in on being locally grown,” he added.

Growers need to charge 30 to 40 percent more to justify producing an organic product, by his estimate. “Most of your customers won’t pay that differential,” he said.

As for biotechnology, he said it should have proper safeguards but otherwise has vast potential. He points to a researcher he has worked with in the West who is figuring out how to insert diarrheal vaccines into potatoes, funded in part by the Gates Foundation. It might come as a surprise to Americans, but diarrhea is still a leading killer of children around the globe.

“Those kinds of amazing things are somewhere in the future,” he said. “First it will happen in pigs ... but eventually it will be available for people too.”

Involved in countless community improvement projects at home, Moesel has also seen the challenges other countries endure firsthand as a result of volunteering with the state department. That includes a trip he made to Ukraine roughly a decade ago.

At the time, large Russian collectives were being split up into small family farms, and Moesel was brought in to lend expertise. Some farmers embraced the changes, others feared them, but the “magnificent” soil in many areas couldn’t make up for other problems.

“The people I met were wonderful people, and I was very hopeful for them,” he said. “But they had significant challenges: there were no farm-to-market roads like we take for granted here and no clear market options..”

During Ag Day, Moesel used his time in the spotlight to credit his parents for raising him right, 4-H for transforming an introverted kid into a confident speaker and frequent media spokesman and the Oklahoma Ag Leadership Program for further broadening his horizons.

Also included in the ceremony was Moesel’s recounting of a crisis during his childhood, when the family’s rural neighbors jumped in to help after his father was severely injured on a tractor and spent months in the hospital recovering. People the nine-year-old Moesel didn’t even know planted and harvested the crops and made sure the family had a very generous visit from Santa Claus at Christmas time.

He said the lesson of their generosity has touched and inspired him ever since.

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