Oklahoma 2022 Smith Family Farms Elk City Leopold Conservation Award Recipient

Watch the Smith Family's Conservation Story

People didn’t use the term “cover crop” 50 years ago, but the Smiths were growing one.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Jimmy Smith grows rye as a companion to cotton. What some would call an innovation has long been considered a necessity in western Oklahoma. The year-round presence of a living root retains precious moisture in a drought-prone region and prevents wind erosion of sandy soils.

Jimmy and Cathy Smith farm with their children Spencer and Calli. They credit conservation practices and technological advances with saving time and money, and benefitting the landscape.

Growing rye as a cover crop has improved the Smith’s soil, which average 2 to 4 percent organic matter compared to the statewide .5 percent average. They began interseeding rye on their fields prior to harvesting cotton in 1998. There was a time when they used a moldboard plow to integrate rye back into the soil each spring. They now terminate the cover crop with herbicides rather than tilling it. Jimmy had completed a transition from conventional tillage to strip tillage to no-till practices across his 2,200 acres of cotton by 2010.

Smith Family Farms also grows 200 acres of rye, some of which is used to graze their herd of 40 beef cattle. The rest produces the seed used to plant that year’s cover crop. Rye grows on the farm’s sandiest soils that cannot produce cotton.

To improve water quality in the Elk City Lake watershed, the Smiths utilize nutrient management plans and have fenced off riparian areas from cattle with assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services. They also retrofitted watering facilities for wildlife, resulting in an uptick of local turkey and deer populations.

Much of Smith Family Farms borders residential areas of Elk City. The Smiths maintain neighborly relations using precision application technology that reduces drift of fertilizers and pesticides. They make positive impacts off the farm in other ways as well.

Smith Family Farm became a cooperator with the North Fork of the Red River Conservation District in 1988, and Jimmy has served on its board since 2001. Spencer serves on the USDA’s Farm Service Agency Committee for Beckham County. Smith Family Farms hosts field days for fellow farmers, researchers, and agribusiness professionals to learn more about their conservation practices.

Jimmy and Spencer’s ingenuity led to the creation of an agriculture manufacturing business. When the Smiths switched to no-till practices, they noticed their planter gauge wheels quickly wore out. After working with a machinist to build stronger tires, other farmers took notice. The Smiths partnered with machinist Jake Hunter to launch 4 AG MFG, which now produces and sells wheels for no-till planters and air seeders internationally.

It's the latest reinvention in a story that began when Jimmy’s great grandparents Edmond and Martha purchased the farm’s original 300 acres in 1913 to grow cotton and raise cattle. Smith Family Farms survived the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and witnessed nearby Elk City’s run as a booming cotton town from the 1930s to the 1970s, with nine cotton gins in operation.

When Jimmy returned home from college to farm with his father and grandfather, soil health wasn’t a commonly used term. Yet his efforts to improve the soil, water, and wildlife in his care ever since earned him an induction into the Oklahoma Conservation Hall of Fame in 2021.

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