On January 14, 2019, Blayne Arthur was sworn in as the Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture. While many women have made careers in agriculture, Secretary Arthur’s position holds a special distinction – she’s the first female to hold the title in Oklahoma.
“It is certainly humbling to have the opportunity to serve in this capacity. There are many women in agriculture that have done great things, and I feel they paved the way for the rest of us,” Secretary Arthur noted.
She added, “Traditionally in Oklahoma agriculture, leadership positions have been a little more male dominated, so I am excited for the opportunity. I think women can bring a unique voice and perspective to the conversation when we discuss ag issues and the impact on farmers and ranchers.”
Secretary Arthur acts as Governor Stitt’s chief advisor on policy development and implementation related to agriculture, food and forestry. She also holds the titles of Oklahoma Commissioner of Agriculture and the President of the Oklahoma State Board of Agriculture, but she isn’t a career politician.
She grew up near Verden, a small town outside of Chickasha, Okla., in Grady County, on her grandfather’s land. Her family raised soybeans, wheat, cattle and horses. Heavily involved in 4H as a child, she transitioned to the FFA program while there. “Mike and Shirley Stevens were a husband and wife ag teacher team at Chickasha. Thinking back now I probably spent more time with them than I did at home because I showed a lot of cattle, but also did public speaking and judging contests across Oklahoma. They certainly had an influence in my career path,” she said. “Grady County was a great place to grow up because we’ve got some great producers with a long history of ag production, as well as many fine educators and ag activists.”
Living on the farm taught Secretary Arthur the value of hard work, but also many lessons in some of the challenges Oklahoma producers see in the livestock and crop sectors. As an example, her family’s homeplace is close to the Washita River, so when it rains the river can flood onto their wheat pastures. “It was an early exposure to the lesson that mother nature can surely make it rough being in production ag, even when you do all the right things. I saw a lot of that as a youth,” she said.
After high school, Secretary Arthur attended Oklahoma State University, where she majored in Agriculture Economics. Her high school sweetheart, Jerrod, also went to OSU. The two married in 2006, making their home just outside of Stillwater with their 10-year-old son Kelton and six-year-old daughter Kennedy.
Jerrod raises and sells show cattle specifically for 4H and FFA members. Having worked for many show cattle producers, Jerrod found his niche helping kids and teaching them about daily care, grooming, feeding and nutrition. “It’s hard to make a living in the cattle business, period, but we thought the show cattle would be something good for us to target,” Arthur explained.
The Arthurs hold a cattle camp every summer with the youth that have purchased cattle. “We want to ensure they have a very good, global perspective on the beef industry. They need to know that you can have the cow you need to, but if you don’t do everything else that you need, it won’t work,” she said.
The work has been rewarding. “We take a lot of pride in raising animals that are successful in the show pen, but ultimately what we want is for that young exhibitor to find value in that experience. Everyone wants to win, but really the things they learn from showing the livestock is why it has been such a great thing for us and our family,” she said.
Arthur credits Dr. Joe Williams, her advisor at Oklahoma State, for much of her success. “He was wonderful and helped me get my first job out of school. I love OSU, and I think the College of Ag is the best on campus. The staff there really takes an interest in the students that come through college. They truly want them to be successful in their careers,” she said.
Arthur’s first job was as a loan officer, which involved traveling Oklahoma finding loan packages for small businesses. “It was a great chance for me to see a lot of rural Oklahoma and the challenges that exist there from a rural economic development perspective,” she said.
While the work was enjoyable, Arthur desired a job more closely aligned with agriculture. That’s when Dr. Becky Brewer, the State Veterinarian at the Department of Agriculture, passed word that Secretary of Agriculture Terry Peach was looking for an assistant. Although she had no political experience, the job was intriguing.
“The Secretary was kind enough to extend me an interview. I had certainly gone in with the feeling that it was just a courtesy, but I talked to him about my background and my interest in agriculture. He called me on the way home and asked when I could come to work,” she said. “I worked for him a couple years, and he gave me many chances to work with our commodity groups here in Oklahoma. I was also able to learn about policy and how it interacts with our agency and our producers. A lot of what I’ve had opportunities to do is because of him.”
Secretary Peach had been appointed by Governor Brad Henry, a democrat, and when Governor Mary Fallin, a republican, was elected, she appointed Jim Reese to the position. “I didn’t know Secretary Reese previously. I spoke with him and he let me stay and asked if I would like to do all the legislative work over at the Capitol. Although I had some exposure, I did not have a lot of experience, but I said, ‘Ok, great!’ anyways,” she recalled with a laugh. “It as a steep learning curve. I had a lot of support and guidance from our commodity folks who guided me along the way. I worked there for more than six years, and I certainly loved my job as the Deputy Commissioner at the department.”
A new opportunity appeared in 2016 when the 4H Foundation, located in Stillwater, was looking for a new Executive Director. “4H is personal and special to me, plus I had two small kids so the chance to work closer to home was a great fit. I learned a lot during my time at the 4H Foundation, because the non-profit world is certainly different from the state government. It was also housed on campus, so I got to learn more about academia and higher education from an administrative perspective,” she said. “I got to meet so many wonderful people, including 4H educators across the state, members, volunteers, and donors. I was there until the Governor called and asked me to come talk about agriculture.”
Learn more about Secretary Arthur in the May 2019 issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.