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There is no dead end to the conservation and kindness provided by the Cottons

Whether they are providing boxes of produce and non-perishable foods or exploring conservation practices, Pastor Earrak Cotton of Unity Temple Family Church, and wife Arnetta Cotton approach life at a non-stop pace.

In fact, on a road just south of the eastern Oklahoma community of Inola is a sign that reads, “Dead End.” The Cottons contend that this little gravel road stretch has become anything but a dead end. It’s here, on the west side of the road, that you’ll find the Rural Impact Food Pantry, a division of the Community Outreach non-profit, Kingdom Community Development Services. The idea for the non-profit came after the Cottons attended a Faith Fellows Training through the USDA Office of Partnership and Public Engagement.

In front of the red brick Rural Impact Food Pantry building, Earrak uses the skid steer to move pallets of stacked boxes of food and Arnetta loads those boxes in car trunks, back seats and pickup beds. Their smiles and kind words, match those of the other half dozen or more volunteers working quickly and tirelessly to provide food and offer hope.

From 2016-19 they distributed grocery bags of food twice a year, with families receiving three to five full bags. Then it increased to once a month. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Distribution at the Kingdom Community Development Services building increased to weekly and then daily, Tuesday through Friday. Now it’s twice a week and the fourth Friday of the month.

Within the last year the food distributed out of this site – to individuals and as many as 82 other organizations -- has fed an estimated 1 million people, not only in Oklahoma, but also Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas.

“Every single week, somebody’s lost their job, been misplaced, or gotten ill and had to choose between meds and purchasing food,” Arnetta said. “Or it’s grandparents who are on a fixed income and are now responsible for their grandchildren and need help to feed them. This is not a dead end, it’s a means to satisfying what is necessary for a human being – compassion, care, love and food.”

Besides being good stewards of people, they are committed to being good stewards of the land for themselves and others.

Through Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs they have utilized cross fencing and created two pollinator plots. As for helping others, last year they partnered with Langston University, OSU Extension and the Noble Research Institute and hosted a market garden class both at the Kingdom Community Development Services and at the garden at their nearby farm/ranch, Cattle For The Kingdom.

“So, they were getting education, which led to getting food,” Arnetta said. “Because of that, we are about to close on this land across from this distribution area. We partnered with Rural Development and a community garden is going to go over there. We are going to start a network called Community Nutritional Network. So, once we plant over there, people can come and pick produce and then the next year we will be showing them how to add value, such as what to do with their tomatoes. This is not a dead end.”

 

Please take a box

At the height of the pandemic, cars would line up for two miles.

Willie Cotton pastored on this location for 32 years with son Earrak, who also worked for State Farm Insurance, as his assistant.

Even though the church had been there for decades, many people didn’t know it existed out on that “Dead End” road.

“So Earrak and I decided we can’t do that, we can’t be here for all these years and have people not know we are here,” Arnetta said. “We can’t be filled with the love of God and have compassion and not impact the community that we are in. The food distribution has changed that.”

They offer fresh produce of grocery store quality with recognizable labels, and non-perishables when available. Donations come through Rural Compassion, Northstar Bridge ministries in Jenks, Convoy of Hope and Joseph’s House in Coweta. On a recent day, they also provided boxes of food from Islamic Relief USA. The Rural Impact Food Pantry also partners with the Cherokee Cultural Community Outreach.

Locally, residents, typically from families of four to six people, have come from Inola, Wagoner, Toppers, Wewoka, McAlester, Sapulpa, Owasso, Bixby, Glenpool, Taft, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and other communities.  However, this location also serves as a hub. Again, as many as 86 organizations have come to pick up food to re-distribute. Today that number is about 26 organizations.

On a recent day, a group of men representing two organizations – Twin Oaks Baptist Church and American Legion Riders, Post 153 made their weekly visit. They take it back and distribute the food in their area.

Gus Jones is a member of those groups and he said people will come to their church to pick up the items and what isn’t picked up is taken into Wagoner and the nearby Whitehorn Cove area. They will feed about 100 people a week.

“We’ve been doing this for over a year now and there’s absolutely a need,” he said. “We run out of food every week that we give it out. The Cottons are the most giving, God-fearing, absolutely wonderful people.”

 

That was then

Earrak Cotton, who grew up on a farm, leans up against the cross fencing that he installed last year. He grew up on a farm. On this operation, the Cattle For The Kingdom farm/ranch, about 8 miles from the church and Rural Impact Food Pantry, the Cottons have mix bred cattle and Angus cattle, wheat, soybeans and hay.

“On a big scale, growing up with Dad, we just moved the cattle from one big pasture to another,” said Cotton, who has 55 years of life experience on the family farm. “When you can rotational graze, you can keep that grass healthy and the cattle love stepping into that field.”

Then as he looks around, he talks about what he wants to do more in terms of conservation practices. There are ponds that have silted in over the years. It may be time for new ones.

“We also need to remove some trees and normally you would go in with a dozer, but we’re going to clip them, so we don’t disturb the ground,” he said. “We don’t want to start erosion problems.”

The Cottons are very involved in conservation service. Earrak serves on the USDA NRCS State Technical Committee in Oklahoma, and recently Arnetta spoke during a hearing to review the State of Black Farmers in the U.S. Plus, whether it’s through community meetings, emails or word of mouth they are constantly involved in learning about conservation and sharing that information with others.

For example, a few years ago, the Cottons had a heavily dense populated area of blackberry vines that was sprayed. The Cottons partnered with NRCS to hold a field demonstration to discuss invasive species management. The Cottons said that the day of the demonstration, there was nearly 4 inches of rain.  Even though there was flooding, there were still more than 100 people in attendance. 

That keep moving forward attitude is why the term “Dead End” doesn’t really fit in the lives of the Cottons – whether it’s conservation or food. For example, Earrak said one individual commented he really didn’t want to take food when others needed it worse.

“So, I told him, take what you need, and then give some to others and see how you feel,” Earrak said, and then laughed. “The man said he started doing that, enjoyed it, and got so far out that he almost ran out of gas.”