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Kelli Payne serves as the first female president of the Oklahoma National Stockyards. (Photo by Audrey Ochsner)

Something To Offer

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Media Contact: Jami Mattox | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-8061 | jami.mattox@okstate.edu

Dust stirs and cattle bawl as the sun rises over the Oklahoma National Stockyards, nestled in the heart of Oklahoma City.

No stranger to the grit and determination the day will demand, Kelli Payne, Oklahoma National Stockyards president and Oklahoma State University alumna, greets the morning with a twinkle in her eye.

Payne grew up on her family’s farm in southwestern Oklahoma near Chickasha. From the time she was a child, her life has been defined by a balance of work and play.

“We worked a lot,” said Rita Wiedemann, Payne’s younger sister. “But, I don’t think we perceived it as work. It was just how we were raised.”

Like most children, Wiedemann and Payne would hurry through their chores so they could have fun, playing cops and robbers or pulling pranks on one another, Wiedemann said.

Payne spent her free time reading anything she could get her hands on, Wiedemann said.

“I loved to learn and was always an avid reader," Payne said.

In fourth grade, Payne joined the 4-H club at Friend School to show pigs. Soon after, a friend asked Payne to be her partner in a team demonstration for the local talks contest.

“The first competition we entered I was woefully underprepared,” Payne said. “I had not disciplined myself to memorize the presentation even enough to wing it. I think we got honorable mention out of four teams.

“However, that contest gave me confidence to start being more verbal and get out of my shell because I wanted to do a better job."

After transferring to Amber-Pocasset High School in the ninth grade, Payne joined FFA. Soon after, she began competing in the FFA Creed competition. Throughout her time in the FFA program, she competed in the cooperatives, agribusiness and extemporaneous public speaking divisions as well as on the parliamentary procedure team.

The parliamentary procedure competition was the spark that lit the flame of Payne’s love for public speaking, Wiedemann said.

Payne’s natural talent for wooing an audience is one of the things Wiedemann admires most about her sister even today, she said.

Payne graduated from Amber-Pocasset High School in 1994 near the top of her class. The transition to OSU, however, proved to be difficult for her, she said.

“I like to say I went through college backward,” Payne said. “But, I don’t have any regrets. I guess I did college my way.”

Payne was the first in her family to attend a four-year institution and had enough scholarships to cover the first few years, she said.

When Payne left for college, her father told her the education she obtained while at OSU would not necessarily be in the classroom, she said. Payne took this sentiment to heart, busying herself with activities like joining the OSU Dairy Judging Team, participating in the college’s student council and the Dairy Science Club, and conducting research at what was known as the OSU Dairy Center.

“It was not unusual for me to wear my coveralls to class because I would leave and go to the dairy to do research,” she said. “I loved everything about it.”

However, Payne’s extracurricular activities left her with little time to commit to her studies, she said.

“After a couple of years, my grades were in the toilet,” she said. “My focus was just not where it needed to be.”

In the summer of 1997, Payne took an internship at Select Sires Inc. in Plain City, Ohio.

“When I got back to Oklahoma, there was a letter in the mail saying that OSU was not going to let me come back to campus,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, what am I going to do now?’”

Throughout the next year, Payne worked intermittently for her father at the stockyards and spent seven months in Montana conducting research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Eventually, she returned to OSU for another semester. However, soon after, Payne left OSU again and returned to the stockyards. One night, after a long day of working cattle at the sale barn, her father sat her down and told her he would not allow her to work at the stockyards forever, pushing her to look for other jobs, Payne said.

When she said she did not feel qualified to work anywhere else, he joked she should apply to work for a congressman, she added.

“We kept selling cattle that night, and we sold all day Tuesday and into Wednesday morning,” Payne said. “By Friday, I had dropped my résumé off at Congressman Wes Watkins’ district office in Stillwater.”

The next week, Payne was running cattle in the stockyards and could hear the landline ringing in one of the booths along the main alley. Not wanting to lose momentum, she thought nothing of it until her father’s voice popped on over her radio, she said.

“He said, ‘Kelli, answer the phone in the booth. What have you done? There’s a congressman on the phone,’” Payne said. “I jumped in there, and cattle were bawling, there was noise, and the gates were clanging. And it certainly was Congressman Wes Watkins.”

He asked her to come interview for a position with his office.

“She seemed to be an exceptional young lady who was mature in her thinking and very sincere about wanting to do a good job,” said Watkins, a former member of Congress representing southeastern Oklahoma and an OSU agricultural education alumnus.

Payne got the job and served as one of Watkins’ 18 staff members, eventually handling all agricultural concerns from constituents.

Payne worked with Watkins to strengthen rural economic development around the district, she said.

Watkins said Payne’s sincerity and willingness to listen made her skilled in recognizing a community’s issues and identifying sustainable solutions.

“That started a love in my heart for helping,” Payne said, “Not just helping our fellow citizens, but also helping to build communities.”

She worked for Watkins until his retirement and helped him start his non-profit ministry, the Matthew 25:40 Mission Inc.

“I felt like I could always count on Kelli to do the best job possible,” Watkins said. “Yes, indeed, if I was serving in office again, I would look to hire Kelli Payne or someone like her.”

After leaving her role at Watkins’ office in Oklahoma City, Payne returned for one final semester at OSU. She graduated in Spring 2014 as a Top 10 Animal Science Senior with a 4.0 GPA for the semester.

“I guess I got my focus back,” Payne said with a chuckle.

Payne applied for 212 jobs after graduation, she said. The 212th time was a charm, and she began working for the Stillwater Main Street Association as its coordinator.

Since then, she has worked a vast variety of roles, from Guthrie Main Street coordinator to house painter and from small business owner to AmeriCorps volunteer.

“Then, I got a call to come back to the Oklahoma National Stockyards,” Payne said with a laugh. “No surprise.”

She worked in order buying for seven years before transitioning to her role as Stockyards City Main Street coordinator. Eventually, Payne shifted to a role as the stockyards’ liaison, and in 2019, became the first female president of the company.

“God’s going to open doors for you, and the least you can do is peek inside,” Payne said, quoting a friend.

To go from applying for so many jobs when first entering the industry to having offers practically fall in to her lap has been a humbling experience, she said.

“I owe it to a lot of people who took chances on me,” Payne said.

“I don’t know where I’ll go next. I hope I stay where I’m at for a while, but it’s just been a whale of a ride.”

Wiedemann said she has not been surprised by her older sister’s unique career path.

In addition to her numerous roles in the agricultural industry, Payne assisted Wiedemann in kick-starting Growing Paynes. The pair has turned the family farm into this thriving agritourism venue, Wiedemann said.

“Kelli just wants to experience,” Wiedemann said. “She wants to experience everything she can and wants to make sure she makes a difference in every position she has.”

Payne said she encourages all individuals involved in agriculture to strive to make a difference, as well.

“Whatever your role is in agriculture, whether you’re in southwest Oklahoma running cattle or you happen to be in the café at the same time as your state legislator, you’re an expert to somebody,” she said.

“We’ve all got something to offer and we play a much bigger role than we ever give ourselves credit for.”


Paying It Forward

Kelli Payne attributes many of her fondest memories to her time on the Oklahoma State University Dairy Judging Team.

When Payne heard the OSU Dairy Judging Team was the only animal science judging team without sufficient reoccurring funds to provide financial support to its members, she went to work.

Through a phone campaign and generous donations, she had helped to secure an endowment, a fund that generates enough interest each year to cover travel expenses and provides scholarships to team members.

Payne and her friend Dave Newcomb also created the Kelli Payne and Dave Newcomb Annual Fellowship, which supports a U.S. Military veteran working toward a master’s degree in the Ferguson College of Agriculture.

“I’m obviously not a $10 million donor at all,” Payne said. “Sometimes $100 is all we can do.

“It’s the least I can do to give back and let students who need someone to take a chance on them to be able to succeed. Because I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to a lot of people who took a chance on me.”


Story By: Audrey Ochsner | Cowboy Journal

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