Staci Elder Hensley | July 16, 2018
Taking Oklahoma agriculture and ranching to the next level
This article was published in OCPA's Perspective magazine View Issue
One of Susan Bergen’s favorite mantras says that “Life is 360 degrees.” It’s a philosophy you might expect from the OCPA trustee, who’s the daughter of a Sierra Club naturalist mother and a manufacturing entrepreneur father. And it’s a philosophy she exemplifies every single day in her roles as owner and chief operating officer of Bergen Enterprises and as one of Oklahoma’s prominent leaders in the agricultural and ranching industries.
Bergen does indeed live a full-circle life, spearheading agricultural and ranching enterprises across Oklahoma through her role with Bergen Enterprises, where she also supervises operations for Eco Wood Solutions and Prairie Dirt Solutions.
Add to that her roles as a hands-on wife, mother, and grandmother who’s actively involved in state politics and community programs, and Bergen’s days are definitely full from beginning to end. There is no “typical” day—her schedule can and does include everything from working with the Oklahoma Legislature and her standard COO duties to gardening with elementary school kids and hands-on work with the cattle on her beloved Peach Crest Ranch.
An Okie by Adoption
While her roots in Oklahoma’s soil are deep, Bergen actually grew up in Boston. While working as a stockbroker she met her husband Floyd, an Oklahoma native and founder of the highly successful Bergen Foods (now Bergen Enterprises). The two married in 1984 and together expanded into multiple business ventures, among them the organic Peach Crest Farm (now Peach Crest Ranch). For the first few years of their marriage Bergen assumed a low-key role with the company, choosing to focus on raising the couple’s two children, Blake and Jessica. In 1989, however, she assumed the COO role and in 2003 also began managing Peach Crest.
With her husband semi-retired, Bergen firmly holds the company reins and is one of relatively few female leaders in the agriculture/ranching industry. After years spent using conventional agricultural methods, Bergen has become arguably the state’s leading advocate for chemical-free, sustainable, and holistic farming and ranching. She actively promotes soil health, considering it to be one of her signature issues.
Bergen said she is particularly proud of her accomplishments with Peach Crest Ranch, which she’s expanded from the original 330-acre organic farm to more than 20,000 acres of ranch land. Its cutting-edge practices provide consumers with pasture-fed, minimally processed beef and pork that’s free of hormones and antibiotics. Her success is persuading many other farmers and ranchers across the state to shift their approach.
“I decided there had to be a better way than using so many chemicals,” Bergen said. “It’s been wildly successful, but we do still have some pushback.
“Some of the conservation practices have been demonized here, and they need to be supported,” she added. “We need to discuss land use policy, and we need to educate people. There are a lot of things we could be doing, but there are definitely things we should be doing.”
Bergen’s wide knowledge base, combined with her OCPA role, allows her to be a particularly effective advocate for change in Oklahoma’s second-largest industry, and adds an agriculture voice to the organization’s board of trustees.
“I’ve always been so pleased that the State of Oklahoma has [OCPA], and I’ve attended their events regularly for several years,” she said. “I’m confident that they represent me at the Capitol. I used to try and do it on my own, and it was exhausting.”
Feeding the Community
In keeping with her practical nature, Bergen prefers to give back to the community in ways that provide tangible benefits. In 2015 she partnered with the Lynn Institute to plant vegetables in seven vacant lots across lower-income Oklahoma City neighborhoods. She personally supervises the planting each fall, and anyone who wishes can help themselves to nutritious, organically grown vegetables each fall, free for the harvesting. It’s a program that’s been extremely successful.
Like all her initiatives, the idea for the community gardens reflects Bergen’s overall philosophy of creating change at every level.
“I’m more of an abundance thinker,” she said. “We plant peas, turnips, radishes, collard greens, and kale. It’s a crop that provides good food choices, and people can harvest on their own in the fall. We plant them in places that are ‘food deserts,’ meaning that the people nearby don’t have easy access to fruits and vegetables. As I see it, it’s not a great idea; it’s a great responsibility.”
Building upon this initiative, Bergen also spearheaded creation of a garden at Oklahoma City’s Metro Technology Center, where students harvest the produce and learn to cook what they grow. It’s an important experience, since many young adults today have no idea how to prepare fresh vegetables, she said.
As if her business ventures didn’t keep her busy enough, Bergen is an active speaker with the Noble Foundation and addresses groups across the state, ranging from the state legislature and professional associations to local gardening clubs and schoolchildren.
In addition to serving as an OCPA trustee, she’s active in SALLT (Salt and Light Leadership Training), a program designed to guide Christians of all denominations to achieve transformative personal and cultural change.
A Family Legacy—and More
One of the most satisfying elements of her career today, Bergen said, is the chance to work closely with her daughter, Jessica Bergen Elliott. Elliott oversees the family’s restaurant assets, manages its property assets in Oklahoma, and serves as brand manager of Peach Crest Ranch. She and her husband, Robbie, also own Calypso Cove Marina on Lake Thunderbird. Son Blake inherited his mother’s financial skills, and now works with the family as a stock market analyst.
With all the demands on her time, Bergen said her favorite days are those when she can put her hands into the red Oklahoma soil on her own ranch. Vegetable and flower gardening is her passion, and she’s passed on that love to her grandchildren, six-year-old Bergen Elliott and three-year-old Margaret Elliott.
“Oklahoma has been a fantastic place to raise a family; the quality of life here is huge,” she said. “I love that I can play a role in shifting our agricultural and ranching practices in Oklahoma, so that our food is fresher and safer. We are making a lot of progress.”
Former newspaper reporter Staci Elder Hensley is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she is a former news coordinator for both the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She served as a regular columnist for The Daily Oklahoman and Distinctly Oklahoma magazine, and her credits also include articles produced for multiple state and national publications, including The Journal Record, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and others.