Oklahoma, OK!

Leona Palmer

Leona Palmer › Leona Palmer was a native of rural Wisconsin before becoming a time-tested New Yorker. After having ...


Farming on the Road: Visiting Stillwater & Tulsa, Oklahoma

Every time I visit Oklahoma, I fall a lot more in love and get a little more used to the humidity. It is a land that boasts the most eco-system diversity of any state and sits right at the cross-roads of the country, from green mountains through grassy plains to rocky mesas and tornadoes in-between. Okies are a proud bunch of people, with good reason, as older and younger generations invest in their native land for the long haul.

Everyone I spoke to about food in Stillwater, OK, directed me to one man: Dick Ortez. Dick ran the Boarding House Cafe (still legendary among former patrons who particularly miss the Christmas Tamale pre-orders), with the philosophy to “nurture your meal from seed to table.” He and his late wife grew a large and varied acre vegetable garden incorporating it as much as possible in the meals cooked from scratch and home-baked bread. It was a place unconcerned with turnover, where you could sit as long as you liked, nourished in body, senses, and community.

Under the umbrella company El Sueño Enterprises Dick and his wife also operated a manufacturing kitchen, producing condiments, sauerkraut, jams, salsas, grains and breads under the name Boarding House Classics which were sold at market and in local grocery stores until earlier this year (when the business closed for a variety of reasons). He speaks committedly about insuring the health and safety guarantees for the consumer and was always a licensed canner up to health-code—something wise to ask about at local farmers’ markets as stalls multiply.

A nomadic childhood in which the truant officer was no stranger, Dick fell happily into a vocational agriculture class in high school, suddenly devouring books one after the next. Inspired to follow science instead of opera singing by the launch of Sputnik 1 in his youth, he originally trained as a microbiologist and (still fundamentally a scientist at core) is concerned with unbiased research, driven to explore and observe his environment’s workings. His garden now serves as a teaching and research tool (in plant varieties and growing techniques) as well as supplying some of his own food. On my visit to his garden he noted one bed of seedlings started under plastic and one not, he was curious which would thrive better and why.

He now writes a monthly personal e-newsletter, as well as the column titled “Seed to Table,” about all things growing, harvesting and eating, for the Stillwater NewsPress. Dick speaks in a balanced way to the middle-ground of nutrition, health and wellness in the most practical way, but also with a huge measure of heart and spirit. He continues to teach not just through his writing but in a monthly gardening class Tuesday Gardener that runs year-round, and is working on a cookbook compilation of cafe recipes whose motto is “Where every dish receives a measure of love”, while also expanding his cattle herd. His reputation is well-deserved and hard-earned by a wealth of experience and knowledge and his voice is an invaluable resource in this community.

In Tulsa I had the pleasure of visiting Cherry Street Farmers’ Market, a diverse and growing market at the heart of the city which is open every Saturday from 7-11am, and when that final bell rings they really mean it, so get there early. Oklahoma is serious BBQ country full of prairie land best-suited to pasture, so the stalls are equally divided between produce, dairy and grass-fed and hormone-free meats. Pork & Greens offers what you would and wouldn’t think: pastured pork but also heirloom vegetables; Fioravanti Bison Ranch offers cuts of buffalo; at 6th-generation Blakely Family Farms Meats you can find beef, pork and lamb; Greenwood Farms has a wide variety of red and white meats as well as free-range eggs; Redbird Ranch Fare maintains a holistic ecosystem from soil to livestock; and finally Koehn’s Grassfed lists their meats’ (beef, lamb and chicken) ingredients as “air, water, sunshine & grass” and they “mean it.”

Cherry Street market is specific about its guidelines for vendors of all types and holds lottery farm visits each year. If it is important to you how your meat is raised, read the information and don’t be shy about asking a lot of questions. Any farmer passionate about their integrity is happy to talk about it, and you’ll be happier knowing you’re supporting someone who shares your values. Be clear about the use of “natural” labels that avoid claiming organic standards, or qualifiers such as “systematic” or “questionable” when referring to hormones, antibiotics or chemicals—especially if you want products completely free of these. Growers are each unique and do what makes sense for them, it should make sense to you, too.

If vineyards in Oklahoma seem shocking to you, Wildhorse Canyon Farms will set you straight with their totally unique offering of wine jellies and grape spreads. The stand-out dairy stalls are Wagon Creek Creamery, a grass-fed dairy that makes yogurts, cheeses and buttermilk and LOMAH Dairy (Land of Milk and Honey), which offers vat-pasteurized milk (a low-heat raw milk alternative that doesn’t homogenize and preserves nutrition).

At the heart of it all I find Three Springs Farm bustling with business. I first heard about Emily Oakley’s and Michael Appel’s organic mixed-vegetable farm in This Land Press, Oklahoma’s forward-thinking and fast-growing arts and culture magazine. After moving from East Coast (where they met) to West Coast (where they honed their experience in sustainable agriculture and community activism) they settled in Emily’s native Oklahoma. She planted those rural seeds a long time ago and nurtured them diligently in the mind of Long Island native Mike. They were ultimately compelled to break ground in an area of the country that they felt needed the presence and access of organic growers more than the saturated markets in the East and West.

Beginning on two acres owned by a pecan farm on the outskirts of Tulsa, with the use a tractor, tiller and barn in exchange for “some sungold tomatoes once in a while”, for three years they double-cropped the acreage and started an intimate 10 member CSA among friends. They are currently ending their sixth season on six acres they bought in Cherokee county. After some soil regeneration with cover-cropping and chicken manure (eventually they plan to exclusively “grow compost” by cover crop), their dedicated two-person operation is running smoothly, divided between annual and perennial beds. Emily notes the specifics of Oklahoma’s three seasons: a (longer) spring, (hotter) summer and (longer) fall and the near constant rotation irrigation of beds from their domestic well.

Their unique CSA runs from April until Labor Day: instead of regular pick-ups their members pay their share up front and spend the balance at the Saturday market whenever and however they choose, wonderfully limiting harvest days and general multi-tasking. Any remaining balance is donated at the end of the year in food to a local food pantry. Except this year, when reimbursements followed a devastation of blister beetle, which Emily can hardly bear to describe except the impossibility to manage them. It was not all a disappointment, however, to round out the season a little early this year as the couple are expecting their first child later this fall.

Emily describes the wide diversity of the market and the growing demand for sustainable food, “You can’t pigeon hole anyone here.” She says when you peel the layers back a wide spectrum of people at heart are interested in local, holistic nourishment. A passionate advocate of organic certification for growers in Oklahoma (USDA regional agencies set unique standards for accreditation) she notes that is costs $25 per year and is one page of paperwork. “Anyone who tells you it is too expensive or time-consuming is lying.” She and Mike served as the Cherry Street Farmers’ Market co-presidents for two years marked by growth and transition, an average of 20hrs/week year-round. Mike is still operating as a consultant to the new president.

Community building is a passion and even amid demands for a winter share, they have delineated their off-season not just to resting their fields in cover crop, but also to a wide array of volunteering and activism. The couple have served on the boards or committees of Global Gardens; North Tulsa Eats; Buy Fresh Buy Local; National Young Farmers Coalition and Spring Creek Coalition. Mike was particularly active in instating SNAP and Double Up (a program that doubles SNAP credits for use on fresh produce) at the market. They have also taken part in international programs for collaboratve, informational and cultural exchange between farmers, traveling to more than eight countries around the world with USAID, OICI International and Partners of the Americas. This among the farm tours, classes and conferences they take part in locally and nationally.

If this is the future of agriculture in Oklahoma, sign me up.

Photo Credit: Leona Palmer