POSTED ON JULY 6, 2011:
Beauty of the Bounty
Open-air markets are growing, but Tulsa's harvest of fresh, local food is bringing with it a whole new crop of farmers
Cherry Street's open-air market runs from early April through mid-October and hosts an average of 55 vendors from week to week. The peak in local participation is mid- to late July when as many as 4,000 customers flood a two-block section of 15th Street.
"We've gotten more diversity in terms of the types of things that are sold -- a lot more meat, cheese, egg and dairy vendors and that could not have happened had we stayed in our old location," Oakley said.
Locally grown, sustainable food items have been growing in popularity across the nation and farmers markets like Cherry Street, which covers a section of street usually filled with bar-hoppers and pulsating music, are leading the revolution.
Cherry Street is the largest farmers market in Tulsa, but smaller markets have formed out of customers' increased interest in locally produced goods.
In 1982, the only farmers market left in Oklahoma was Oklahoma City's Farmers Public Market, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society's 2009 "Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture," but data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that farmers markets nationwide grew 16 percent from 1994 to 2010.
Currently, there are more than 30 markets in Green Country offering a variety of goods, offerings that change with the current harvest season. Tulsa-area markets range in size and the produce available, but what began as a few fruit and vegetable vendors at one or two city locations has morphed into weekly craft, dairy, meat and music markets -- providing what feels more like a small festival than a trip to the grocery store.
"Consumers in Oklahoma and across the United States are becoming more aware of where their food comes from and young producers are looking for ways to diversify and they're looking at things like participating in farmers markets and developing that into agritourism," said Blayne Arthur, associate commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry.
The growing trend of buying produce from street vendors is also causing a surge in urban farming and a desire among young, city-bred students to reconnect with a career path that previously seemed outdated.
Jack Staats, the program administrator for CareerTech Agricultural Education Department and the state advisor for the Future Farmers of America, said he has noticed a tremendous increase in FFA participation and interest among students.
"Because of the urban consciousness for products that are raised organic, there have been more practices where we need to raise our own (products)," he said. "We still have that old belief that something raised that we pick or buy from a farmer is going to be cleaner or healthier, so with that comes people wanting to become more involved."
One example Staats cited, the Owasso FFA chapter -- a large, non-rural 6A school -- is seeing a surge of students interested in agriculture.
"They have a waiting list every year," he said. "Agriculture probably has more opportunity for growth and change than almost any industry that we have; plus the fact agriculture has to be important because regardless of what we think or how we perceive agriculture, we're still going have to eat. Agriculture is everyday going to become an integral part of life and our perception is changing day to day."
Staats said students have noticed the industry's shift in perception, and recently heard a student describe farming by saying, "this isn't your mom and dad's agriculture anymore."
A growing number of Oklahomans of all ages are coming to the same realization. Oakley grew up near Brookside with the hustle and bustle of city life, but found a love for agriculture that led her to pursue a less orthodox career. Her interest in environmental issues -- a topic she initially thought was at odds with agriculture -- spurred her into a farmers' life. Her business partner Mike Appel also hails from a larger metropolis, New York City, where he grew up in a suburb of Long Island. While passion for a sweet potato may be hard for most city folk to express, Oakley's joy for farming and the market community is infectious.
"It's really the only place of its kind that exists where a farmer can really meet up face-to-face, one-on-one with a person who is going to buy their produce and sell it to them at a retail price," Oakley said. "So the farmers market is really like a sacred space for farmers. It is such a unique opportunity to meet their customers and sell to them directly."
Appel and Oakley's business is a small two-person operation just east of Tulsa that harvests about 50 different crops throughout the year. The two are the only ones working the dirt on Three Springs Farm in Oaks, Okla. They rely solely on locals to invest in Oklahoma-grown produce.
Oakley is not alone in her outdoor aspirations -- a lot of the agriculture movement is moving to urban backyards. Areas that were once covered in blackberry bushes and mowed down for development are being replanted and used for agriculture.
"The whole green movement has possessed a lot of people to get more involved, back to roots and show their kids how to grow things," Staats said.
There are a few larger farms such as Conrad Farms in Bixby -- which compared to wholesale farmers is still a small operation -- that haul in truckloads of onions and squash from several acres of land located on the outskirts of suburbs, but amongst the big-name growers are small town folk eager to make a living off the land, a livelihood that has become harder over the last century.
When farming was a more common way of life, it was often passed down generationally. The term 'farmer' no longer has the same connotation and often times, vendors at local markets started growing in their backyard before applying for the licenses necessary to sell their backyard bounty to the public.
"We have some young producers who are starting there (urban) because it doesn't require quite the input cost as traditional farming does," Arthur said.
Oakley said passion for the craft, not just family involvement, is fueling many newer farmers. "There are some farmers that are generational farmers and we have a neat mix of both," she said.
Oakley and Appel both serve as officers on the Cherry Street Farmers Market board and have spent the last several years investing in Tulsa's drive for fresh, local food.
Tulsa hosts seven farmers markets each week, allowing multiple vendors to introduce Oklahoma products to local families.
The Pearl Farmers Market, located in a district community leaders hope is on the rebound, is only in its' fourth year, but is attracting a select niche of the fresh-seeking population. It is market manager Dan Weber's job to reach out to this demographic and educate the surrounding area of the benefits of shopping at a local market.
"We try to tap into the people in the neighborhood and people who attend Indian Healthcare Resource Clinic," he said. "We hope to set ourselves apart by being an evening market."
The Pearl Farmers Market distributes vouchers to clients of the Indian Health Care Resource Center, which are redeemable for fresh, unprocessed produce and honey. Weber hopes the Pearl market brings with it a sense of community that becomes more than just friendly neighbors shopping together and offers a helping hand by filling a need.
The Pearl market also participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, which help provide food for needy Tulsans.
With the expansion of sustainability efforts and the growing demand for homegrown resources, there are a number of local meat and dairy vendors joining these types of open-air markets.
The market is no longer just a place to pick up an organic apple and bouquet of daisies. Many markets offer baked goods, crafts, meat and dairy products.
Natasha's Farm near Welch, Okla., deals in livestock and eggs. Stockman Bob Shufflebotham adamantly regards selling beef, chicken and lamb as more than business.
"It happens to be our lives," he said.
Vendors that sell meat and egg products at an outdoor market are certified by the USDA in the same manner that butchers at a deli are certified. The biggest difference is that products purchased at a deli may not have been frozen during the packing process and such meat pass through several channels before arriving at a local grocer. Farmers market meat is birthed, raised, prepared and frozen under supervision of the same stockman who sells it.
Buying meat at a farmers market comes with one unique drawback: a customer looking for a very specific cut of meat might have to be extremely patient.
"It takes me three years to make this steak," Shufflebotham said. "By the time we put the cow and the bull in the field and say, 'Let's have a baby,' it takes three years."
If the week's grocery shopping is to be done at an open-air market, the only thing missing will likely be the kids' box of cereal or cans of pre-ground coffee.
"When people think of local food they think of fruits and vegetables but there is definitely a whole gamut of food that is local," Oakley said. "Customers realize, 'Hey, I can do a lot of my grocery shopping at the farmers market and not just think about it for fruits and vegetables.'"
For the uninitiated, Oakley recommends the tomato test: try one prematurely plucked and shipped cross-country and compare it to one picked ripe from the vine and sold the following day.
Oakley has noticed a swell of customers at the end of spring when tomatoes are ready for harvest. She said nature's way of ripening tastes a little sweeter than the big-box, chemically altered version.
"Anybody who is going to the farmers market is going because they want something that is fresh that was picked just for them just the other day," she said.
The Kerr Center, a driving force behind Oklahoma's participation in the national "Buy Fresh Buy Local" campaign, reports that foods stored on well-lit, chilled grocery shelves travelled an average of 1,500 miles before it's available to the general public.
The light mist falling on the stack of carrots may not be necessary if the crop was plucked from the ground just a day or two prior to sale, but since it could have travelled from California, Holland or elsewhere, a grocer needs to take the proper steps to ensure it stays as fresh and supple as possible.
"The only reason they (grocers) do that (chill and mist) is to extend the shelf life because they're shipping it in from all over the world," said Kendra Wise, an environmental health specialist with the Tulsa Health Department. "The farmers market doesn't wash them (produce) so they're ready to eat -- they wash them to present them."
Outdoor markets are subject to many of the same inspections and regulations that large chain grocery stores undergo. Each market has a license that allows farmers to come and go depending on what produce they have available.
Wise said the FDA recently initiated country of origin labeling for produce in grocery stores. For every apple, turnip or coconut on display, there has to be a label declaring where the product was grown and shipped from. If an apple is sold at a farmers market in Oklahoma, the apple was grown at a farm (or backyard) in Oklahoma.
To be clear, a locally grown tomato does not mean organic tomato. The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry certifies organic farmers and they follow the USDA's National Organic Program, which "relies on ecologically based practices such as cultural and biological pest management, exclusion of all synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones in crop and livestock production."
There are several local markets that have a wide array of organic produce, grass-fed cattle and other specialty items.
"Farmers market produce has a big head start on anything in the grocery store which is many days or many weeks old and which is part of why they need those misters because they're going to be sitting on a shelf for much longer than a few hours," Oakley said.
Apart from the freshness of the products, locally grown and bought food keeps Oklahoma money in Oklahoma and cuts out the middleman distributing to national facilities. Perhaps the most enticing aspect of picking up the week's groceries from a familiar face is -- well, it's a familiar face.
"Everything that I sell, I raise," Shufflebotham said. "You know where that cow came from and if you have any doubt, please come out to the farm and we'll show you the cow that had the calf. If you get it from the grocery store, who knows where that cow you ate came from -- I can tell you the color and what it looked like."
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