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Story and photos by Laura Araujo


he drive along the winding roads through the hills of Green Country to Three Springs Farm near Oaks, Okla., is like a trip back in time. Only an hour outside of Tulsa, the noise of traffi c and cell phones is replaced by sounds characteristic of the Okla- homa countryside—the rustle of wind through pine trees, chirping birds, and a fl owing creek, full with recent rain. Lake Region Electric Cooperative members Mike Appel and Emily


Oakley are in the fi eld early on a breezy spring day. In an era when it is increasingly diffi cult to make a living as a farmer, Appel and Oakley have adopted a lifestyle of austerity—reminiscent of the simple life of growers in decades past—in order to pursue their passion for small-scale sustainable farming. Even in the cool weather, sunshine warms the open fi elds where Appel and Oakley are crouched among rows of spinach and kale. Their 3-year-old daughter, Lisette, plays with her baby doll, Barbara, while they harvest greens for the weekend’s farmers’ market. Oakley explains that the spinach they are cutting, called “overwintered


spinach,” has been growing during the cold months. As a result, it’s not as tender as baby spinach, but it’s sweeter because the spinach converts some of its starches to sugar in order to survive the winter. Small orange signs are visible among the rows, representing different varieties they are growing as part of a trial with Oklahoma State University. The spinach trial, and others they have done, will help farmers learn which plants perform best under organic conditions.


In the afternoon, they will haul the harvest to the barn where they will wash and bag the leaves to prepare them for customers to purchase. Then on Saturday morning, they will travel 70 miles west to Tulsa—where Oakley grew up—to sell their fresh-picked, certifi ed organic vegetables at the Cherry State Farmers’ Market.


A Labor of Love


Oakley gained interest in organic farming as a high school student who was concerned with environmental issues. She had the impression that agriculture was often at odds with the environment until she started to learn about sustainable agriculture.


“I came to view agriculture in a whole new light,” she says. “I was inspired by the management style, the lifestyle and the opportunity to sell directly to the customer.”


A city kid, Appel grew up on Long Island, NY. He became interested in farming as he explored the social issues surrounding farming, including equitable wages and working conditions for those involved in providing the food supply.


Oakley and Appel met in an agroecology class at Long Island University


in New York. They interned at a community garden in Rhode Island before moving to the west coast to work on an organic farm. While in California, Oakley earned a master’s degree in International Agricultural Development at the University of California, Davis. At the same time Appel gained valuable experience as a community supported agriculture manager. In 2003, the pair relocated to Oakley’s hometown. Their decision to move to Tulsa came from their desire to bring small-scale organic farming to an area where it was not well represented. “A place like Oklahoma had more consumers wanting to buy local,


organic produce than it had farmers growing it. We wanted to make it ac- cessible,” Oakley says. “On an economic level, there was less competition which made it easier to get into the market.” Despite minimal competition, the fi rst years in Oklahoma were not easy. In California, they had been surrounded by a community of like-minded growers. But in the Sooner State they were two of a small number of Oklahomans who subsisted as full-time organic farmers. Oakley and Appel searched extensively for affordable land in the Tulsa area with good soil and a source of water, both crucial for organic farming. They spent their fi rst three seasons farming a plot of borrowed land in the outskirts of Tulsa before purchasing 20 acres in Cherokee County. In spite of the challenges, they were driven by the value they place on being able to provide sustainably grown food to their local community. “We wouldn’t do what we do if we didn’t believe in it,” Oakley says.


“There are easier ways to make a living, but it’s a labor of love. That’s what sustains us during the diffi cult times.” Any farmer knows that a primary challenge is weather. According to


Oakley, Oklahoma is positioned to receive both northern Arctic air and Gulf air from the south. This results in unpredictable weather patterns and makes the state a diffi cult location for farming. In addition, the humid weather and long summer days are ideal growing conditions for pests,


MAY 2016 23


Lisette plays in the farm fi eld with her doll as her parents harvest spring greens.


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