To Market, To Market
The home-grown goodness of farmers markets
Photos by Shannon Cornman
August is a great month for peaches in Oklahoma, and there is no better place to pick up the perfect peck of peaches, peppers, potatoes – or perhaps pork chops – than one of the more than 75 farmers markets in our state, 35 of which crop up regularly in the 405. Some are old and some are new, some are huge and some more diminutive, some are year-round and some are seasonal … and if you want the freshest and most seasonal local food you can get your hands on (and, really, why wouldn’t you?), to the farmers markets you certainly must go.
They dot our cities, bringing urban-dwelling foodies fresh provisions, they create a revenue stream for farmers and in the midst of the bushels of berries and jars of jam, they are strengthening communities.
“OSU-OKC’s market is one of the oldest in our area, and it began before our agency began to track farmers markets,” says Ashley Bender, market development coordinator for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. “The newest one that we have in our system is the Kinfolk Farmers Market, which opened in June at Oklahoma City’s Northeast Community and Cultural Center.”
“In order to be listed with us as an ‘Oklahoma Grown’ market, a market must only sell items grown or made in Oklahoma. For farmers markets in counties that border other states, we allow 30 percent of what they sell to be from that bordering state, so it’s still very local,” Bender says. “The larger markets, like OSU-OKC or Norman, will have a wider selection, usually including meats, eggs, dairy products and baked goods, but for most of the summer you can count on finding tomatoes, okra, corn, squash and zucchini.”
The Grande Dame
OSU-OKC Farmers Market, now 20 years old, is open Saturdays year round, and Wednesdays from June to August. Hours for both days are 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Hallie Williams became the market’s manager in the fall, and immediately set about making it even friendlier and more accessible than it already was. If you pop by on a Wednesday or Saturday, say hello to Hallie. She is like walking sunshine, with a contagious grin and the kind of capable, down-to-earth enthusiasm you’d expect from a fifth-generation farmer from Ohio.
“Just come hungry and leave happy,” Williams says. “Don’t expect a grocery store, it’s really more like a festival. Be open-minded and ready to interact. It’s a very friendly and exciting environment, and I almost never leave without something.”
While most of us love a fresh tomato, and know what to do with salad greens and peaches, there are also lots of new foods to try at a farmers market, and that can be daunting for people.
“I noticed that people tended to stay in their comfort zones when they shopped. They would stick with the same items, walk in the same patterns, get what they always get and head for the door,” Williams notes. “One of our goals is to encourage people to try new things, so now we do daily cooking demonstrations at the market. We make food all day long and let our customers taste-test it. We have recipe cards to hand out, and everything we make is simple to prepare. We work in small batches, so people can watch us prepare the food, too, and learn as we go.”
This is especially helpful for SNAP customers, she said. The area surrounding OSU-OKC is considered to be a food desert, loosely meaning that its residents do not have easy access to healthy, affordable food. In July, Williams launched a USDA-sponsored double-up program for SNAP customers, which means if a customer spends up to $20, that amount is matched, but must be used for fruits and vegetables. So someone could come in and buy eggs, cheese and meats for $20, and still have money for healthy, fresh produce. When Williams talks about this program, her pride and passion will move all but the most hard-hearted souls to tears. This young lady cares.
The Activist Upstart
That intense caring, bordering on activism (in the very best sense of the word), is something Williams has in common with the creators of the metro’s newest farmers market. The Kinfolk Market launched in June, and was started by two men who’ve been friends since middle school and their wives.
“In fact, it goes back longer than that. Our mothers were best friends growing up, and Devin and I met at Classen School of Advanced Studies,” says Merle Chiles.
Devin and Sade Dawson, along with Merle and Brittany Chiles, are healthy lifestyle devotees and dedicated foodies who will wax poetic about Napoli-style pizza while enjoying a bowl of bibimbap, a Korean mixed rice dish. The foursome, along with the Dawsons’ 3-year-old son Deis, arrived at our interview slightly windblown and laughing as a powerful, early summer storm rolled through the metro.
“We were catching the chickens,” Sade says, smiling and patting her hair back into place. The couples, who have formed an LLC, plan to offer their own fresh eggs at Kinfolk each week, so they built some chicken coops, enclosures and chickens. Twenty-two chickens, all of which freaked out as the storm started brewing and had to be contained. Ultimately, their flock will produce 300 eggs a month or more. One thing is for sure: The Chileses and the Dawsons are in it to win it.
“One man in particular has been our inspiration and really the driving force behind what we are doing,” Devin Dawson says. “That is Kwame Mboya, who has been a part of the community for a long, long time and has wanted to start a market for many years. We decided to work together to put his ideas into action.”
Kinfolk Farmers Market takes place Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the NE Community and Cultural Center, 3815 N Kelly Ave. in Oklahoma City. The impetus behind the project is to help bring healthier options and local produce to an area of town where fresh food is hard to come by – another Oklahoma City food desert.
“There is one grocery store, a Buy for Less, and a smaller meat market on the whole east side. That is not enough for the people who live there, and to make matters worse, it isn’t walkable. There are no sidewalks,” says Brittany Chiles.
Although each of the four has another full-time occupation, they felt the project was important. They began the process in earnest about a year ago, learning about the plethora of permits and inspections needed for the project. In November 2015, they applied for and received a grant for advertising from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, and now they’re up and running.
“It’s sad that it’s taken so long to do this,” says Devin Dawson. “A big part of what we’re doing is education. Most people in the community won’t try something if they can’t fry it up. We’re handing out recipes. When I was growing up, I didn’t know how to eat acorn squash, but it’s simple and it’s delicious and healthy.”
“We answer a lot of questions. We’re doing surveys to learn more about when people would like us to be open. We’re exploring delivery methods so eventually people will be able to place a weekly order and have fresh fruits and vegetables delivered to them. We’re constantly recruiting more vendors – we have seven or eight now, and we need more,” says Sade.
“What we are trying to do is solve some of the problems on the northeast side, and we’re starting at the bottom,” Brittany says. “You’ve got to take care of people’s basic food needs before you can do anything else. A farmers market is a way to do that while bringing the community together.”
► How to Shop a Farmers Market like a Pro
Farmers markets are great, and adding fresh produce to your diet is always a good idea. Here are a few pro tips to ease your marketing and make hauling home your goods easy.
Cash, baby. Many vendors now use a square or similar device to enable transactions with debit or credit cards, but many others do not. Bring along a few small bills, and you’ll never have to leave that gorgeous cabbage behind because you didn’t bring any cabbage.
Easy breezy. Most farmers markets are either partly or completely outdoors, so dress for the weather. It’s August, so slip a sundress over your head or pull on some cool shorts and you’ll feel like shopping longer. Pockets are a great place to stash your change, since you’ll be using some cash.
Bag it. Most vendors have plenty of plastic bags on hand to wrap your goodies in, which is very courteous of them, but unless they are biodegradable, that’s bad for the planet. Bring your own grocery tote or string bags and feel smug about showing Mother Earth the love she deserves.
Don’t make a definite list. Sure, if you know what’s in season, plan to grab a few ears of corn if you need them, but otherwise shop like the French: Plan your meals around the produce that’s fresh and seasonal. Don’t forget to grab a peach for a snack!
Be a chatty Cathy. See a vegetable you don’t recognize? Ask the grower about it. Farmers and vendors are happy to talk with you about what they produce and how they produce it. You can learn a lot, and who knows? Maybe you’ll make a new friend!
Five Questions for Urban Agrarian
Urban Agrarian, located in the old farmers market district near Reno and Klein, isn’t a typical famers market, but it sort of is. Maybe it’s the wave of the future, maybe it harkens to the past, but either way, it’s a win-win for all who dare enter its humble former warehouse in an area of town that is on the rise. We dropped in for a chat with founder Matt Burch.
How long has UA been around, and how did it start? “Urban Agrarian started in my garage in 2008. I had just moved back from a stint living in coastal Georgia, where I worked on a farm and began taking part in the emerging local food scene out there. When I got home to OKC, I knew that I was doing work that I found very rewarding and got to participate in an industry that was part throwback and part whole-new-world.
“I filed an LLC, brought some freezers and refrigerators into the garage, purchased a former Frito-Lay truck that ran on waste vegetable oil and began finding ways to work with growers and provide services to customers like delivering to restaurants and setting up outdoor roadside mobile markets.”
How does UA differ from a conventional farmers market? “We are trying to build a supply chain that, in many ways, parallels the movement of food in the global marketplace: centralized hubs, commercial refrigeration and vehicles, aggregation of products across many producers and product types and so on.
“Most farmers markets are open for four to five hours once or twice a week, and the grower has to be there to sell their products. Our storefront is open seven days a week, eight hours a day, and the growers get to continue working their land, herd, swarm or greenhouse.”
How many vendors do you have? What will people find if they visit UA? “We have done business with over 100 local producers. Many of those are farms, ranches, orchards and other agricultural enterprises, but there is also a wide range of other producers like bakers, salsa makers, butchers and people with specific products like energy bars or pasta.
“In our store you will find a rotation of seasonal produce, a steady supply of pasture-based meats and dairy, a broad range of jarred or canned items, baked goods, several drinks such as kombucha, probiotic soda or cold-brewed coffee, seasonally appropriate plants and seeds and complimentary items like pottery or cutting boards.
“The store is always changing due to the startup nature of Oklahoma’s food scene. New producers come in to pitch their products on a weekly basis. We take pride in having a friendly, helpful and passionate staff, as well. We answer questions and help make connections for our customers in ways that often go far beyond selling the products on our shelves.”
How have you seen the local food market/demand change since you’ve been in the biz? “The demand is hard to gauge. It seems that the demand is huge, and maybe increasing, but the goals we are setting accept the premise that the demand is there and it is mainly access that prevents local growers from having more success.
“You can see in the ways that most restaurants and grocery stores market themselves: that it is accepted that customers want fresh, local, sustainable foods to be available to them. The riddles surrounding how to assist in getting those foods from the farm to the kitchen or shelf are the ones we are trying to solve.”
What is important to you about what you provide for the community? “I personally, along with our staff as a whole, take pride in being more than just another entity that uses local food whenever possible. We are working to take the idea of ‘whenever possible’ to another level.
“We run routes covering several hundred to several thousand miles per week directly to producers all over the state. As we are making the pickups, we are also delivering to restaurants along the route, and keep a van running deliveries to restaurants in the metro daily.
“Our storefront is open seven days a week, and we have booths at the Edmond and Norman farmers markets. These are the base operations that we have worked hard to establish over several years, and, at this point, we are adding kitchen components to our routine. These include our monthly Farm-to-Table dinners, regular caterings, luncheons and basic functions like simple preservation, for example: freezing seasonal excess. All of this is our best effort to create a system that makes local food work for more producers and more consumers.
“It is great to have so much support from both sides of these transactions, as well, and we think a big reason for that is because we are sincere in our intention to establish a local food supply chain and continually aggressive in our efforts to do more.”
► Melon Musings
Fresh, sweet cantaloupe or watermelon on a ridiculous August day in Oklahoma just makes a person feel better. Melon taken straight from the vine and chunked in a bowl is pure bliss, but when you’re in the mood for something new, take one of these delicious recipes for a spin. No cooking required. You can thank us later.
Watermelon, Basil and Feta Salad
from the kitchen of Christine Eddington
• 1 small watermelon
• A few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
• A few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
• Small handful of basil
• 1/2 cup of crumbled feta
• Salt and coarse ground black pepper
Fill a big bowl with seeded, bite-sized pieces of watermelon. Chiffonade the basil and add it to the bowl of watermelon, along with the feta. Whisk the oil and vinegar together in a small bowl and drizzle on the watermelon-feta-basil. Add salt and pepper to taste, and toss it all together to marry the flavors. Put the salad in the fridge for an hour or more, adjust your seasonings and enjoy!