Squash bugs start appearing on farms during squash season; humans want squash year-round. Squash bugs are consumerists, of a sort, but they at least are aware of seasonality. Two factors have contributed to our collective loss of awareness regarding the seasonality of food: our distance (physical and mental) from production centers, and the availability of everything all the time—in gleaming grocery stores stocked with produce stripped of narrative context. Where do these fruits and vegetables and grains come from? Who grew them? What did it take to raise them to maturity? How did they get here?
Before we even get to the issue of what “organic” is and whether or not people are willing to pay for it, there is the issue of consumerism—the tendency of the American public to believe that life is shaped and defined by choices, and that choice has become in many ways a sacred act, perhaps one of the last sacred acts. I am known by my choices; I know who I am by my choices; I have a right to choices.
“Customers have gotten to the point that they believe things are supposed to be available when they want them,” said Patrick Clark II. He is the chef-owner of Red Cup, a coffee shop and restaurant in OKC well-known and popular for its plant-based fare. “It’s time to get back to small, chef-driven restaurants where it’s okay to say, ‘We make what we like. If it’s not for you, go elsewhere.’”
In a world with dozens of brands of bread—and how do we even begin to know which to choose?—to say nothing of cereal, people are not used to being told that they don’t have a choice, especially at a restaurant.
“We still tell people that if we’re out of something, we’re really out of it,” said Zach Hutton, chef-owner of Scratch-Paseo. “They will ask us to sub something on a dish, but we don’t do that. It’s hard because they don’t understand why they can’t have what they want.”
Hutton said that what they do at Scratch, which serves the kind of food he grew up within southwestern Oklahoma made with a chef’s sensibility and skill, is “100 percent dependent on volume.”
He explained, “We have a small place, and we source from as close as possible, beginning with the Paseo Farmers Market, but we still run out. If we were larger, we could do features, but we wouldn’t be able to serve this food on a large scale.”
The question that haunted the composition of this entire story and the series of interviews that led to it started at the moment Hutton said that. Can we get small again? It’s fine to want more organic—still undefined—fare in our lives, but what does it take to pull it off? That’s not just a cost of goods question. Yes, organic costs more, but not as much more as people tend to believe; but there is much less of it, with less variety and less frequency, on restaurant menus. The menu becomes smaller, the meal becomes smaller, our expectations become smaller. Can we get small again?
“Being realistic, I think this is always going to be a niche thing,” Clark said. “At least half the people will reject the idea of no choices. The die-hards will support you, but is that enough to stay in business?”
This is one of the critical issues related to organic, sustainable and local production: Is there enough grassroots support to pay for the different means of production and distribution? Each sector in the production, distribution and sale of food has its own challenges, most of which are exacerbated by our ignorance of the process and the consumerism that shapes our lives. To live an organic or even semi-organic life means understanding the process and accepting the limitations. We begin with the complexity of defining “organic,” and then look at the challenges to the organic life.
“We don’t do organic certification,” said Christy White, market manager for Prairie Earth Gardens on the northeast side of the metro. “We follow organic practices, so we tell people our food is naturally grown.”
The definition problems begin right away. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has standards that a farm or producer must meet to be deemed organic, but the certification also requires the filing of numerous forms and, of course, a fee. The fee can range from $700 to several thousand dollars depending on various factors and the scale of the operation.
“We use sprays to fend off the bugs, and people probably shouldn’t drink the spray, but it won’t kill them,” White said. “We use fish oil sprays and chicken manure compost—things that smell terrible—because we have to use something. No matter what we do, we’re losing a percentage of the crop to bugs.”
The USDA explains, sort of:
“Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible. Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.”
It’s true that the whole world is composed of chemicals, so beware of material that warns against “chemical agents” or “chemical products.” We’re all chemicals, and our pets and our food and the houses we live in. But some chemicals are harmful, while others are not. “Organic” hopes to avoid the harmful ones.
A farm has to balance its desire to produce certified organic products against the cost of certification and the likelihood that consumers care enough to buy organic products. A Consumer Reports study in 2020 found that price comparisons between organic and non-organic produce items showed organic products were less than a dollar higher based on quantity size: pounds, bunches, each, etc. That doesn’t sound like much, and when we picked eight common produce items and compared the difference, it was less than seven dollars. The quantity would have been enough for one person for a few meals, and that was only eight items. But multiply relevant factors to feed a family of four for a year, and the true cost of organic food is much more substantial than “less than a dollar higher.”
So, how much are people willing to pay for certified organic, and is it worth a farmer’s trouble to produce it? We’re back to Clark’s suspicion that this is always going to be a niche crowd.
Local farms have to follow the seasons, so they have produce in season. Mike Ruzcyki has a family farm in Jones, growing vegetables and leafy greens. They started selling to restaurants about 10 years ago, with heirloom tomatoes as their sales leader. (Heirloom crops are those grown from seeds that come from the same plants for more than 50 years.) The idea was to focus on items not found in grocery stores.
“The restaurants cut back last year because of COVID,” Ruzcyki said. “We’re slowly building it back up, but we added a 50-person CSA to increase distribution.”
Flexibility is a must for small farms. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a method of crowd-sharing costs and minimizing waste. Customers purchase a “subscription,” and at harvests throughout the growing seasons, they receive fresh produce, eggs, bread, dairy products—whatever the farm produces. Ruzcyki Family Farms has also added an on-site farmer’s market to create an additional revenue stream and move products. The trend toward moving farmer’s markets to the actual farm is growing. Staffing on farms—often family members—is limited, and maintaining a presence at markets scattered across the state is challenging, so many are opting to have the market closer to home. And then there are the pressures based on variables that most of us never consider.
“There is constant pressure to get things out on a schedule,” Ruzcyki said. “It was a tough growing season for peppers and corn this year. Too much rain, but every farmer who grows corn wants it ready before 4th of July weekend. You lose a lot of sales if it’s not ready. It wasn’t ready this year because the excess rain waters down the flavor by slowing the maturation process. It wasn’t ready, but some farmers sold it anyway to get the sales.”
Obviously, selling fresh produce from a local stand that then disappoints isn’t great evangelism for small farms. But Oklahoma, with its treacherous weather, is a difficult place to farm. The state’s peach crop was devastated by a late frost this year. The exceptionally wet July hurt several species of plants. This is the up-and-down cycle farmers expect, but consumers conditioned by the uniformity of products available in grocery stores won’t accept that farming is a vocation with irregular results.
For example, White explained where some blemishes come from on apples. “A wasp will pierce the peel of an apple to get to the juice inside,” she said. “It’s a wasp, so it can’t eat much, so the skin heals over the piercing, leaving a slight blemish. Perfectly natural, and still very edible. That would be irregular produce in many grocery stores.”
White also explained the volatility in egg availability. “Chickens won’t lay when it’s really cold, when they’re molting and when they’re fussy,” she said. “Or they lay less.” Fussy? “Yeah, they get fussy when skunks, opossums or snakes are around. A skunk will actually bite a chicken’s head off and leave the carcass. That might be too much for a magazine story.”
It’s not. It illustrates how far removed we are from the process of food production. We are consumers, by and large, not producers, and as such, we no longer have a sense of what it takes to get food on our plates or shelves. Food has been commodified, stripped of all narrative and presented to us in pristine packaging designed to create an emotional connection, not tell the story of the farmer who killed the skunk to save the chicken to get the free-range eggs into the carton in the store.
In a city with growing but still limited vegan and vegetarian options, Red Cup is a hub for the plant-based diet community. Clark is a vegan himself, but not because of the ethics of animal proteins. “Raising animals for food on this scale is just not good for the environment,” he said. “I love meat, but I gave it up three and a half years ago.”
Clark does work with some organic products; in fact, he said he orders as much as he can. “People say they care about it, but I’m still not sure how much they’re willing to pay for it.”
The joy and satisfaction in running a restaurant is often threatened by customer demands. Customers wanted compostable materials at Red Cup, so Clark obliged, and then he had to raise the prices because compostable cups cost exponentially more than styrofoam cups. Customers weren’t excited about the change. Mass production without the weight of ethical concerns will always yield cheaper products.
Because Red Cup is one of the central hubs for vegans, the demand for more hours is a constant buzz. “We don’t do dinner,” Clark said. “I can’t accommodate all demands. We work hard enough. I want to spend time with my family.”
Both Red Cup and Scratch-Paseo deal with varying levels of customer satisfaction—all restaurants do—but portion size is a big issue for both places, as is product availability. Local costs more, as does organic, and so portion size reflects that, as does menu size. (Red Cup has a surprisingly large menu, though; a tribute to Clark’s creativity with products.)
“When I’m buying produce, I have to ask, ‘Can this be the star of the dish? What is possible with this ingredient?’” Hutton said. “If I buy okra, I need to be able to use it a few ways. Some customers get frustrated with menu limitations, but we’re never going to make Cheesecake Factory customers happy. Once we explain to people what we do here, most are on board with it, and we just hope they tell their friends.”
Hutton rattles off the suppliers he works with: Made in Oklahoma Coalition, Shawnee Mills, Ruzycki Family Farms, Prairie Earth Gardens, even Red Bird Farms Chicken in Colorado. Colorado? Yes, sourcing as close to home as possible means looking close for what you need, and then moving outward in concentric circles. The overwhelming majority of what Hutton buys comes from Oklahoma, and he speaks highly of MIO and farmer’s markets.
“We’re small enough that we can get what we need for the week at markets, typically,” he said. “We spend a lot of time and money sourcing the best of what’s available close to home, and so if customers are driven by bottom-dollar thinking, we’re not going to make them happy. It’s easy to talk about sustainable and organic; it’s harder to pay for it.”
The Farm Table
Oklahoma City became more widely aware of Chef Lisa Becklund when she was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2020. She and her spouse Linda Ford have had Living Kitchen Farm and Dairy in Depew, Oklahoma, since 2009. Becklund remembers the “farm to table” movement of the ’00s, a trend that with rare exceptions was more about branding than reality.
“We don’t talk about farm to table here,” Becklund said. “We’re at the source, so this is a farm table. The difference isn’t just semantic; it’s important.”
Becklund and Ford believe that food grown in a local garden has become the new “exotic.” Before dinners at Living Kitchen, they take guests on a tour of the farm and dairy. The food lands on a plate served on a screened-in porch in one of the two farmhouses on the property. The goal is to put authentic meaning to the “farm table” approach.
“Part of what we do is educate people on why this is important,” Ford said. “The pandemic showed us that an interrupted supply chain is a catastrophe for many businesses, including food production. Local farmers have fewer hurdles, and the local approach is less susceptible to disruption. It’s more expensive, but paying more supports the local economy.”
It’s significant that Living Kitchen doesn’t serve dinner every day, or even five days a week. The operation is small and efficient. Food costs aren’t nearly as high as people expect. Its biggest cost is its staff. “We want our people to have health insurance, a living wage, and be able to build wealth,” Becklund said. “Food is relatively cheap. Other restaurants can do this; they just have to commit the energy and time to doing the sourcing.”
Finally, there are the guests. Living Kitchen is in a unique position to educate them about the whole cycle, including seasonality, nutrient-density, farming practices … all of it. “We encourage them to be flexible in their expectations,” Ford said. “We teach the seasonal approach, and we challenge them about needing the same dish every time.”
Below is a partial list of businesses that produce or sell local and organic products. Presence at a farmers market is no guarantee of organic practices, however, so it’s best to simply ask. If your farm, farmers market or retail outlet produces or sells organic local products, we will happily add you to the list. Email us at email@example.com.