Dinner at the Farm
The Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy celebrates local foods in rural Oklahoma
The Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy has 100 laying chickens, 20 dairy goats and 3 acres of crops. Photo by Laura Araujo
A single bite of garlic altered the course of Lisa Becklund’s life.
The Washington native and classically trained chef had worked in the restaurant business since age 14. As a restaurant owner, Becklund became well-known in Seattle, and even nationally, for her Sicilian-style seafood dishes.
Little did she know when a farmers’ market opened across the street from her restaurant in 1998, her life’s trajectory was about to change.
“There wasn’t a lot of buzz about local foods at that time. But when I walked into the market, I was enamored,” she says.
Meeting the farmers who grew her food impacted Becklund deeply. She was drawn to their warmth and authenticity, something she was not accustomed to in the restaurant business.
Becklund describes her work as a restaurant chef as a performance—she invested her energy in transforming ingredients into classic dishes, creating an illusion of perfection.
“Farmers can’t do that. There’s an honesty, a rawness, that comes from growing from the soil and knowing you’re not in control,” she says.
One day, a grower at the market gave her a clove of Oregon Blue heirloom garlic and told her to eat it raw.
“It was life-changing. I tasted the sweetness. It had so many layers of flavor,” she says. “I realized I had missed it. All these years of cooking and I didn’t know anything about food.”
Chef becomes farmer
Linda Ford (left ) and Lisa Becklund (right) serve farm table dinners at their farm near Depew, Oklahoma | Photo by Laura Araujo
Becklund’s garlic-inspired epiphany compelled her to trade in west-coast living for life on the farm.
“I wanted to change my identity,” she says. “I wanted to be on the other side of the farm booth, exploring the origin of vegetables.”
One of the servers at Becklund’s restaurant was a native Okie, and her father happened to be a vegetable farmer. So Becklund took the opportunity to intern with him in eastern Oklahoma for a year.
She ended up staying in Oklahoma and starting her own farm. For the next nine years, she made a living as a vegetable grower, selling produce at the Cherry Street Farmers’ Market in Tulsa.
Becklund started out with next to nothing: 7 acres of land, a hoe, a rake, a small tractor, and minimal farming experience. Despite her hard work, she struggled to pay the bills.
“It was very tough. The restaurant business is hard, but not nearly as difficult as farming,” she says. “I got to the point that I was so broke, I was going to have to move back to Washington or figure out something else.”
That was when Becklund came up with the idea for a farm table dinner. Some friends owned a lavender farm, and she prepared a five-course, lavender-inspired dinner. Twenty people attended the dinner, held at Becklund’s home, and it was well received. She cooked another one; then another. The dinners grew in popularity and she went from one dinner a month to two dinners a month. However, Becklund still wanted to devote her energy to farming.
In 2009, she began leasing the 400-acre Oakley Family Farm located on East Central Electric Cooperative lines near Depew, Oklahoma. The property came with a cabin, which enabled her to host more guests for dinner. As the demand for her dinners grew, Becklund shifted her focus away from selling vegetables at the farmers’ market to growing food for meals at the Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy.
Now, each weekend evening—April through December—approximately 40 guests travel to the farm, located on an unpaved country road, to partake in one of the freshest dinners grown from red dirt.
Gathered at the table
More than a meal, an evening at the Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy is an experience that has been curated with intentionality. This is evident as soon as guests arrive. Linda Ford, who manages the business side of the operation, welcomes visitors and offers them a tour of the farm. She introduces guests to their goats, llamas and chickens, shows them the Living Kitchen gardens, and explains their growing process.
Through the tour, guests have the opportunity to learn about the origin of their food and become acquainted with both the beauty and the hardships of farming in Oklahoma.
“We are able to help people who have lost touch with where their food comes from to gain a sense of that,” Ford says.
After touring the farm, guests head to the back porch of a rustic cabin for a meal. Each farm table dinner is planned around a seasonally relevant theme: from an Heirloom Garlic dinner in late June to November’s Modern Larder dinner, focused on fermentation and food preservation. Dinners include seven or eight courses and showcase locally grown ingredients, many of them harvested fresh at the Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy.
With each meal, Becklund strives to prepare dishes that represent the produce in its purest forms.
Photo by Laura Araujo
“It’s not my job to change the vegetables, but to serve them in a way that brings the glory out of them,” she says. “I owe that to the vegetables.”
Becklund says that people often come with the idea that they don’t like a certain vegetable, but after trying it on the farm, they change their mind.
“We’ve made many beet converts over the years,” she says.
All Becklund’s ingredients, except oil and salt, are sourced locally. Even the wheat is Oklahoma-grown, milled by Living Kitchen Sous Chef Cat Cox, who often bakes fresh bread as part of the meal.
Another aspect of dinner at the Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy is the opportunity to slow down and savor good conversation while appreciating the beautifully plated dishes.
“The Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy is a place to celebrate a special occasion, to celebrate life in Oklahoma,” Becklund says.
To facilitate an atmosphere of shared celebration, guests are seated at a long table, next to people they might not know—upon arrival at least.
Ford enjoys watching guests make connections with one another, often exchanging contact information at the end of the evening.
One of those guests was Katy Oakleaf, a Tulsa resident and former Alfalfa Electric Cooperative member.
“Visiting the Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy was one of, if not the best food experience, I have ever had. The combination of the freshest food prepared by those who are passionate about their craft made for a unique dining event,” she says. “It’s been almost a year since I was there for the first time, and I can still see the colorful vegetables and beautiful presentation, taste the unforgettable flavors, and hear the conversation and laughter of close friends.”
Ford adds, “We live separated in every day life, but the table connects us. We’re not as divided as we think.”
Life lessons from the farm
Rural Oklahomans likely have a better idea than most about where the food on their table comes from. Many are well-acquainted with the hardships of growing in sandy soil, the frequent weather changes, hot summer days with little rain, and bugs galore.
It might not be surprising that Becklund, the sole farmer at Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy, spends 80 to 90 hours of her week raising heirloom vegetables and tending to their 20 dairy goats and 100 chickens.
The early days on the farm were especially difficult. Becklund’s first growing season was a complete failure. The soil lacked nutrients and anything she added to it was carried away by severe erosion. She says the soil quality was so poor that even Bermuda grass wouldn’t grow.
“People often think of farming as taking care of plants, but it’s really taking care of the soil,” Ford says. “If you take care of the soil, the plants will take care of themselves.”
With help from a surveyor, Becklund moved dirt on the property to prevent flooding and erosion. Recently, she built raised beds to help concentrate and control nutrients. Becklund uses organic farming practices whenever possible, which means she avoids adding fertilizer to the soil. Instead she plants cover crops, uses compost and sometimes manure. She says it has taken years to build up the soil, but the result is healthy and delicious-tasting vegetables.
“The soil is the foundation of everything,” Ford explains. “It is the basis for flavor and health.”
Another challenge of farming in Oklahoma is bugs: aphids, Colorado potato beetles, blister beetles and harlequin beetles, to name a few. They can multiply quickly and destroy a crop in days. Becklund tries to control bugs with organic pesticides, applied at nighttime, in order to prevent impact to pollinators.
One of the most difficult seasons on the farm was the severe drought that began in 2010. At the time, Becklund had a flock of 150 sheep. Due to the lack of food, Becklund had to move the sheep pen daily. But the ground was so hard she had to drill holes into the earth every time she moved the fence posts. She purchased feed to supplement their diets, but in the end, she had to sell the entire flock. She says this is just one of the many hard lessons she’s learned in 15 years of farming.
“After that, I don’t ever complain about rain or mud,” she says. “One of the things I’ve learned from farming is I’m not in control. I can prepare for weather, but I have to be okay with what it is.”
Though life on the farm is not easy, it’s a life Becklund is grateful to embrace.
“There’s a lot of joy in it,” she concludes.
At the end of a long day of farming, Becklund watches as guests, gathered at the farm table, take a bite of tender over-wintered greens, an earthy spring-harvested beet, or a ripe heirloom tomato—sweet and tart at the same time. Perhaps, like her bite of garlic, they taste the true glory of the vegetable for the first time. And that makes her journey as a farmer-chef worth it.