From Silent to Vibrant
Urban Agrarian fosters vitality among Oklahoma’s small-scale farmers and food producers
Urban Agrarian offers consumers year-round opportunities to buy healthy, local food. Photos by Laura Araujo
For Chelsey Simpson, childhood mornings began in the milk barn with her father. As the Oklahoma sun crested the pastures of southwest Oklahoma, their herd lined up for milking, greeting them with anticipatory moos.
She recalls the constant activity of the farm with family members and farmhands coming and going. Her family had tended the land, located on Cotton Electric Cooperative lines south of Lawton, for four generations before she came along.
“It was farming at a human scale. We used machines, but it was very hands-on. There was a lot of connection with the animals,” Simpson says.
But amidst the vitality of farm life, there was a constant undercurrent of struggle. A struggle to make ends meet, to hold on to the family land. She recalls seeing larger dairies pop up near them and force smaller operations out of business. Due to rising feed costs and declining milk prices, the industry trended toward consolidation and large-scale farming.
One day stands out in her memory, perhaps more than any other—the day her dad sold off his entire herd of Holsteins. She had watched him spend years breeding them, proudly and lovingly.
“The farm felt like a very vibrant place growing up,” Simpson says. “What’s startling to me now is that it’s silent.”
A shared passion for local food
Simpson went off to college and pursued a degree in English and creative writing. After graduation, she became editor of Oklahoma Living magazine, a position she held for six-and-a-half years. At the same time she volunteered for the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, a monthly online farmers’ market, even serving a term as its president.
“I wanted to do what I could to help small, sustainable family farms succeed,” she says.
During that time she crossed paths with another volunteer, Matt Burch. He shared her passion for local food.
Unlike Simpson, Burch had grown up in Oklahoma City. But he had spent a season working on a small farm in Georgia. The owner didn’t have time to market her farm, so he would load up excess produce and take it in town to sell to restaurants.
When he moved back to Oklahoma, he discovered there was no one connecting restaurants with fresh, local food. In 2008, he began selling produce out of his garage and delivered it via a mobile “veggie van” that ran on recycled vegetable oil. However, even with as many as 200 restaurants, and pop-up farmers markets, he found the business was quite unpredictable.
In 2011, Burch took a step toward more sustainability and opened his first permanent storefront in Oklahoma City’s historic Farmers Market District. It also offered consumers a location they could go, seven days a week, year-round, to buy healthy, local food. Meanwhile, Simpson was working in New York City. When she moved home in 2017, she joined Urban Agrarian as Burch’s business partner and co-owner, bringing with her seven years’ experience advocating for local food on a national level.
For a number of businesses and farmers, Urban Agrarian represents a significant portion of sales. Photo by Laura Araujo
From food hub to food desert…and back again
Like Simpson’s family farm, Oklahoma City’s Farmers Market District was once a bustling gathering place, but it fell silent over the years.
“The farmers public market opened with great fanfare on June 16, 1928, and it was long the ‘hub’ of farm produce marketing in the state,” historical records read.
Its anchor was a 34,000-square-foot Spanish Revival-style building with stucco walls and ceramic tile roof. Shoppers and farmers came from across the region to buy and sell food at one of the market’s food stalls or in the nearby produce shops.
But over the decades, food distribution trends evolved with transnational transportation, refrigeration, food manufacturing and supermarkets. The once-vibrant food hub dried up and became a food desert.
In 2011, Matt Burch was looking for a location for his storefront and came across the Farmers Market District.
“We stumbled into a building that a friend’s father owned. At the time the district had nothing to do with the farmers market, but it made a lot of sense,” Burch says. “It has been an honor to be involved with the district returning to its history.”
The building that houses Urban Agrarian had originally served as a produce distribution warehouse. The historical integrity of the structure is evident in the solid brick construction with barrel ceiling and sturdy wooden rafters. Today it stands against the skyline of Oklahoma City, the anchor for a new agricultural oasis in the midst of an urban metropolis.
Fittingly, the decades-old building is now home to one of the nation’s longest-standing food hubs—Urban Agrarian. Simpson explains that a food hub is an organization that aggregates and distributes food in order to connect small farmers and food producers with local consumers.
In addition to serving as a food hub, Urban Agrarian has a commercial kitchen where a full-time butcher and kitchen manager process excess food and turn it into salable goods.
“If a farmer has a bumper crop of tomatoes, we are able to turn it into salsa,” Simpson says. “We do everything we can to help farmers avoid waste—because they can’t afford it.”
The grocery store offers a variety of food items including locally available produce, milk, eggs, grass-fed beef, pastured pork and poultry, farmstead cheese, jams and jellies, artisanal pasta, and more.
In October 2018, Urban Agrarian opened a second location in downtown Edmond. It offers a full stock of local groceries as well as fresh cut steaks, hot soups, salads, and refrigerated meals like sweet potato casserole, meatloaf and chicken tikka masala.
Conrad and Helen Boswell are Cimarron Electric Cooperative members who raise chickens on their farm, Woodshop Warehouse, west of Guthrie. They deliver farm-fresh eggs to Urban Agrarian twice a week. Photo by Laura Araujo
Driven by their mission
Since 2008, Urban Agrarian has spent in excess of $3 million with more than 140 Oklahoma growers and food producers—farmers like Luke and Chantée Fisher.
The Fishers farm a small plot of land on East Central Electric Cooperative lines near Bristow, where they grow corn, asparagus and a variety of certified-organic vegetables. Luke Fisher says he has appreciated his decade-long working relationship with Urban Agrarian.
“We are grateful for Urban Agrarian and their customers who have helped us make a living. They pay a premium for local produce and are a steady small-scale wholesale customer for us,” he says.
On an annual basis Urban Agrarian works with nearly 100 local farmers and food producers. They take the risk out of the sale for the farmer by buying the goods outright—rather than on consignment.
“We pay a fair price to the farmers, which means there’s not a lot of margin. For a number of businesses and farmers, we represent a signification portion of sales,” Simpson says. “We do all we can to help keep them in business.”
That includes a weekly produce pickup route. They drive a refrigerated truck to various farms each Thursday to stock the grocery stores with fresh produce for weekend shoppers.
Like the work of the farmer, creating food infrastructure is a constant challenge. Simpson and Burch are seeking out investment to help them continue to improve local food access in Oklahoma. But regardless of the hardships, they say their mission is what drives them to continue—knowing they may be the reason that another family farm does not fall silent.
“There are so many farms across the country like my grandparents’ farm, right now,” Simpson says. “That is what motivates me.”
To learn more about Urban Agrarian visit www.urbanagrarian.com or follow them on social media.