A small-scale organic farm takes root in Oklahoma.
Mike Appel and Emily Oakley harvest spinach on their farm in Oaks, Okla. in preparation for the farmers’ market. Photo by Laura Araujo
Organic farming focuses on building soil fertility, using practices like crop rotation, composting, green manure and cover crops.
In 2002, the USDA approved a set of standards for agricultural operations to be certified as organic. Three Springs Farm has been certified organic since 2007.
Oakley says the number of certified organic farms in Oklahoma is small, but growing.
The 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 traffic and cell phones is replaced by sounds characteristic of the Oklahoma countryside—the rustle of wind through pine trees, chirping birds, and a flowing creek, full with recent rain.
Lake Region Electric Cooperative members Mike Appel and Emily Oakley are in the field early on a breezy spring day. In an era when it is increasingly difficult 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 fields 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, certified 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 accessible,” Oakley says. “On an economic level, there was less competition which made it easier to get into the market.”
Despite minimal competition, the first 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 first 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 difficult 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 difficult location for farming. In addition, the humid weather and long summer days are ideal growing conditions for pests, weeds and diseases.
“Last year we had tropical levels of rain. Before that we were in a drought for a couple years. It happens in other parts of the country, but it tends to be more severe here,” Oakley says.
Community Supported Agriculture
To help mitigate some of the risks that can significantly impact the small-scale grower, New England farmers pioneered a business model in the 1980s called community supported agriculture, or CSA. Before the growing season begins, consumers can buy a membership in a local farm. In return, they receive a share of the weekly harvest.
“CSA makes small-scale farming more viable. Through their membership, customers share in the immense risk, for better or for worse,” Oakley says.
Many small-scale farms put together a basket of produce for CSA members each week. But, Three Springs Farm CSA members are able to make their own produce selections at the farmers’ market each week. Their purchases are deducted from an account balance that they are able to spend as they wish throughout the market season.
Thirteen seasons into farming in Oklahoma, Oakley and Appel have cultivated a faithful customer base of approximately 100 CSA members.
“One third of our income comes from our CSA members. This helps provide working capital during the winter months,” Oakley says. “It also helps to know that when we go to market, a third of our product has already been purchased.”
Benefits of a Three Springs Farm CSA membership include a 10 percent discount on purchases and a weekly electronic newsletter with recipes, photos and stories from the farm. To celebrate the end of the season, members are invited to visit the farm for a tour and a potluck dinner.
Karen Harris is a friend of Oakley and Appel and who gives of her time to help the Three Springs Farm team prepare for the weekly market.
“They have a lot of repeat customers because they have excellent produce,” says Harris, who also sells at the farmers’ market. “I have learned so much by helping them.”
On a two-person farm, Harris’ help is invaluable. They harvest a day or two before market to ensure the vegetables are as fresh as possible.
“If we don’t get the produce picked, no one else is going to do it for us,” Oakley says.
At the end of a long day of harvesting spinach, Appel and Oakley return to the farmhouse with dirty hands and tired muscles—but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a viable career, even though it’s a simpler life. We don’t get a new car every year or spend money on new clothes every month,” Oakley says. “But we get to be home, raising our child together. We have true quality of life. That’s priceless.”
To learn more about Three Springs Farm visit www.threespringsfarm.com or www.facebook.com/3springsfarm. Stop by their stand at the Cherry Street Farmers’ Market, Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., April through Labor Day.