Food Cooperative Sprouts in the Off Season

The fable of the grasshopper and the ant is an allegory for how hard work during good times can prepare a person for the struggles that lie ahead. That rings true for lovers of Tulsa-grown food as it did for their agrarian grandparents before them.
If no one raised his own meat, dairy and eggs and no one preserved summer’s bounty to supplement a cellar full of winter squashes, everyone would be headed to the grocery store for apples grown in Fiji and meat raised by factory foremen rather than local farmers.
As Cherry Street Farmers Market, the largest farmers market in the Tulsa area, came to a close this summer, though, one man had an idea.
“My customers would ask, ‘What am I going to do without your eggs?’ and, ‘I don’t want to have to go a grocery store for my chicken,’” said Wes Downing of Downing Family Farm, 90 miles northeast of Tulsa in Grove.
After some thought and a little hustling for partnerships, Tulsa Clean Food Market was born.
On the Web at cleanfoodtulsa.locallygrown.net since late last month, the virtual farmers market already boasts five vendors and delivers to 200 twice each month.
“The response has been super in Tulsa,” Downing said. “It has already bred spin-offs in the Oklahoma City area. It’s been an extension of our loyal Cherry Street clientele.”
The market, which runs on a software platform based in Athens, Ga., is like the Amazon.com of the farmers market world. Users create a username and password and can then fill a virtual shopping cart with everything from cheese, yogurt and leg of lamb to laundry detergent made from goat’s milk, all with the click of a mouse. Also hosted on the site is a profile of each vendor, as well as frequently asked questions about how the cooperative works.
At the top of the “What’s New” section of the online market are photos of pasture-bound white turkeys grazing at Downing Family Farm. The Thanksgiving centerpiece doesn’t have to come from a grocery store freezer, Downing said.
That is, if one is lucky enough to catch one before they’re gone.
Downing raises between 100 and 150 broad-breasted white turkeys, each weighing between 23 and 29.6 pounds, for Thanksgiving each year. The turkeys, the going rate of which is $4 per pound, spend their lives not in a cage, but roaming a pasture, doing what turkeys do — even playing with the Downing kids.
“It’s pretty small-scale, but we like it that way,” Downing said. “These turkeys have more personality than most people do. They’re entertaining, believe it or not. I have four children, and the kids and I can’t keep from going to visit them.”
The variety of turkey raised at Downing Family Farm is not a heritage variety but is instead the same breed often raised by industrial agriculture companies.
The Downings opted out of the heritage scene because “we Americans are used to the big breasts on the industrial turkeys.”
“The heritage turkeys have smaller breasts, so to keep everyone happy, we opt for the bigger breasted breeds,” Downing said.
Downing also raises up to 5,000 Cornish Cross chickens, revered by area chefs for their rich flavor, as well as free-range beef and pork.
Thanks to the filtering down of the nationwide local food movement to northeast Oklahoma, business at Downing Family Farm doubles every year, he said. Now Downing is preparing to launch a new line of farm-fresh convenience foods, starring free-range meat and eggs in food items like fajitas and breakfast burritos.
Consuming locally raised food is “en vogue,” Downing said.
“Every time there’s a beef recall, our business grows,” he said.
Downing Family Farm got its start when “we gave a Christmas gift of a half beef to some friends who had fallen on hard times,” Downing said.
“During the spring, they had friends over for a cookout, and the guests said they were the best steaks they’d ever eaten,” he said. “They called and wanted more. It snowballed from there.”
While Downing’s products are available in local and statewide food coops, farmers markets and at the retailer Akin’s Natural Foods, Downing said, “what we love most is to do business directly with the consumer.”
“We like to see people drive up to get eggs,” he said. “It’s neat when customers bring their kids to the farm. We like to make that connection.”
Farm-direct is the only way to score a Downing bird for the holiday table this year — that is, if there are any left after the Nov. 21 delivery.
“We don’t raise many of them, and they’re in high demand,” Downing said. “I even have a customer who’s taking her turkey from us on a plane the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. She’s taking it to Los Angeles to prepare it with her daughter, who lives there. She said she’d rather fly with our turkey than buy one once she got there.”
If a local holiday feast is the goal this season, the rest of the meal can be found on Tulsa Clean Food Market and with independent vendors in and around Tulsa. Growers boasting meat, dairy and eggs, as well as produce, include Natural Farms, with two retail locations in Tulsa, and Conrad Farms, offering everything from radishes, spinach and beets to oranges, sweet potatoes and pecans.
“Oh, boy, do we have pecans,” said owner Lisa Conrad.
Conrad Farms is in Bixby at 7400 E. 151st St.
Newsome Community Farms, the birthplace of the North Tulsa Farmers Market, is also still open for business.
“In our community, mustard greens added to meals is big,” said Demalda Newsome, co-owner at Newsome Farms. “The aroma of greens and ham hock resonates memories for most of the African-American community. We have lots of mustard, kale, collards and swiss chard, among some other wild greens. We also have herbs like sage and rosemary.”
“The original spirit of Thanksgiving was created around a celebration of locally produced foods and rejoicing over the achievement of bringing in the harvest,” said Emily Oakley of Three Springs Farm in Oaks, the site of a butternut squash surplus still holding strong from fall harvest. “What could be more authentic or more delicious than returning to the roots of the holiday by enjoying the bounty of fresh food produced by local farmers?”



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