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Farm to Table in Oklahoma - Phocas Farms

11 December 2015

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The early morning autumn sunlight flickers across rows of broccoli, still damp from the morning dew and waiting to be picked. Mary Katherine Hill, a second-generation farmer at Phocas Farms, snaps off a piece and takes a bite.

“I love being here. Every day I’m on the farm, I leave happy. I love this place. It sounds cliché, but there’s something amazing about connecting with the earth.”

Phocas Farms, named after the patron saint of gardeners, Saint Phocas, is nestled into the heart of Edmond. Located on a looping residential drive, most people drive past the farm without ever noticing the rows of produce or bounty ripe for picking. Eight years ago, Mary Katherine’s father, Steve Hill, took the skills he has learned throughout his ongoing career in the ranching business and began farming. Initially, he thought his wife was crazy when she suggested he begin farming the eight acres of land they lived on. Now he loves the challenges, opportunities and satisfaction that come from farming. One of the hardest parts of his job has been caring for the land and making it habitable for the planting seasons. After years of neglect, Steve has worked hard improve the Oklahoma soil, which he is quick to admit is “a continuous process.”

Upon entering the farm, the first thing you’ll notice is a row of “hoop houses.” These houses protect the crops from Oklahoma’s ever-changing elements. The walls roll down from the top to the bottom depending on the weather, but there is always a section around the bottom of the house left up to protect the plants from the intense Oklahoma wind. Additionally, during wet seasons, these houses may also prevent plants from drowning in too much water. They play an important part in Phocas Farms’ operations, typically adding an extra 30-45 days of production onto both the front and back of the spring and fall seasons, by slightly modifying the weather conditions. Eventually, the Hill family would like to build a greenhouse and practice year-round farming techniques, one of their many dreams.

After experiencing the difference these hoop houses have made to their operations, Steve Hill and his son, Andrew, have ventured into a new business, building hoop houses for other farms. While the business has already shown much promise, Steve readily gives credit where credit is due. "Without the resources and support provided by my wife, or the hard work of Mary Katherine as she runs the farm, we would not be able to operate this new venture. This is a great opportunity, but it's only possible because of the work of the two women." Indeed, the support and respect each family member has for each other is obvious. From the hard work Steve's wife, Lisa, puts in behind the scenes to provide the farm with the resources it needs, to the energy the two kids bring to the table in the daily farm operations, every member of the Hill family is fully invested in the future and success of Phocas Farms.

While their start in the farming world may have been unexpected, the family behind Phocas Farm has embraced the farming lifestyle and local community with open arms. Partnering with the local school district, they current supply a portion of carrots per week for school children. Mary Katherine has led elementary school field trips around the farm, and these experiences have only solidified her belief that teaching people where their food comes from is one of the most important and rewarding lessons in building a healthy lifestyle.

“To see children who have never been on a farm come out here and pick a carrot – they had no idea where their food came from or what it looks like before it’s been processed – and they are amazed and in awe of what they see.”

Phocas Farms 

In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report detailing the amount of fruits and vegetables each state consumes on average. Oklahoma ranked the lowest out of all 50 states for fruit consumption, and was one of the 10 worst states for vegetable consumption. In addition, Oklahoma has consistently ranked poorly for overall health. In 2014, it was ranked the second worst state in the union for cardiovascular health, third for diabetes, and fourth for chronic lower respiratory diseases. Many of the diseases and health issues faced by Oklahomans can be attributed to the lack of proper nutrients and a lack of physical activity. At Phocas Farms, the Hill family has seen the remarkable ways eating fresh, locally grown produce affects their health in a positive way. By eating locally grown produce, you are providing your body with the best possible nutrients available. There are several major benefits to consuming produce grown in your area.

More Nutrients

When you purchase produce from a local farmer, it was likely picked shortly before your arrival and contains the optimal amount of nutrients. If produce has traveled a far distance to get to your plate, it has often been treated with various chemicals to maintain its freshness and has lost much of its nutritional value. The shorter the travel time between picking and your plate, the higher the nutritional value of the produce.

Seasonal Benefits

While many grocery stores have conditioned us to believe that all produce can be found year-round, it is important to recognize the seasons of produce and only purchase items grown in their seasons. When you shop locally, you are purchasing produce at the time when it tastes the best and has the most nutritional value, rather than produce that has been picked before its desired ripeness and transported over a long distance.

Consumer Knowledge

By shopping from local farmers, your awareness of the production process is heightened. In addition, purchasing local produce promotes a safer food supply and helps support the local economy. The more steps between harvesting food and delivering it to your home, the higher the chances of food contamination. By purchasing locally grown food, you eliminate the need for shipping and distribution and the contamination that may occur during these processes.

One of the most rewarding parts of Phocas Farms’ operations is their involvement in Community Supported Agriculture, known as CSAs. These programs allow a designated number of households to sign up every season and receive a bag of freshly picked produce per week. They currently have 25 households involved in their program, and are hoping to expand in the next few seasons. Mary Katherine and her father Steve laugh as they talk about their customers. “The first time they come, we try not to hug them. But by the second trip, they’ve become like family and we all hug each other!”

Walking through the farm, Mary Katherine explains how they could grow a large amount of cash crops, items like asparagus, lavender and tomatoes, for a quick profit. However, their customers love the variety of produce they are able to provide every season, so she cannot imagine a day when they become a cash-crop-only farm. The look of joy on people’s faces as they explore what’s in season and learn to cook with new items is incomparable.

Mary Katherine has not always been involved in her family’s farm. When her father first began farming eight years ago, Mary Katherine and her brother were not interested in learning the new family business. At 13 and 14 years old respectively, one of their first experiences on the farm was when their dad instructed them to spend the summer building a fence around the property. At eight acres, the task seemed enormous. Years later, Mary Katherine laughs at her reluctance.

Phocas Farms Plants 

More than a year ago, a dear friend to the Hill family, had to stop helping out at the farm and find work elsewhere. After just a few months in his new location, Mary Katherine saw the enormous difference between the benefits of working on the farm and the negative effects of an office job in his life. This event inspired her to go back to the family farm and help out, opening her eyes to the mental and physical benefits of farming. As a psychology student at the University of Central Oklahoma, Mary Katherine is passionate about researching and pursing Horticulture Therapy. Eventually, she would like the farm to become a place where the elderly can visit and enjoy the land and the benefits of being outside in nature.

Showing their ingenuity, the family is currently experimenting with a product called the Garden Anywhere Box, which is small quantities of produce planted in a movable box. In the future, Mary Katherine hopes to open the doors for both children and the elderly to care for their own boxes and be responsible for the care and upkeep of their produce. Horticulture Therapy offers many benefits to society.

As the dew begins to dry on the rows of produce and the sun slips higher into the sky, it’s easy to understand why Mary Katherine finds the farm to be a therapeutic place to work. Farming is a tough life filled with unpredictability. Oklahoma’s seasons can be extreme, and even with the best of care, some years are much more successful than others. At Phocas Farms, the smallest of changes affect the farm, so every row and every crop is treated with care. When Steve Hill first started farming, he had no idea this project would grow and evolve into what it is today. He is quick to say that, as a parent, getting to work with his kids every day is one of the best things to do this side of heaven.

Phocas Farms is a family affair. From planting to harvesting and everything in between, it’s clear to see that the family behind the farm loves every aspect of their job, and wants to continue making a positive impact in their community. Mary Katherine’s eyes light up as she walks through rows of tomatoes.

“Understanding where your produce comes from is one of the most important things in the world, and we get to be a part of that.”