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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Girls on Grass

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Last night for the little fir

De-decorated the tree on Wednesday while listening to Mannheim Steamroller’s “Christmas in the Aire.”  The little fir was still supple and lost few needles.  This was the sad part.  The festive season was about over.  The tree was given back to nature and returned to the outdoors.  It will provide cover in the area where one juniper perished this year, overwhelmed by the bagworms.  The cardinals, small birds and rodents will be happy.

Pasture raised ‘Vital Farm’ eggs are my go-to eggs right now.  The hens at St. Gregory’s, despite the fact they have a movable hen house which regularly visits new pastures, have gone on sabbatical.  Not so with the 200 small family farms under contract with Vital Farms.  These holdings lie in the “pasture belt” of warmer states: Texas to Missouri and east to Georgia.  Here the winters are not so severe and rainfall more ample.  The “Girls on Grass” are let out each morning and roam pastureland to forage for food throughout the day. Land with no pesticides or herbicides. In winter the grasses and bugs may become less plentiful, so their diet may be supplemented with non-GMO corn, unprocessed soybean meal, minerals and nutrients.

John Player Chicken Trading Cards

Vital Farms began on a 27-acre plot of land in Austin, Texas. Matt and Catherine O’Hayer added twenty Rhode Island Red hens.  Their plan to develop a sustainable and ethical business expanded chicken by chicken.  Long-term goals were implemented that involved not only the hens but farmers, vendors, crew, consumers, stockholders and the environment.  

The farms are certified humane by the non-profit organization Humane Farm Animal Care which require strict standards.  Vital Farms ship five million eggs a week. The eggs with intense yellow yolks (higher xanthophyll levels) not only come from humanely raised hens but are certified non-GMO. Vital Farm eggs are sold at various stores in the area.  Costco brand Kirkland eggs, Aldi’s Simply Natural brand and Safeway organic and cage-free eggs are certified Humane.  

Mahard Egg Farm has been in business since 1929.  With laying houses located in Texas and southern Oklahoma, some farms have a dubious reputation involving the treatment of their hens. Don’t be so complacent when buying your eggs.  Life can’t start in the carton since most commercial hens have never seen a rooster.  The hens have no life.  Although hens can actually live from 10 to 20 years, in the egg world hens barely reach two years of age before being dispatched if deemed no longer profitable.  They are looked upon simply as living egg machines.  Humane treatment?  Humane:  showing compassion or kindness.  

Mobile Henhouse at St. Greg's a few years ago

Which is why I will pay more for eggs produced by humanely treated chickens.  The Vital Farms egg carton had printed on the side of the carton the farm from where the eggs had come.  What a surprise to learn it was Sugarloaf Farms near Howe in extreme Eastern Oklahoma.  Howe is five miles from Wister.  In the early 1900’s, my Great-Great Uncle owned stores in both Howe and Wister.  He rode to Howe every day on his bicycle.  The man must have been in great shape considering how rocky and hilly those dirt roads were.  

In 1961 my uncle was putting on his boots while sitting on the front porch in Wister.  Out of the sky fluttered several postcards, all postmarked Howe.  Minutes before Howe (1960 population of 390) had been hit by a horrendous tornado that killed 13 people, injured 57 and destroyed over 50 houses.   Nearly wiped Howe off the map. 

Howe slowly rebuilt.  Twenty-five years ago, Sugarloaf farms was established.  They currently keep 100 free range head of Black Angus cattle on 250 chemical-free acres.  The 200 stately Black Australorp chickens are let out of their houses early each morning to roam the pastures in search of juicy earthworms, small snakes and lush grasses much of the year.  Black Australorps have iridescent black feathers that shine beetle-green in the sun.  An outstanding attribute of each hen is she reliably lays five or more large brown eggs a week. Eggs are collected 3 or 4 times a day, wiped off and refrigerated. Bobcats at the farm had been a problem, but guard dogs have made a difference.  Sugarloaf farming practices have resulted in very healthy cattle and chickens.   

Their namesake, Sugar Loaf Mountain, southeast of Poteau, extends to the Arkansas border.  It harbors bluffs, caves and a spring.  The one mile to summit is a devil to climb.  Belle Starr and other notorious folk were reputed to have spent time at Sugar Loaf.  

The mountain is the highest point in LeFlore County, OK.  LeFlore County was formerly known as Sugar Loaf County, Choctaw Nation, until Oklahoma became a state in 1907.  The name in Choctaw is Nvnih Chufvk (nunih chufuk), which means high hill and pointed object.  Sugar Loaf looks like a 2,560-foot-high green Hershey’s Kiss to me, but others must have seen a cone-shaped sugar loaf.  

Until late in the 19th century, sugar was shipped from sugar plantations as rock-hard cones wrapped in paper.  Sugar liquid was boiled, evaporated, poured into cone-shaped molds with small openings at the ends, each plugged with paper.  When the sugar cone had lost most moisture, the paper plug was removed and a white clay slip was poured into and through the sugar cone to remove the leftover molasses and whiten the sugar.  When that was done, the white sugar cone was tapped out of the mold and left to finish drying. The cones were then wrapped in blue paper.  The sugar nipper, modified pair of metal scissors with sharp blades, was needed to dislodge sugar from the compact rigid sugar cone.  Because of the characteristic shape, all kinds of landforms have been christened sugar loaf. Of the 53 or so worldwide, over 30 Sugarloaf mountains or ridges are in the US!

Newborn tomato-lings

How sweet it is.  Popping up around my indoor ginger plants are green volunteer tomato seedlings.  I hadn’t thought about planting seeds yet, but these guys think now is a good time as any to germinate and grow.  I hope they’re Cherokee Black Heirlooms, but don’t actually know how the seeds got into the pots.  They are doing better than one ginger plant mowed down by a cat yet to confess to the crime.  The stool had been left too close to the plants and provided the ideal perch.  One little ginger sprout down and out, six tomato seedlings up and going.  

Snow trees after our last icy snow.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.