HULBERT — The rancher behind the wheel of the flatbed pickup isn't wearing tan Carhartt's. He's wearing a black monk's habit.
And there's no tiny feed store calendar stuck to the dash.
Instead, there are two medals. One is what has come to be called the “Miraculous Medal” with an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, surrounded by the prayer, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.”
The other is the “Medal of St. Benedict” and in his right hand he holds the cross.
The rancher, Brother Joseph Marie Owen, 59, is among 41 monks at Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek Abbey tucked away in eastern Oklahoma between Fort Gibson Lake and Hulbert in Cherokee County.
Owen, who grew up in an Oregon family that raised sheep and cattle, looks at the medals to the right of the steering column and explains, “We have those on all our equipment, the chain saws, just about everything. There are just so many graces that come with those, protection.”
Even though there are differences, many more commonalities exist between Owen and others in agriculture. He talks about clearing trees to improve the grazing rate. He talks about using the wood in a “high-tech furnace” as the primary source of heat for the monastery.
He talks about terraces and going from two or three regular-size ponds to 19 little ponds “that will catch what we call surge events, or big rains.”
He listens to the croaking of frogs near the bank of one of those ponds.
And Owen notices how Badger and the other Great Pyrenees were right there with the sheep when the monk parked the dented flatbed at the pasture's gate.
“They protect the sheep from coyotes,” Owen said.
While prayer is the focus of the monastery, agriculture is very much an everyday part of this life. Some of what is raised, both in terms of the animals and garden, is consumed while some is sold. They have sheep and a few dairy cows.
Currently, most of their beef cow herd is grazing in Wyoming because of Oklahoma's ongoing drought.
In the garden, according to the particular season, the monks raise tomatoes, squash, mustard greens and much more.
“Being from the city, I wouldn't have believed it,” said Abbot Philip Anderson, who grew up in Kansas City, “but it makes a difference when you have really fresh vegetables.”
Stewards of the land
A monk's day is essentially divided into eight hours of prayer and study; eight hours of various types of work, administrative tasks or manual labor; and eight hours for eating, relaxing and sleeping.
Abbot Anderson, who supervises the monks at Clear Creek Abbey, appreciates not only what is going on within the walls of the monastery, but also what is being accomplished outside in terms of agriculture.
“We are trying to use the natural resources here a little better by cutting down on the dead trees and letting the forest live a little more, with a little more light in the trees,” Anderson said. “We have sheep, and there's kind of a symbiosis between the sheep and the forest. You improve the forest by thinning it out a little bit so the trees can grow better. And with a little more light, more natural grasses grow. Then the sheep will come in the forest and eat the grass.”
Anderson appreciates how Owen and others are studying the contours, building the small ponds and/or ditches. He also compliments how the monks, with the help of students from several colleges and universities, are planting fruit trees along the banks of these.
While these steps will help the land overall, they are especially significant to the sheep at Clear Creek Monastery.
Owen's habit flutters in the March breeze.
Wearing Caterpillar brand work boots, he crosses the pasture into a herd that includes about 200 ewes. Some are nursing newborns as other members of the flock graze.
“As a monk farmer and rancher, my responsibility is taking care of the animals,” Owen said. “Like all ranchers, we're in the business of harvesting solar energy and transforming that through the animals here.”
Owen said these are hair sheep and not wool sheep, adding “We're not interested in the wool here.”
So the sheep serve multiple purposes, he said. First, they help maintain the place.
“They'll eat stuff, most people call them weeds and brush, that cattle really are not interested in.” Owen said. “They help keep the weeds down.”
Second, the sheep provide meat, both for the monks and to sell.
“We are also harvesting the lamb obviously, and we've had quite a success through the Oklahoma Food Cooperative.”
Sarah Whitten, member care manager for the cooperative, said, “We're like the delivery service and marketing service for producers. So we help them connect with people all across the state interested in ordering Oklahoma goods directly from the producer.”
The monks have made other connections, including participation in the Rural Smallholder Association within their immediate area. This is a group of primarily small ruminant producers, sheep and goats, but the nonprofit organization is open to any farmer or rancher with an interest in additional farm management education, or in exploring possibilities for increasing revenue and improving profitability for their individual farming enterprises.
Owen said they are working on establishing a partnership with local restaurants and others. Income received by the monks is used toward operation of the monastery.
“We're going to get some of them back pretty soon, because we do sell beef to the co-op,” Anderson said.
The monks are also milking about three to five cows. One of the monks is from Wisconsin and he has made cheese all his life.
“We make cheese that's very remarkable, we just can't make it fast enough,” Anderson said. “Stores want it. We sell it right here.
“We also consume a lot of dairy products, yogurt and things like this, in what we eat.”
So like many ag operations today, they are diversified.
And like many agriculture operations, they are willing to accept challenges — sometimes with humor.
In this rocky terrain, Owen was asked, what type of soil they have?
“We found some,” he said, and then smiled.
Ranching here may be different from where he grew up in Oregon.
Regardless, Owen has embraced it.
“In the song ‘Oklahoma!,' remember, ‘We belong to the land and the land we belong to is grand!' Owen said. “There's a lot to that.”