BLANCHARD — It has been more than a decade since I have driven out to Robert and Barbara Stelle’s Sunrise Acres. This certified organic operation has expanded many times since my last visit. The day was dreary and cold, but inside the moist warm greenhouses, thousands of little seeds were sprouting up through carefully tended trays of soil. Each seed offered the promise of life renewed. It was like a glimpse of spring to come.
The Stelles keep a well-ordered cycle of seeds-to- plants going 52 weeks of the year. Making lists together and dutifully tending the plants is an everyday operation. Their diligent work has paid off over the years.
The couple have been a strong presence at the Oklahoma State University-OKC Farmers Market since 1996. They bring a variety of produce and prized bedding plants. Robert is known for his gardening skills and is the go-to guy for when to plant what.
Their website (sunriseacres.mypldi.net) includes seasonal planting guides. Folks who have purchased plants from Sunrise Acres over the years know that each plant comes with Robert’s personal tips and guidelines for growing success. He always has time to visit with customers. I always feel “garden smart” after visiting with him.
Most farmers and producers are creative engineers, and the Stelles are among the most industrious. They always are devising ways to tend and grow better. They bring beautiful, freshly harvested heirloom-variety lettuce to the market weekly from their warm-in-winter, cool-in-summer greenhouses. With Oklahoma’s fluctuations in weather, the fresh lettuce 52 weeks out of the year is a treat, but it is not without diligent effort on the part of these producers.
Robert engineered and crafted clever single-row trays for growing lettuce using guttering as the container. His efficient design allows for easy lettuce clipping with precious little dirt to wash away from the leaves. This enables them to cut quickly for their weekly supply to their customers at the OSU-OKC market.
The cycle of planting and harvesting is orchestrated to keep up with the demand of their valued customers and the changing seasons. Now they are readying plants for spring vegetable gardens. The demand for local organically grown plants is growing.
The Stelles have been supplying Grogg’s Green Barn in Tulsa for three years. This year, due to increasing requests from customers, TLC Greenhouses in Oklahoma City has contracted with the Stelles to supply certified organic vegetable seedlings.
“Every month things change,” Robert Stelle said. “If the lettuce is bitter, it needs more water. As the temperatures rise, it needs to stay cool.”
Robert takes extra steps to comply with U.S. Department of Agriculture rules for organic certification, incorporating manure from a nearby dairy into a seven-field Sunrise Acres rotation plan so produce can be harvested from the field 120 days after application. He calculates the maximum waiting period for all plantings.
It is hard to imagine 80 varieties of tomatoes and 50 varieties of peppers coaxed from seed to seedlings ready to plant in Oklahoma gardens. If you love hot peppers, Robert can supply you with the Bhut Jolokia Ghost Chili pepper, the Trinidad Scorpion or the Naga Viper.
I came home with Candy Onion starts, as well as my favorite kale seedlings, known as Lacinato, Dinosaur or Tuscan kale.
Last year, I was able to harvest some San Marzano tomatoes from seedlings I purchased from the Stelles.
Barbara says things are coming along slowly this year with the harsh winter, but they should have more cool-weather produce available in another 40 days.
The Stelles say they often see three generations of the same families over the years they have been at the OSU-OKC Farmers Market.
It is a pleasure to take a little extra time to get to know an Oklahoma producer. I already drift off to sleep at night planning what my vegetable garden is going to yield this year. It looks as if winter is going to give us some extra time for planning. You can always take a drive out to Sunrise Acres and step inside one of the warm greenhouses and enjoy seeing hundreds of thousands of green seedlings.
Planting Oklahoma seedlings is a way to invest in Oklahoma and to grow Oklahoma at the same time. It is another example of “know your farmer / know your food” that brings us closer to this land we love. Sunrise Acres is a great place to visit an Oklahoma producer.
Sherrel’s Favorite Kale Salad
I can’t wait to get fresh-picked kale from the garden but for now will have to settle for some wherever I can get it. It is best to get organic kale if possible, as all those little nooks and crannies in the leaves that make this unusual salad treatment so good could also hold onto potentially harmful chemicals. I look at a few holes here and there as proof of kale’s organic certification.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
4 to 6 cups chiffonade of Tuscan, Lacinato or Dinosaur kale leaves
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup toasted or seasoned bread crumbs (see directions below)
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
Freshly ground pepper, if desired
•Remove leafy parts of kale from thick stems. Wash in submerged salad spinner basket and spin dry. Slicing the kale leaves into the chiffonade: Lay leaf sections flat on top of each other and roll as tight as possible. Slice into thin 1/4 inch-wide strips and place in appropriate-size bowl.
•Mix vinegar and mustard together, then whisk in olive oil. Pour oil mixture over kale and toss to coat. Sprinkle on bread crumbs and cheese. Toss all together until crumbs and cheese are distributed. Add pumpkin seeds and enjoy.
Sherrel’s notes: Sometimes I find spicy pumpkin seeds at specialty markets such as Whole Foods. These add a little extra punch to this salad that I crave. I enjoy having this kale salad as a side dish to scrambled or poached eggs. If I could, I would enjoy this salad every day! It is a great source of calcium and other feel-great nutrients.
To toast bread crumbs: Spread crumbs on a dry baking sheet. Place in a preheated 325-degree oven on rack in upper middle position for 5 to 7 minutes or until lightly browned.
A Tender Oklahoma Lettuce Salad
Tender fresh lettuce leaves need little dressing for enhancement.
Buying freshly cut lettuce from a producer who is mindful of providing the best growing conditions needed by the plants is the first step to creating a perfect salad.
4 to 6 cups fresh-cut mixed lettuces (washed and refreshed in ice water bath and spun dry in salad spinner)
2 teaspoons Clementine zest
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed Clementine juice
2 teaspoons light fruity vinegar, such as pear or apple cider
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 to 3 tablespoons walnut or pecan oil
•Whisk together zest, juice, vinegar and salt, then slowly pour in oil while whisking into an emulsion.
•Drizzle dressing over freshly prepared greens and toss to lightly coat. Serve at once.
Sherrel’s cooking notes: This fresh-cut lettuce is so delicate it stands alone with a very light dressing. Tomatoes and other vegetables only weigh down the lettuces. The salad can be accented with a light sprinkle of honey-roasted sunflower seeds or finely minced crisp bacon. Use no more than a teaspoon or two of either.