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Julie Shannon discusses plans to plant more trees, including a community orchard, in Tahlequah during the Sustainable Tahlequah event Saturday at the Armory Municipal Center. Photo by Betty Ridge

Tahlequah’s future may not be exactly a Norman Rockwell illustration, but members of Sustainable Tahlequah have visions that could return many old-time values to a contemporary world.

During the first official gathering Saturday of Sustainable Tahlequah, which recently became an affiliate of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, participants discussed these ideas:

• Expanding the Farmers’ Market and community garden that already exist.

• Developing a network where producers are listed and consumers can find a place to buy the locally-produced items they need. Although much of the meeting focused on foods, members said this could also include other products.

• Establishing a community kitchen where people could get together to can and preserve foods that are grown locally.

• Educational efforts, including gardening classes.

• Old ideas such as barter (trading what you have for something you need that someone else has) and neighbors getting together to share the labor of planting, harvesting, building fence, etc.

The meeting included a forum, a pot-luck dinner, and screening of the academy award-nominated film, “Food Inc.”

Many of the people attending the meeting already have experience with organic gardening and other efforts to produce what they need in an earth-friendly manner. Others were interested novices. Some had gray hair, while others were students, in college or in lower grades.

They described their motivations and their experience.

“What brought me here from Wisconsin is the better weather in the wintertime, and the rural atmosphere,” said George Kilmer, who has opened an organic farm in the past.

He now gardens, on a more limited scale, on his property in rural Cherokee County.

“I had great experiences and grew wonderful tomatoes there last year,” he said.

John David Cutrell gardened in Pennsylvania, before moving to the Sparrowhawk community.   

“One of the things that attracted me about coming here was a community with interest in gardening,” he said.

He has worked with the Sparrowhawk community gardening, and with establishing a gardening class, in cooperation with the Cherokee Nation’s Healthy Nation program, to get families interested in gardening.

This year’s gardening classes will begin at 10 a.m., March 27, with the location to be determined later.

“We’ll cover all the basics and get started with gardening,” he said. “We’ll assist anybody who wants help during the summer.”

The program will buy compost, mulch, and other gardening materials in bulk, and have a small garden for children. Call 207-9107 for information.

Cutrell said participants will learn that gardening can be a fun and rewarding activity. He’d like to get teachers more involved with teaching gardening in the classroom.

Julie Shannon has been a member of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network since 2001, before she became Tahlequah’s city planning director. She works with the sustainability movement because of her individual interest, but also can coordinate with city efforts. The city has obtained a grant to plant fruit and nut trees, and Shannon would like people’s input on where to plant these trees to improve the environment and be accessible to the public.

“She wanted to do a project where you have urban orchards so people could have access to really healthy foods,” said Julie Gahn, who has been active in the Tahlequah community garden and the Farmers’ Market.

“I’m interested in increasing the tree canopy in Tahlequah. We’ve lost a lot of trees in ice storms in recent years,” Shannon said.

Gahn said Tahlequah’s community garden is beginning its third season. She has experimented with small-plot intensive gardening. She favors a permaculture approach, which tries to mimic the natural ecosystem.

Gahn said the Farmers’ Market will offer Saturday seminars with different educational topics, with one or two sessions each week. The schedule will be announced by April 1.

Cutrell believes the sustainability movement will be exciting for Tahlequah residents.

“Look at this as an opportunity. If you have something you’re really passionate about, we’re not limiting ourselves,” he said. “We’re in diapers yet as to what we really want to do. Sustainability is big. It’s about anything that will keep life going in the lnog term. There’s a lot of things we can do.”

Kilmer said sustainability addresses economic as well as environmental issues.

“It seems like we have an economy that is growth-oriented, but we have this finite planet. How do we keep on growing forever?” he said.

Oil, especially, is a nonrenewable resource that is being consumed rapidly, he said.

Charles Anderson said he is just learning about gardening and sustainability, but he has participated in the garden at Go Ye Village. That garden is testimony to gardening as a lifelong activity, and a way to keep fit.

“Some of our residents are in their mid-90s and they’re still gardening, hoeing in chairs,” he said.

“I think recycling is a very important part of sustaining our community,” said Mary Jane Saeger, who has been active in the local recycling program, as well as the CARE Food Pantry.

Coleen Thornton operates Heaven Sent Food & Fiber, a 60-acre diversified farm in the Welling area.

“This will be my first full year of farming in Oklahoma,” said Thornton who operated a market garden in the Dallas area before moving here. “My husband and I do believe that food will be the new currency. We believe in community and in working together.”

Thornton said the local Farmers’ Market plans a more broad-based marketing effort this year, in conjunction with the educational programs. The group wants to raise awareness, especially among children and young people, about the importance of healthy foods and nutrition.

She wants to see a network of growers within a 50-mile radius, so people can eat as many locally-produced items as possible.

“Tahlequah has the ability to pretty much feed itself,” she said.

“Oklahoma imports almost 50 percent of its food, and has the ability to grow almost all of it,” Gahn said. “We all have a passion about food.”

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