MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

July 29, 2013

Organic farmers dig in

By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer

— A bird chatters inside the barn where Cassie and Andy Herringshaw live.

The Herringshaws actually live in a travel trailer inside the barn. They built the barn shortly after they moved to Muskogee in February to start an organic farm.   

“We’re planning to build a house fairly soon, but we decided to build the barn first, so we could do a lot of our farming things,” Andy said.

“We built the barn with a lot of recycled stuff. The outside planks are flooring from 18-wheeler trucks. This used to be a drive-in theater, so the floor used to be a snack shed and projection house. The trusses are from a building Dad tore down years ago.”

The Herringshaws plan to build a house with straw bales, covered with stucco to keep the straw from decomposing, Cassie explained. Such houses provide ample insulation, she said.

The Herringshaws haven’t always been so close to the land.

“My grandparents had a garden, and I hated it back then,” said Andy, a Muskogee native. “My brother and I used to sell vegetables at a roadside stand in front of our house and passed our summers that way.”

Cassie grew up in Goltry, a community in north-central Oklahoma.

“I helped my grandparents a little with their farm, but neither of my parents were farmers,” she said.

Meet Andy and Cassie Herringshaw

AGES: Andy, 31; Cassie, 29.

HOMETOWN: Andy, Muskogee; Cassie, Goltry.

CAREER: Educators and organic farmers.

EDUCATION: Andy, bachelor’s degree in finance, University of Oklahoma; master’s degree in sustainable agriculture/economics, Iowa State University. Cassie, bachelor’s degree in zoology, University of Oklahoma; master’s degree in stream ecology, Iowa State University.

FAMILY: Andy has two parents, Ken and Vicki Herringshaw, and one brother. Cassie has a mother and stepfather, Carolyn and Rodney Redman; father, Scott Pierce, four brothers and a stepsister. They have a dog, Pepa, and two kittens, Nado and Canie.

HOBBIES: Andy enjoys bicycling, tinkering and alternative energy projects. Cassie enjoys playing guitar and reading.

From college to

organic farming



Cassie and Andy Herringshaw met at the University of Oklahoma. She majored in biology, and he was seeking a degree in business finance.

After getting married in 2005, they received master’s degrees at Iowa State University. That was where their lives turned to organic farming.

“The summer before I went to grad school, I worked at a high-fructose corn syrup plant. I was an accountant,” Andy said, adding that Iowa produces a lot of corn.

And a lot of corn goes into high-fructose corn syrup. The syrup is a sweetener in all sorts of products, including carbonated beverages.

“I decided I don’t want the world to look like that,” he said.

At Iowa State, he learned how agricultural land is used by large farms and processors and by smaller farms.

The couple lived on an organic farm in Iowa, Andy said.

“We lived in a passive solar house, so it could heat itself by the sun,” he said.

The experience inspired them to build a straw bale house.

The two also learned that there was far more to a successful organic farm than compost.

“While it is not hard to garden organically, it is hard to make a business out of it,” Cassie said. “Are you actually getting an increase? It’s easy to have this idealistic view of agriculture.”

Andy agreed, noting that “growing is only half the trouble. Then, you have to market it.”



Helping others

help themselves



After graduating from Iowa State, the Herringshaws spent three years in Bolivia, helping provide water to rural residents. They worked through a community relief agency, the Mennonite Central Committee.

“We didn’t grow up Mennonite, but we liked their approach to international development,” Andy said. “We had a friend who served with them, and they had a position in which the job requirement included riding a motorcycle in the countryside.”

The Herringshaws lived in Moro Moro, a village of about 700 people. They had a mud brick house with concrete floors, electricity and a flush toilet, Cassie said.

But, Andy said, they worked in the countryside, about two hours from the nearest paved road.

Cassie said homes in Moro Moro had maybe a thatched roof or mud roof, little or no electricity and no running water.

Andy said: “Our main job was to coordinate communities to build the water lines. We’d bring the materials, but the community would actually build them.”

Cassie said the 3/4-inch lines would tap into mountain springs. The longest line might have been a mile.

The water was not for showers or washing machines, Andy said.

“Every house got one faucet and a tank with 100-gallon capacity,” he said.

Tapping a slow spring made it harder for a home to get water.

“But it was better than having women haul the water,” he said.



The complicated

business of farming



The Herringshaws are building up their farm before they build a house. They grow garlic, basil, tomatoes, peppers, squash and other produce in a half-acre garden.

“We’re starting small on purpose,” Andy said. “We’re calling this our building year. We’ve been selling at the Muskogee Farmers’ Market for maybe eight weeks this year.”

He said they’re making about $200 a week.

The Herringshaws are learning which produce sells best and which does not. For example, Farmers’ Market customers want slicing tomatoes more than sauce tomatoes and they love okra, Andy said.

Cassie added: “People want lettuce all the time. We tried summer lettuce with some pretty sad results.”

She said garlic has been their best seller.

Andy said he’s learned how organic farming in Oklahoma is not the same as in Iowa.

“Heat matters,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to start tomatoes in spring, but come July, the tomatoes are just dying.”

The couple built a greenhouse to help tomatoes and other plants start producing earlier in the spring. Cassie said she hopes to get a good crop of lettuce before it gets hot.

Produce isn’t the only thing the Herringshaws hope to grow. They have free-range chickens in a mobile coop, which allows the birds to eat from different parts of a pasture.

The Herringshaws also keep bees. Clover on their property will allow them to make lots of honey.

“When we bought this place, we found it has wild blackberries,” Andy said. “That was kind of a fun development.”

Q&A

HOW DID YOU BECOME AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE?

“Our three-year service in Bolivia ended in 2012, and we wanted three things: to be close to family, to farm where we could ride a bike to get ice cream, and to be involved in education. Muskogee was the natural choice since family is here and nearby, land is affordable, and it just feels like home.”

WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT MUSKOGEE?

“It's not too big, and there's plenty to do.”

WHAT WOULD MAKE MUSKOGEE A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE?

“Keep improving public spaces, like the library, bike trails and sidewalks.”

WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING IN MUSKOGEE?

Andy will teach seventh- and eighth-grade math at Ben Franklin Science Academy; Cassie is a part-time biology instructor at Bacone College. Both are organic farmers who sell produce at Muskogee Farmers’ Market.

WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?

Building a straw-bale house, beekeeping, visiting friends.

WHAT OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE DO YOU ADMIRE?

“Doug Walton, with the Health Department and Farmers’ Market, and Cindy Ball, a teacher at Sadler. Both are people who have given amazing amounts of energy and time, professionally and personally, to better our community.”

WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE THING TO HAPPEN TO YOU IN MUSKOGEE?

“Cassie had a flat tire biking and got a ride from an off-duty county deputy. He had to move several guns for her to get in,” Andy said. “Mine was probably when I blew up my first car in a welding accident.”

HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP MUSKOGEE IN 25 WORDS OR LESS?

“Plenty to do, easy to get around — even on bicycle, affordable, pleasant people.”