Elia Woods & Pat Hoerth: Friends Share a Common Commitment to the Thriving of All Life
BLUE THUMB CALENDAR 2021 FEATURED PRODUCERS FOR FEBRUARY
Editor’s Note: The Oklahoma Blue Thumb Calendar highlights important information about conservation, has a featured producer(s) in the months of February through October, and provides contact information for both Blue Thumb staff and Conservation Districts. Plus, this year’s project includes an in-depth producer(s) feature story, such as the one following. If you would like a copy of the free 2021 Blue Thumb Calendar, please contact Blue Thumb Program Director Rebecca Bond at Rebecca.firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Elia Woods and Pat Hoerth: Friends share a common commitment to the thriving of all life”
OKLAHOMA CITY – The fall of 2020 marks 10 years since a small group of people began meeting with the intention of turning vacant lots in an area of Oklahoma City into productive green spaces that would benefit the local community. Since then, many more people have joined in to initiate and develop the urban farm, composting site, and educational programming. This has come to be known as CommonWealth Urban Farms.
Two of the individuals who are deeply involved in CommonWealth are Elia Woods and Pat Hoerth.
Hoerth was was born and raised on a farm 7 miles east and one mile south of Billings, Oklahoma. “It is Mixed Grass Prairie,” she said. “My grandfather, who was too young to make the land run, worked for a homesteading family and bought their relinquishment when they decided to move away. He lived in a dugout with his wife and two young children.”
She said he eventually had 9 children, his wife died and he remarried her grandmother and they had four sons.
“My father farmed with his father when my father returned from WWII,” Hoerth said of her father Henry Bellmon, who would serve as the 18th and 23rd Governor of Oklahoma. “Over time, they raised sheep, cattle, milked cows, grew grain crops, and alfalfa. When I was growing up there, we raised turkeys, sheep, cattle and 2,000 chickens. My mother ran the egg operation, with the help of my two sisters and myself.”
Hoerth grew up there and attended school in Billings. Then in the ninth grade she started attending school in Oklahoma City.
“My father kept the farm running and also worked away,” she said. “It was my home until I graduated college. I have returned twice in my adult life to live in that area; the last time, I returned to live on the farm. Five years ago, I moved to 32nd street in the CommonWealth Urban Farms community in Oklahoma City.”
Woods was born in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio and mostly grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She moved to Oklahoma City about 40 years ago.
Hoerth and Woods laugh when they realize they grew up hearing the same expression from their parents, “Turn out the lights when you leave a room.” In part, it was a way of teaching a lesson about conserving resources.
Growing up, Hoerth saw conservation in action through her father, who “put land from time to time in soil conservation district programs.”
“He allowed a flood control dam and reservoir to be built on the farm,” she said. “He built ponds on the farm. He taught us about the importance of terracing. He would not work his fields over and over as many farmers did at the time. He tilled in the wheat straw and didn’t work it much after that, except with a cultivator while planting the next wheat crop.”
Woods parents grew up during the Great Depression, and were generally frugal and thoughtful about resource use.
“They didn’t like wastefulness,” she said. “My dad grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. My mother grew up in Tennessee near the Smoky Mountains and had a profound love and appreciation for the outdoors.”
That desire to take care of the land is still very much a part of both today.
Woods lives in Oklahoma City, a few miles north of the downtown in an older neighborhood. They have lived on the same block for over 35 years.
“Our urban farm is composed of several lots where houses were torn down, plus a few front yards,” she said. “All total, it’s less than 1/2 acre. I live on the same block as the farm, and there is an abundance of plants everywhere. The community on our block is very special to me because we all know each other, and many of us have a keen interest in gardening, sustainability, and mutual support.”
Hoerth said the area is special because of its plants and its people.
“Many of us grow trees, food and pollinating plants in front, side and backyards,” she said. “We share a common commitment to the thriving of all life. We use methods that are non-toxic. Though we live in separate houses, we support and share with each other.”
Conservation has been a part of Hoerth’s life for a long time, but has increased in recent years.
“My sister and I started a retreat center on our family farm to teach sustainability and the spirituality of creation,” she said. “We took the Blue Thumb training and monitored monthly Doe Creek, which ran through one of our farms. And where a 20-year-old beaver community lived. Beautiful wetlands, adding to the water table.”
She added, “At our retreat center, we taught people about life cycles on the prairie. We showed them buffalo wallows, the beaver dam, dung beetles, virgin prairie grasses, the stars at night, etc. We showed them how to build recycling bins, how to build bee hives and care with bees, raise chickens, cook for the Earth—all sorts of workshops and retreats.”
Hoerth annually attends The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival, and has also attended the Noble Research Institute workshop on hoop house building. She toured the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and attended the Oklahoma Sustainability Network’s annual conference.
“Besides learning healthy practices, these helped us find community and support for our work,” Hoerth said. “The Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival, with speakers and field tours, is what inspires us each year to keep doing what we are doing and learning more along the way about why what we do is important and how to do more.”
Hoerth said they received DEQ grants to establish raised bed gardens and a composting program at their local elementary school.
“One month when we went to talk about compost, we took two buckets of soil with us: one from our composted garden and one from the wheat field,” she said.
The children planted six bean seeds in two pots, with the different soils. The next month when Hoerth went back, all six beans in the composted garden soil were germinated and growing strong. The seeds in the wheat field soil did not germinate.
“We were shocked and horrified—as was the teacher, a wheat farmer,” Hoerth said. “The soil was my greatest teacher.”
Hoerth said that during the 10 years of living back on the family farm, learning, practicing and teaching at our retreat center, “I blogged about the land, the life there, our learnings, our work there. People came and learned and attended our retreats.”
Those visitors also said, “We’re so glad you’re out there doing that.”
“I want all of us to do these things and I realized that the people coming to learn lived in the city and they would be trying to apply what they learned to their lives in the city,” Hoerth said. “Eventually, I moved to Oklahoma City, to CommonWealth Urban Farms, where healthy farming practices are being used; where community support is strong; where people who live in the city come to see and learn how they can practice conservation/sustainability where they are.”
When asked about some conservation practices applied, Woods said, “We’ve planted several pollinator gardens and a hedgerow, and we don’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers. We want those beneficial insects! We compost everything that can be composted and have added tons of finished compost to our row crops. We collect rainwater and use a drip system for irrigation, and have protected the areas prone to erosion. We rotate crops, mulch, and plant cover crops.” In turn, they have seen numerous benefits.
Woods shared that they have seen the quality of the soil change from heavy red clay to dark, friable soil. Their vegetable production and the overall health of the farm has increased with the improvement in soil quality.
“We see beneficial insects all over the block now, and it’s a source of enjoyment for all of us, as well as reducing pest pressure on crops,” Woods said. While they enjoy helping others, they also continue to learn. Woods said, “Lately, I’ve been learning more about native plants, and am grateful to Marilyn Stewart with Wild Things Nursery for her vast knowledge and experience with native plants, and her enthusiastic encouragement and coaching. She’s such a believer in native plants – it’s contagious! It’s great to be with people who recognize that water and soil are priceless, irreplaceable gifts.”
“Gifts” is a very significant word. They realize what they have been given and they want to share with others. Woods provides an example.
“We’ve had so many volunteers over the years help with our composting operation, and then start composting at home,” she said. “Or we’ve had volunteers help with the pollinator gardens, then start their own pollinator garden. It’s a very satisfying feeling to see people putting these things into practice!”