Thursday, April 26, 2018

Tahlequah Woman Highlighted as Significant Woman in Oklahoma Agriculture

Marla Saeger

The fruits of tomorrow are a result of the seeds of today. 

For Marla Saeger, those seeds were sown as a young girl in her father’s garden. 

“That’s where my love of food began,” Saeger said. “I learned so much about raising food.”

Saeger’s father, Marvin Easley, raised a variety of fruits and vegetables in his garden. Born in the great depression era, it was how his family survived. As an adult, he spent hours researching in books and magazines. 

“Burgess Catalog and the farmer’s almanac were staples,” Saeger said. “He even worked with the tides and the moon. He knew to do the trilogy of corn, beans and squash growing together.”

The more time Saeger spent in the garden with her father, and canning in the kitchen with her mother, the more her love for raising food grew. She still has the tomato juicer they used to process tomatoes.

“He was definitely a big inspiration in my life,” Saeger said of her late father. 

With a couple of freezers full of produce, it is no surprise that eating vegetables comes natural to Saeger. 

Her decision to become an accountant also came naturally. Her dad was an accountant. 

“I was doing bookkeeping while I was still in high school,” Saeger said. 

After graduating from Broken Arrow High School in 1979, Saeger studied Economics at Oklahoma State University for three years. In 1982, Saeger married her high school sweetheart Bob Saeger and the two moved to his home town of Tahlequah. 

“He’s my rock,” Saeger said. “This week is the anniversary of meeting 41 years ago. We met at a church camp north of Sallisaw when I was 15 and he was 17.” 

After moving to Tahlequah, Saeger transferred to Northeastern State University to finish her accounting degree. 

Though she is a property manager, bookkeeper and accountant professionally, there is no denying what her true passion is. 

“The Tahlequah Farmers Market is my happy place,” Saeger laughed. 

This is Saeger’s eighth year serving as President of the Tahlequah Farmers Market Board. When she began in 2010, the market had been established a few years prior. Saeger did not waste any time finding ways to build on the existing foundation. 

She was a founder of Double Up Oklahoma, a statewide healthy food incentive program modeled from the Fair Food Network’s program that doubles the value of SNAP spent at participating farmers markets. She is still active in the program and participates in the statewide conference call each month. 

Her passion for growing the market to its best is undeniable, and her excitement contagious. 

When asked what her biggest role at the market is, her response was “hugger in charge.” 

“My absolute favorite thing is the relationships built throughout the years,” Saeger said. “We love our vendors and customers, we are like a family, and we would not be the market we are without them.”

Saeger said they strive to make the market a community event, a destination for people to enjoy coming together. They have introduced live music to the market every week with harps, bagpipes, soloists, a celtic band, and even an 8-string quartet. 

“I’ve worked really hard to create a comfortable space and a place for people to get fresh vegetables,” Saeger said. 

The hospitality booth now features free infused water, iced tea, ONIE calendars and literature, recipes, and reusable shopping bags and market t-shirts for sale. Additionally, the market features a food specialist and nutrition expert who prepares samples for every market.

A testament to the community atmosphere they have created at the market was their opening weekend. Unpredictable Oklahoma weather brought 28 degrees, sleet and snow for the first weekend in April, but there were still vendors and 105 customers at the Tahlequah Farmers Market. 

“We advertise rain or shine, I never thought about advertising sleet or snow,” laughed Saeger. “Our group is committed and dedicated. 

While the market has undoubtedly benefitted from her joy in being involved, it has also benefitted from her knack for numbers. 

Saeger began keeping numbers for the market in 2014 to track the growth of sales. From 2014 to 2017, their sales increased from $46,000 to $125,000. 

Saeger said they are the third most viable farmers market in the state. 

She has also been instrumental in the market’s unique farm-to-school program that targets third-grade students specifically. They take a mini farmers market to the school, one class of third graders comes to the market at a time, they receive a bag full of literature and 12 “veggie bucks” to go shopping at the market. 

“I become ‘Mayor of the Market’ and really ham it up for them,” laughed Saeger. 

She said she was blown away by how many students had never seen a fresh vegetable. 

“If you think about it, that’s true for a lot of students,” Saeger explained. “They see it in a bag, a can, a casserole or on a sandwich, not as a fresh product. But allowing them to meet the farmer that grew it is even better.”

Until recently, she and Bob had their own garden, but with all of the vendors at their market, Saeger said they have more than enough produce. In fact, she recently began another new project dehydrating, fine milling and vacuum sealing veggie powders. 

“They are great for soups, dip mixes, thickening sauces, and more,” Saeger said. “I made cheese balls for Christmas gifts from the veggie powders.” 

While there is no way to know what the future holds for the growth of the Tahlequah Farmers Market, one thing is for sure, Saeger is sowing the seeds with love.

Special by Betty Thompson

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