Farmer finds niche in ethnic veggies

Monday, September 13th 2004, 6:17 am
By: News On 6

MARLOW, Okla. (AP) _ Surrounded by cattle and wheat, Leroy Barton has found an agricultural niche catering to Koreans.

The Marlow farmer's adventure in raising exotic vegetables began when Barton started planting petters years ago.

As his pepper plants grew, so did the business.

Supplying Mexican restaurants across southwest Oklahoma with his fiery produce, Barton began planting Napa cabbage, the primary ingredient of kim chee, a mainstay of the Korean diet.

``I was raising the cabbage and a Korean woman found out,'' Barton said. ``She asked if I could grow some other stuff, and it just went from there.''

Today, Barton grows Korean vegetables 10 months out of the year and Korean nationals from across Oklahoma make their way to Marlow to pick the fruits of their homeland. The majority of customers to Barton's pick-your-own vegetable market two miles east of Marlow come from Lawton and he also supplies a handful of Korean restaurants there with produce.

On the days Barton isn't around, customers are asked to weigh their own pickings and a sign next to the scales lets them know how much their produce will cost. A drop box for the money is fastened nearby and Barton relies on honesty to get his payment.

``Some pay; some don't'' he said. ``Those that don't are the ones that have to live with themselves. Not me.''

His assortment of Korean foods includes the cabbage, 4 pound radishes, a melon that resembles a cucumber, eggplant and sweet potatoes with a white flesh and little sweetness.

``I like American sweet potatoes a lot better,'' Barton said, eyeing where the Korean variety had been planted.

He has even become a courier for the Koreans, traveling to Lindsay each year to pick up a load of soybeans used to make a food paste.

And Barton still keeps his American customers happy as well. Although a hail storm wiped out this year's crop of cantaloupes and tomatoes, he recently planted black-eyes peas, and squash and cucumbers can always be found.

Born in eastern Stephens County, the 74-year-old Barton claims to have been a farmer all his life.

``People ask me what I did the first couple of years,'' Barton said, with a smile crossing his weathered face. ``I tell them I milked and spread manure.''

Recruited by his mother to help in the garden at an early age, Barton has spent a lifetime with a hoe in hand and dirt under his finger nails.

He farms more than 20 acres at his brother's house on Hwy. 29, where the Korean vegetables are planted. He also has a small garden at his home and there's a plot of ground in the city of Marlow that Barton tends as well.''

``If I didn't enjoy doing it, I wouldn't be doin' it,'' Barton said. ``I'm definitely not in it for the money. There's a lot of things a man can do to make more money for a lot less work. This is just fun.''