Sowing seeds of community service
Of all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe of God, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and the result thereof.
-- Julie Moir Messervy
WORTHINGTON -- A seed of an idea was planted about a year ago, resulting in a harvest that far exceeded all expectations. A community garden planted and tended by church youths has so far yielded 1,600 pounds of produce that has been donated to the local food pantries.
"Some of the middle school youths from our church -- some are in high school now -- were having a Bible study, and we were talking about oppression, about what they could do in our town," explained Amy Loker, youth and family minister at First Lutheran Church in Worthington.
When the idea of planting a garden to feed people was broached, Loker knew it could be a valuable service project, but one that would exceed the manpower resources of her youth group.
"I knew we couldn't do this alone, so I approached the youth ministers association at first about it and got them on board," she said. "If one church tried doing this alone, I knew it would be too difficult."
The Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership donated the use of land located behind the Viking Terrace Apartments on North Burlington Avenue. The plot wasn't measured, but Loker estimates it to be at least an acre. Gardening tools, a shed and other necessary implements were also donated.
Choosing what to plant was a "random" task, according to Loker.
"We didn't want stuff that would be too hard" to grow, she said. "And we wanted it to be something that people could use. So we chose tomatoes, peppers -- jalapenos with the demographics in Worthington as something people would be familiar with -- a few different kinds of squash, cucumbers. We also had beans as a late planter. We collected them in five-gallon buckets and would get five or six (buckets) of them in one harvest."
A number of local churches committed time to the project through the course of the growing season.
"Each church had a week; they contacted me and let me know what weeks they couldn't work, and I put out a schedule," Loker explained. "Once school got started, people from Solid Rock Assembly have been going out and working every Tuesday, and our church has been going out every Sunday, and more members have gotten involved, not just the youths. For the last month, we've had parents working alongside the kids -- even some grandparents out there and some other members who don't have kids. It's great for the kids to be working alongside the adults and seeing the harvest. One day we filled up my husband's truck bed with the produce. The pantry couldn't believe how much we actually had."
The volunteers were able to weigh each load as it was dropped off at Manna Food Pantry at Westminster Presbyterian or the Worthington Christian Church pantry, and the first 90-pound harvest was a milestone.
"After that, it wasn't odd to have over a 200-pound harvest," Loker noted. "We alternated between the two food pantries, trying to keep it equal, since different people frequent the different pantries. Sometimes when we brought it in, there would be people there picking up food and they would immediately pick out some tomatoes and squash, so we definitely saw it getting used."
The influx of produce was very much appreciated by clients at the food pantries, according to Dennis Weeks, chairman of the Manna Food Pantry board and interim coordinator.
"It came in at opportune times," said Weeks. "Basically, we do not buy produce, but it's in high demand. Clients can come in once a week for bread and perishables, but it's the produce that they really want. ... And the youths that brought it in, I can't say enough good things about them. They were so friendly, and I think it was good for them, too."
The growing season was not without its struggles. Frost claimed the bulk of the garden's cucumber plants early on, and eight inches of rain in one week wreaked havoc with mud and weeds. More recently, getting enough water to the plants became an issue.
While there's still some produce yet to be harvested, Loker and the work crews are looking toward the end of the growing season.
"Now, we're getting to another not-so-fun part," she said. "I have somebody lined up to till everything up this fall, and we have to lean up all the tomato cages and plastic. We still have a lot of tomatoes that haven't turned."
Brainstorming has also begun on how to improve the effort for next year.
"Looking at what we need to do and what we need to change, the toughest things were watering and weeding," Loker said. "We know we want to do soaker hoses and put down farm plastic -- what they put over silage. That's the idea for next year -- line between the rows with plastic and put down a soaker hose for each row. We'll still have to drag a hose over there to hook it up, but not through the garden like we had to do this year."
Loker would also like input on other items that would be good to grow in the garden.
"We'll probably do fewer tomatoes next year, because we seemed to have an overabundance of those," she said. "I don't want to do sweet corn, because there's a lot of that around and the Christian school does it for a fundraiser. Besides which, I can't grow sweet corn to save my life. We're working on getting a lot of the plants started through the middle school, with the after-school program, and that would be lots of help."
Donations of gardening materials are always appreciated, Loker added, but more important will be a commitment of time and effort in order to keep the project viable. She'd like to see people from throughout the community get involved.
"People can contact me at First Lutheran if they want to be involved," she said. "If people want to donate or want to work next summer, or maybe there's an organization that wants to team up with a church of a week. We had a couple of churches team up this year. We already have our planting date set for May 12, weather permitting -- that's a week later than when we planted this year."
The garden project has far exceeded any expectations Loker and the volunteers had when they began planning and then planting five months ago. They hope to continue to harvest produce -- and a spirit of community service -- for future years.
"It's been my baby for the past year," said Loker, who is expecting a real baby in a couple of months, "and I've been really happy with how successful it's been, how willing to serve the churches and youths have been. You really feel like you make a difference. We do service projects -- every year we do the Pirates for the Pantry and collect a goodly amount of food with that -- but this is another way to give, in terms of duration. People are always saying they want to see the youths serve here. This is a good way for those youths who go on mission trips to also serve in their own hometown."