Despite the rainy weather yesterday morning, the W.C. grounds crew was hard at work harvesting the second round of vegetables from the college farm to be donated to Sugartree Ministries. We delivered three crates full of produce to the food pantry just before noon, when the majority of the families come for lunch and to pick up whatever donated food is available.
In the crates were: 155 banana peppers, 60 squash, 45 zucchini, 23 cucumbers and 21 tomatoes. Allen said that the night before, Tuesday night, they fed 250 people, and Wednesdays are always their busiest. So we started bagging up veggies as fast as possible to beat the 12 o'clock rush, and we finished just in time.
Yesterday was the first day for tomatoes, and they added a nice burst of color to the bags of produce. Volunteers at the food kitchen told us that people were grabbing the bags as fast as they were available last week, and I can only imagine they went even faster this week with the addition of bell, banana and jalapeno peppers, and the tomatoes.
As the number of gardens around town grows, we are getting donations from more places and from different families. In an effort to personalize this garden-to-family transaction, we are starting to put labels on each individual bag telling where the produce was harvested. The more we can visualize where the food is grown, the better understanding people will have of how it got to their table.
Sonja, our Research & Data Collection Coordinator, gave me the official count yesterday of total veggies donated in the past week: 882. In 7 days. We're excited about that.
For the past few weeks, Eric, Dessie and I (John) have been helping a local couple with an unruly and badly overgrown garden on the side yard of their property. They (Pam and Gabe Strasser) had allowed another local couple to plant the garden in their yard, so long as they tended it often enough and made use of the vegetables that they would sow. Well, after a few weeding sessions, the unnamed couple decided the patch was too much work and left it to be reclaimed by the spindly arms of nature.
Enter the VISTA crew, who received an email from Gabe about three weeks ago asking if we'd like to help get the garden back into shape, and in return we could harvest whatever produce was salvageable for ourselves or donate it to Sugartree Ministries. Though they would very-much like to work in the garden themselves, both Pam and Gabe have health issues which keep them from being able to do much manual labor. And, frankly, this garden required a lot of manual labor.
When we arrived for our first weeding session two weeks ago, the vegetable plants and the weeds were almost completely indistinguishable. The zucchini and squash were far overgrown, the too-small tomato stakes were bowing under the weight of the plants, and the smell of rotting lettuce was thick and lingered in the far corner of the bed. We got right to work, pulling up every weed we could, harvesting the squash, zucchini and green peppers, and re-staking the tomatoes. (Unfortunately, some potatoes and onions were lost in our indiscriminate weeding frenzy.)
It wasn't until after we had filled three trash bags to the brim with weeds that I had the bright idea to take a picture of the garden, so the full effect of a before-and-after picture will have to be left to the imagination. The pictures in this post are from last night, our second time in the Strasser's garden. Finally, the plot is starting to take shape again, and Pam and Gabe have been great company. They even cooked us dinner the first night.
So far, we've harvested four or five grocery bags full of zucchini, squash and peppers from the garden, and we included all of it into our bulk Sugartree donations from the college farm.
We have plans to go back for another night of weeding and maintenance next Wednesday. Pam has already made clear that we aren't leaving without dinner, and that's absolutely okay with us.
After last week's productive harvest of all the zucchini, squash and beets from the community garden, we decided to take out some of the spring plants entirely and re-plant new crops. Apart from the tomatoes and green peppers (and a few new tomato varieties that one of the families transplanted last week), the beds were looking pretty empty. So today the Wilmington College grounds crew planted four cucumber seedlings per bed and four different herbs: basil, thyme, sage and oregano. Tonight is the second 'Tuesday Harvest' since it's been voluntary, so hopefully there will still be a good number of families out tending to their plots and new plants.
In addition to the new cucumber seedlings in the community beds, Monte, Randy and the crew transplanted the rest of the cucumber seedlings out at the college farm, where the different varieties of squash and peppers are really fruiting nicely. The first batch of ripe tomatoes are days away from picking, and most of the banana pepper plants that have already been picked-through are ready again for a harvest.
One thing that I noticed today while walking around to the different beds was the number of ripening tomatoes that showed signs of Blossom End Rot (BOE), that frustrating physiologic fruit disorder that plagues calcium-deficient tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. The rot typically affects the first ripe fruit of the season, which can make it an even more frustrating find for the eagerly awaiting gardener. BOE means your plants are requiring calcium faster than your soil can give it, and thus the fruit develops a dark decay-spot on the blossom end (the bottom) of the fruit as the outer wall of the fruit continues to develop. The cause of the disorder can be found in several places, but most commonly in two: in acidic soil, where the pH level is less than 5.6, and in inconsistent watering patterns, in which the soil is allowed to dry out or flood. Both cases can be remedied (soil can be limed to balance out the pH level, and a consistent watering pattern will keep the soil moisture steady), but the fruit that is affected is almost always inedible, because it ripens too quickly.
I counted three tomatoes out of the 40 or so in the VISTA plot that had BOE or the early stages of it, so thankfully that's a relatively small number. I'm not sure if the soil has been tested recently, but that seems to be a logical first step in finding the root of the problem.
The Wilmington News Journal published a nice half-page, full-color spread today of our YMCA event at the Demonstration Garden. You can read the online version here, but I recommend picking up a print copy today if you can. The layout is nice, and the color photos really add to the story.
We really can't thank the kids at the YMCA enough for their willingness to learn and their excitement for gardening. Youth outreach is a big part of Grow Food, Grow Hope, and in the coming months we are going to be involved in several gardening projects at area elementary and middle schools.
The morning was perfect for a day in the garden, and the kids arrived ready to get their hands dirty and their thumbs green. They paired up in groups of two and were given a vegetable from Maggie, who told them to locate the plant in the demonstration garden where the vegetable came from. They learned the basics of composting and crop rotation, and munched on green beans, cucumbers and vine-ripened tomatoes. Phil donated soil, seeds and personal pots for all the kids to plant their own cucumber, which they could take home and watch grow.
While one group of kids spent the first part of the morning in the demo garden, another was learning the life-cycle of a plant, from seed to fruit. Eric and Mariah organized a game of rock-paper-scissors, and the kids progressed from seed to seedlings, from seedling to flower, and from flower to fruit. After the game, they put on a skit about food production and learned the benefits of buying food straight from the farmer.
It was refreshing to see kids so eager to learn about where their food comes from, and to be able to take home their own cucumber plant which will bear fruit in just a month or so is no doubt going to have a lasting impression on them. If we can teach kids early-on about the importance of nutritious foods and gardening in general, hopefully that will stick with them as they grow up and pass it on to their own children. That's sustainability at its best.
Today Eric and Dessie delivered our very first food donation to Sugartree Ministries, which feeds more than 200 people daily and is stretched especially thin in this current economic climate. Monte Anderson and workers from the Wilmington College physical plant picked 234 banana peppers, 20 zucchini, nine squash and eight cucumbers, all of which were grouped and bagged individually to be handed out to families in need.
This is just a fraction of the food that will be harvested from the community gardens and the college farm, but it's a very good start. We are extremely grateful for Allen Willoughby and everyone at Sugartree for what they provide, and we are hopeful that we'll be able to supplement their outreach with some nutritious and locally grown food.
On Friday of last week, the Columbus Dispatch ran a story about the growing number of farmers' markets in Ohio. In three years, the number of markets and roadside produce vendors has risen from approximately 500 in 2006 to more than 800 this year. That change has been tangible, as the benefits of nutritious, locally grown food have been better publicized and more widely recognized both regionally and nationally.
As the story mentions, farmers' markets have only recently had access to credit and debit card transactions, a lag that has progressively widened the gap between growers and an increasingly cash-wary consumer base. Still, only a handful of markets are able to process credit cards, mostly because the $1,100 cost to set up the needed infrastructure is too steep for market managers or volunteers. But several states are now providing that resource free-of-cost to markets, and even paying the monthly fees that come with the service. It's all in the name of increasing people's access to healthy, local food, and it's already catching on.
As I mentioned in a post last week, several markets in our region allow the use of food stamps at their location. In the end, it's a win-win situation: people in need are able to buy good food, and growers are able to sell to a previously untapped customer base. Now we just have to publicize this resource as best we can, and hope it continues to spread.
Today, Eric and I walked over to the Demonstration Garden at Denver Park for a meeting with some of the volunteers who maintain it. Our topic of discussion for the day was composting: the park has agreed to save a portion of their grass and tree clippings for composting, and we will start saving the weeds, leaves and stems of anything we harvest from the garden. We talked about potential designs for a composting bin and where would be the best place to put it.
There are many different designs and methods for different types of composting, but the most common factors that differentiate between bins are size, number of compartments and materials used. For my personal backyard garden, which is a modestly sized 4x7 ft. plot, I use a circular wire-mesh design, as illustrated in this bin-building tutorial. Because the demonstration garden is small but big enough to require a bigger bin than the one I use at home, we decided to go with a three-compartment design, which is illustrated at the bottom of the page that I linked to above. The purpose for the multiple compartments is to separate the organic matter that is in different stages of decomposition. For example, you wouldn't want to add freshly pulled weeds to compost that is already a few months old and well-decomposed; it's best to keep a few piles of each. We designated a spot for it, and we are aiming to have it built and ready in the coming weeks.
The rest of the time was spent weeding, admiring the fast-blooming plants, and sampling some of the ready-to-pick herbs and vegetables. The green beans, turnips and basil were all ready to pick, and we also took some green onions, parsley and dill.
Eric is also in the process of organizing a composting program here at Wilmington College, and Sodexho, our food supplier, has agreed to partner with us on that initiative. More updates on both projects to come...
The short segment was a great introduction to our initiative, and hopefully many people in southern Ohio who were tuned in to Channel 5 saw it. Already, we've received positive feedback from people outside of Wilmington, and hopefully the inbox will continue to fill up as the day goes on.
Yesterday, our Farmers Market & Buy Local Food Coordinator Dessie Buchanan and I took a daytrip to Wyoming, OH, a northwest suburb of Cincinnati that operates one of the best weekly farmers markets in the region. The weather was sunny and nice, if a little hot, and we were excited to visit and shop at another local market.
One aspect of Dessie's service as a VISTA is researching regional markets and bringing back any insight or advice to ours in Clinton County. There are about 20 markets in our region, but Wyoming consistently ranks among the top of those, so we started in Cincinnati.
Along a quiant, store-lined street in downtown Wyoming, eleven vendors were set-up in a small parking lot adjacent to a railroad track. Fifteen or so shoppers were already filling bags with fresh food at 3:10, ten minutes after the 3:00 start time of the market.
The Wyoming market vendors, like most markets at this time of the growing season, featured some of the usual staples: squash, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, greens, etcetera. But there were a few unique vendors which immediately stood out. Chuck Pfahler and his La Terza coffee booth was one of those. Espresso machines are not exactly typical at farmers markets, but Pfahler had a line of customers waiting for his iced coffee, espresso and tea for most of the day. What's more, Pfahler roasts his own beans in a method he created, and customers say they can taste the difference.
A couple other unique vendors were Blue Oven Bakery from Williamsburg, OH, Debbie of Blackbird Pond soaps, and Andy's Backyard Honey (who were so nice and enthusiastic, and gave Dessie and me free bottles of fresh honey after talking about our VISTA experience!).
We were excited to see some familiar faces at the Wyoming market, specifically Sandy Ashmore from That Guy's Family Farm. Sandy and her husband Guy operate a 48-acre, certified organic farm in Clarksville, OH, right down the road from Wilmington. Another Clarksville farm, Walnut Ridge Acres, was also selling yesterday afternoon. Jon Branstrator of Branstrator Farm, another Clinton County farmer, is normally a staple at the Wyoming market, but he was unable to make it yesterday.
Along side the growers' booths yesterday was a demonstration cooking tent, where Julie Francis, chef/owner of Nectar in Mt. Lookout, was busy sauteing squash and eggplant for a ratatouille dish. She scrambled some fresh-farm eggs, sliced a ciabatta bread bought across the alley from Blue Oven Bakery, and topped it off with the sauteed veggies. A garnish of capers and fresh parmesan completed the bruschetta-like dish, and the collective moaning and sighing from the crowd who was eating it summed up how it tasted.
The most important thing that Dessie and I took away from our trip was some learned information from a conversation with two of the market's managers, Penny Shore and Britt Hedges. They were the recipients of a $1,000 grant to set up the infrastructure required to process food stamps at their market. That is our biggest priority as VISTAs working in the local food movement: making fresh, nutritious food available to the people who otherwise are unable to afford it. The Wyoming market also processes credit cards, which is a HUGE benefit to the market.
Dessie and I are staying in contact with Penny and Britt, and we hope to soon start implementing some of the strategies that make Wyoming's market a success.
The Columbus Dispatch ran a story in it's Sunday, July 12th paper that featured the Grow Food, Grow Hope community garden and Mark and Taylor of Energize Clinton County. The coverage is great for our project, even though there is no mention of our specific initiative, and we are excited to have our first taste of regional media coverage. Kathy did a nice job featuring some of the families and the Tuesday night atmosphere at our weekly harvest meeting. It's great to see the families, like the Joneses and the Gillises, get attention for their part in a very successful community garden. "Hope, gardens nourish town DHL left," (7/12)
That said, the latter half of the story was unfortunately misquoted at times and didn't represent ECC in the way they should have been. Because this is the first time the Dispatch has covered ECC (CNN, NPR, the A.P., Cincinnati Enquirer and Dayton Daily News have all stopped by to write about them, some a couple times), many words were spent on the background of the organization. As Mark and Taylor told me this morning, that story is 8-months-old, and most of the exciting things they are working on (Green Enterprize Zone, local food economics, et cetera.) get less coverage because of the necessary backstory. This is sometimes the problematic nature of regional media coverage: our local media is, at times, better able to tell our story, because they are part of the community they cover. The Dispatch story as a whole was good-- the garden aspect was more or less spot-on, which makes the rest of the story bittersweet.
Regardless, we're grateful Mrs. Gray was able to come to Wilmington and highlight some of the exciting initiatives we've undertaken, and we look forward to more interaction with our capital news media.
Yesterday was a great day to be outside and in the dirt, so I (John) decided to shadow Eric and our trusty grounds crew out at the Wilmington College farm on Fife Avenue. The farm is one of several that the college operates, and this year for the first time (on this scale) we are growing a variety of crops to donate to Your Father's Kitchen, a local food pantry operated by Sugartee Ministries, and other organizations.
The vegetable plots are situated on a hilly expanse in the front acreage of the farm, visible from both Fife Avenue and the 4-C Bicentennial Trail that snakes around the land. We're currently growing potatoes, tomatoes, corn, pumpkins, more than five varieties of peppers, squash, okra, muskmelon, cantaloupe and several others. The tomatoes, potatoes and whatever else we can harvest in bulk will all be donated to the food pantry, to try to supplement the truly amazing amount of food they provide for the hungry in our community.
Yesterday, Eric, Kyle and Allyssa (the latter two from our grounds crew) were planting Tomatillo tomatoes and tying up the ever-growing tomato plots that dominate the back swathe of land in the garden. We tend 13 different tomato beds with 40 plants in each bed. Considering one healthy plant typically yields 20 lbs. of fruit, our 520 tomato plants will produce more than 10,000 (!) lbs. of food. It's no wonder Monte and Randy wanted to plant a similiarly large amount of peppers; we'll have a lot of salsa to make.
The farm should be bursting with color in the coming weeks, with the peppers and tomatoes and squash only a few weeks away from being ripe.
The New York Times Magazine this weekend featured a well-known figure in the sustainable agriculture world, Will Allen, of Growing Power farm in urban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Allen has succeeded in growing large amounts of food in relatively little space, using every square inch and resource in the 14 greenhouses he has crammed into a 2-acre plot. He is especially known for his love of worms, the main actors behind his revered compost and composting operation, which takes thousands of pounds of city waste annually and converts into rich, "near-perfection" soil. "Street Farmer" (7/7/09).
Allen has been recognized nationally for his work fighting poverty through urban agriculture: in 2005, he received a $100,000 Ford Foundation grant; in 2008 he was the recipient of the esteemed MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, which itself came with $500,000. And in May, Allen received $400,000 from the Kellogg Foundation to create jobs in urban agriculture. With that money, he's been able to harvest more than $250,000 worth of food each year for the hungry in his city.
Allen's Growing Power farm is featured in the soon-to-be released sustainable ag documentary "Fresh," which we are trying to get screened here in Wilmington, partnerning with Energize Clinton County. "Fresh" has been labeled as the partner film to "Food, Inc.," which was released in June and aims to expose some of the problems with monocultures and Big Agriculture. "Fresh," on the other hand, doesn't focus primarily on the detriments of Big Ag, but rather on the benefits of small, sustainable farming operations that are practicing responsible methods of growing.
Will Allen is a model of what local food should be, and hopefully this surge of publicity will only add to his success.
Last night at the community garden we harvested bags full of fresh squash, eggplant, beets and some seriously overgrown zucchini (see pictures below.) One of the difficulties of meeting only once a week to harvest is the varying speed of growth between all the plants. Zucchini and squash that might be under-ripe one day are sometimes ready to pick the very next. Once zucchini grows past a certain weight, a lot of its flavor is lost. When they grow to the size of some of our zucchini, the best way to prepare them is through zucchini bread or cake, which take puréed or grated zucchini.
It was fitting, then, that Monte and Tara prepared zucchini cake and bread, respectively, for the families and one of the W.C. classes that were at the garden last night. The kids especially liked the cake, and the families and the volunteers took home recipe sheets for both.
There are only two more organized harvest nights planned for the summer, and after that it will move to a voluntary basis. Make sure to come out before the Tuesday Harvests are done!
To see more photos from last night and other Tuesday harvests, click to our Flickr or Facebook pages.