This idyllic and very productive farm doesn't earn a penny.
Welcome to the Giving Fields in Melbourne, Ky., a 10-acre farm operated by the Freestore Foodbank growing fresh produce for people who can’t afford to buy food.
"The people we feed are at high risk for diabetes and heart disease," says Jennifer Steele, director of community partnerships for the Freestore Foodbank. "We want to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer highly salted, highly sugared processed foods.”
Five years ago, less than 10 percent of the food the Freestore distributed was fresh; most was canned or boxed. Now, 40 percent of the Freestore's food is fresh or frozen, Steele says.
At the Giving Fields, farm manager Molly Jordan grows produce specifically for the Freestore’s food pantry and soup kitchen partners in Northern Kentucky."Our food goes to Northern Kentucky because the need is greater there," Steele says.
It’s easy to see why, since state laws make fresh food less available to Kentucky charities.
In Ohio, the Agricultural Clearance Program sets aside $17 million a year for Ohio farmers to sell surplus or blemished food to food banks. A similar initiative in Kentucky, still in its infancy, allocates only $600,000 for food banks to receive surplus produce annually.
At the same time, the number of Kentucky residents who depend on food donations is increasing. The Kentucky Association of Food Banks reported that 620,100 people now rely on food banks, an 84-percent increase from 2006.
The Giving Fields harvests fruits and vegetables for 117,000 meals in Northern Kentucky each season. Food pantries and soup kitchens receive the produce the day it is picked.
"The Kentucky Department of Agriculture also gives out recipe cards at food pantries so people can learn how to prepare the food we grow," Jordan says.
The farm relies on more than 1,000 volunteers — civic organizations, corporate teams, church groups and others — who work there each year. Jordan alternates rows of crops with wide strips of grass so volunteers can move easily throughout the fields. She also cultivates plants in tall wooden beds so people with limited mobility and senior citizens can weed and harvest, too.
At 10 acres, the Giving Fields is one of the largest food bank farms in the country, according to Feeding America, a nationwide network of U.S. food banks.
The Freestore funds operational costs for the farm, collaborating with Doug and Sheila Bray of Wilder, who own the land, and the UK Cooperative Extension Office. The Giving Fields is now in its fourth growing season.
To volunteer at the Giving Fields, call the Freestore Foodbank at 513-482-7557 or email Tawanda Rollins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ON THE CITY ROOTS CALENDAR
June 7: Gardening for Pollinators Workshop
Honeybees, which are crucial to the production of local fruits and vegetables, are vanishing. Greenacres offers a workshop to learn how to attract butterflies, bumblebees, honeybees and other pollinators to your yard from 10 a.m. to noon at Greenacres Old Church, 8680 Spooky Hollow Road. $15. green-acres.org.
June 9: Garden Basics Class
Pest control, plant disease, watering and water conservation and other seasonal topics will be reviewed in this class offered by horticulturist Bennett Dowling at the Civic Garden Center from 6-8 p.m., 2715 Reading Road. $10; free to Civic Garden Center volunteers. civicgardencenter.org.
June 17: Foraged Foods Dinner
As part of its farm-to-table dinner series, Carriage House Farm features wild and foraged foods from the farm collected by botanist Abby Artemisia and prepared by Nuvo on Greenup. Artemisia will be on hand to talk about local foraging. Dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. at Carriage House Farm, 10251 Miami View Road in North Bend; $125 for dinner, drinks, tax and tip. Tickets available at nuvoatgreenup.com.
June 28: Medicinal and Edible Plant Workshop
Using plants for food and medicine connects us with our ancestors, say Wes and Diantha Duren of Marvin's Organic Gardens. Their workshop at the Civic Garden Center introduces useful plants to grow in home gardens and shows how to blend herbs to make tinctures and teas. From 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Civic Garden Center, 2715 Reading Road. $30; registration required by June 15. civicgardencenter.org.
Williams, who has lived in Madisonville since 1994, wants to grow food sustainably like his family before him. "When I grew up, my daddy and granddaddy grew all sorts of vegetables," Williams says. "My job was to collect horse manure so I could fertilize the garden."
Williams now has his own food-producing plot — a raised bed filled with manure, compost and topsoil built by the Madisonville 500 Gardens program.
Launched by local nonprofit Sidestreams Foundation, 500 Gardens aims to put a food-producing garden in every Madisonville household that wants one. To date, more than 150 families have signed up.
Food production has long been a part of Madisonville's history, says Steve Rock, volunteer director at the Lighthouse Community School in Madisonville. "At one point, there were big agricultural swaths in this region," he says.
Several years ago, Rock started teaching students to raise vegetables. When he saw how much food neighbors harvested from the school gardens each night, he realized how valuable fresh, ripe vegetables were.
"This is a community that knew what to do with good produce," Rock says. "They knew how to cook and use vegetables."
What also was clear, Rock says, was that they did not have easy access to fresh food.
Rock looked at old gardens in Madisonville covered in weeds. He studied productive patches and failed plots and talked to residents. He concluded they needed simple solutions: a small vegetable garden in their yard, a little education and some guidance to help them succeed.
Each resident who participates in the 500 Gardens program pays $50 and agrees to attend a one-hour course about planting, fertilizing and protecting crops. About a week later, Rock and a crew of volunteers arrive.
"We build a 4-by-8-foot raised bed in each yard and fill it with about 35 cubic feet of good soil, " Rock says. "We then match each resident with a mentor who offers coaching and support during the growing season."
Every Saturday and Sunday, Rock and his crew meet at Ward and Chandler, a corner embedded in Madisonville's history. It's here that the Joseph Ward family, Madisonville's first settlers, built three log cabins in 1797 along a Native American trail. Today, volunteers pile dirt and lumber into pickup trucks and move through the streets of Madisonville, building as many as 20 raised beds in a day.
500 Gardens is about more than building beds, Rock says. It's about building community resilience and giving multiple generations of Madisonville residents the skills to grow food.
"We want people to connect with their neighbors, to talk over the fence about their tomatoes, to share meals and swap vegetables," he says.
It's also about making lasting changes in the local landscape. Madisonville has about 5,000 houses. To Rock, 500 food-producing plots are significant. "If one family in 10 participates," he says, "that's a cultural shift."
On the City Roots calendar:
May 8: Farmland
A new documentary by James Moll features five farmers in their twenties: a rancher, chicken farmer, pig farmer, organic crop grower and a CSA vegetable farmer. Since the average age of farmers is nearing 60, Farmland focuses on the renewed attention in the U.S. on young farmers. The movie will be shown at one time only — Thursday, May 8 at 7:30 pm — at the Esquire Theatre. A panel discussion with young local farmers follows the show. esquiretheatre.com
May 10: Shiitake Madness
This hands-on workshop with mycologist Romaine Picasso demonstrates how to grow and harvest abundant mushroom crops on logs. Students will prepare a log for mushroom cultivation and take it home. Saturday, May 10, 2-4 pm at the Civic Garden Center, 2715 Reading Road, $30. civicgardencenter.org.
May 10-June 27: Growing Value
Everyone can have a food forest in his or her backyard, says local permaculture nonprofit This-Land. For a few weekends each year, This-Land sells more than 100 edible perennials — herbs, fruit trees, berry bushes and nut trees — in its Growing Value Nursery in Northside. The pop-up nursery, located next to the Building Value parking lot on Spring Grove Avenue, is open Saturdays only from May 10 to June 27, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or by appointment. this-land.org
May 22: Fabulous Containers: Edible and Ornamental
If you don't have a
yard, you still can have a garden — on your rooftop, porch, balcony or even in
your driveway. Horticulturalists Bennett Dowling and Ali Burns teach how to
grow fresh food and flowers in containers. Jointly sponsored by Park + Vine and
the Civic Garden Center, the class will be at Park + Vine, 1202 Main St. on Thursday, May 22 from 6-8 p.m. Cost is $10; free to CGC