Once again, Old School Produce Partners, which is a 501c3 non-profit organization brings a harvest that will assist area food pantries across Benton County. For the last 3 years, the project has helped to put food on area tables. Last year the garden produced 8,600 pounds of food. Greg Walston said that there would have been more but that the derecho damaged the tomato crop. This year the goal is to bring 6 tons or 12,000 pounds of fresh food to the area food pantries.
The garden located at what used to be the old West School grounds, and is now the site of the Benton County Access Center, has filled the shelves of 9 food pantries in Benton County and then helped 2 food pantries also in Iowa county in the past. The operation hums along with the help of many, many, MANY volunteers in the area. There are some that might donate just a few minutes and some that donate several hours, days, weeks and months to make sure that the garden continues to produce.
The garden fills the stomachs of anyone in need in our area. The garden isn't an organic garden. This year the garden produced around 3,000 pounds of potatoes alone! Along with potatoes, the volunteers have grown rhubarb, onions, tomatoes, kohlrabi, leeks, three varieties of squash, butternut, acorn and delicata, carrots, tomatoes, chives and dill.
Walston of the Benton County Extension coordinates the effort to plant, grow, harvest and distribute the fresh vegetables from the gardens. He said that while he's the coordinator, he is just a small part of the success of the gardens. For example, the local Ag students from Vinton-Shellburg came to help with the potato harvest digging, cleaning off, and moving to storage that 3,000 pounds of potatoes that will help feel the community. The Ag students that came out to help were freshmen and sophomores, Walston said that it gives the students first-hand field experience at a commercial garden.
The garden is operated solely on donations. In the past, area businesses have helped with cash donations for seed and supplies and others have helped with equipment. Grants have also helped to keep the garden in business. Benton County Extension has helped to facilitate some of these grants, and the project is overseen by a board.
The garden is managed by Coralee Boddiker and Lydia Radeke and along with area residents who continue to contribute to the production, Walston said that the expertise of Mike and Cindy Elwick has been invaluable any time the group has a question that needs an answer. Many in the community have given their time, lent their green thumbs and made this a success.
Walston grew up on a farm but said his gardening experience came from helping his mom. He said a lot of times there are questions that they have to ask the "professionals." There's the Iowa State Extension that they can ask or master gardeners in the area. Several people help Walston. A few came to mind, John Kemp, Barb Ender-Wright, Dan Roesler, Eileen Schmidt, Erin Monaghan, Mark Gressler and all of the Master Gardeners. Without the help of the many hands around the area, this operation would not be possible.
A lot of planning goes into deciding what to plant. What will grow? How to grow it? What takes the least amount of volunteer hours to maintain? What foods can be grown that those in need would appreciate? Are the foods that they grow common enough that everyone will know how to use them? All of these questions have to be answered with each growing season.
Preparing the produce to distribute is sometimes more complicated than just picking the food and distributing it. After the onions have been harvested, the outer husks are pulled to keep them from rotting. Then they are hung in bags so that they don't have moisture damaging them. Potatoes are stored in a 50 cooler where the skins will "harden" a little bit which helps to protect the potato and prolong the shelf life of the potatoes. This year there will also be a late carrot harvest that was planted to extend the harvest a bit longer.
The garden is one of three areas in Vinton where gardening is taking off. There are the Youth Gardens and the Community Gardens on 3rd and 3rd which contain about 25 lots with various sizes including 4x4, 4x8, and 4x12. Area residents can rent a space from the city to put in their own gardens. Walston said that Bev Wittmer oversees those gardens.
These gardens around town help both the city and the county with the maintenance of these pieces of land. The county no longer has to maintain the garden plot because the Old School Produce Partners rent it each year and maintain it. The plots of land located in the flood plain, help the city as well. This land cannot be used to build anything, so the gardens reside there, helping the city to keep the land in use without it being an eyesore.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, Walston said, that the help comes in so many ways. Some help in a small way with time or donations, and in volunteering, he said, "You can donate 15 minutes or 15 hours, it all helps!" If you are interested in lending a hand or making a donation, contact Greg Walston at 472-4739 at the Benton County Extension office.