The Avilla/Zion Community Garden won’t end hunger, stop childhood obesity, reform welfare, clean up the environment or reinvigorate the American community by itself. But it’s a start.
The garden, which rests on land owned by Zion Lutheran Church in the Saline County community of Avilla, allows anyone to sign up to plant in a four-foot-by-12-foot raised bed for free. Expert volunteers including the garden’s founder, Bruce Schrader, grow seed beds, offer advice and teach classes. Families can harvest some of the tomatoes, blackberries and other produce grown in shared community areas. For their part, they must pledge to tend their own plot and perform four hours of service to the community each year.
You bet I signed the contract.
Schrader, a retired school principal and current master gardener, spent several years studying gardens across America and Canada before starting this one two years ago. He and more than 90 volunteers built raised beds and laid 38,000 donated bricks so families and students from Zion’s Avilla Christian Academy wouldn’t have to tromp through the mud. During its first season, the garden attracted 39 families, 23 of whom had never planted before. This year there were 60 families, plus the school, plus Girl Scouts and others growing food on 124 plots.
It’s amazing how much can be grown on that small amount of land. According to Schrader, a four-foot-by-four foot piece of ground can produce enough vegetables for two adults to eat a salad every day, 365 days a year. One gardener in his 80s harvested 78 pounds of potatoes in June and then planted and harvested 72 pounds of sweet potatoes.
Schrader, who had volunteered 560 hours this year as of late November, says people eat healthier out of a garden. He says kids need to know where their food comes from. He distrusts the way modern food is grown and shipped.
“(I) won’t say I’m a gung-ho, just back-to-earth person, but I do believe in sustainability,” he said. “When I get finished with the ground, I want it in better shape than what it was when I got it, or at least as good a shape.”
The garden originally provided food for the church’s food pantry, but now Schrader says he doesn’t donate much food there. Instead, he works with pantry recipients willing to invest their time and sweat on one of the plots. Three pantry recipients joined the community and take home food they grow themselves.
The American Community Garden Association says it has more than 500 member gardens across the United States and Canada. There are a number of gardens in Arkansas, including the Dunbar Community Garden in Little Rock, which says it serves 700 students along with members of the community. Avilla has hosted visitors this year from Batesville and Mt. Ida.
Maybe this is the way welfare ought to work. For decades, Uncle Sam has tried a something-for-nothing approach that encourages able-bodied beneficiaries to work the system instead of work the land. If rookie gardeners can be taught to grow their own food — and if an 80-year-old can harvest 150 pounds of potatoes in a year – then there’s no good reason for hunger to exist in America at all.
This is ultimately a ministry sponsored by Zion Lutheran Church and led by a church volunteer. For Schrader, who volunteered two years as Avilla Christian Academy’s principal for free, it offers a chance to turn a hobby into a service. That’s why he cans food grown in his own personal garden and then delivers it to elderly shut-ins. That’s why he helped lay 38,000 bricks on a piece of church property.
“For me, I’ve always felt as close to God right there as anywhere. … I do see God’s creation in that – a seed sprout, a chicken hatch or whatever else,” he said. “You know that there had to be something that started that, and I believe that it was God.”
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.