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Healthy food for the hungry

Rotary Garden gets fresh veggies on the tables of those in need
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Ashland dentist Mindy Beck tends to plants in the Ashland Rotary Garden, which supplies thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank each season. The garden is in its third year. Jamie Lusch / Daily TidingsJamie Lusch
 Posted: 2:00 AM May 11, 2011

The need was there: thousands of Ashland-Talent residents slammed by the recession and unable to put enough good food on the table.

The land was there: a fertile acre by Emigrant Lake.

And, as Ned Schaaf stood up to propose the idea to his Rotary Club of Ashland, he saw the people were there, ready to plant, tend and harvest a community garden for those in need.

Now in its third year, the Ashland Rotary Garden, tended by Rotarians with the help of local churches and schools, has become a big success story — and, at 2,400 pounds last year, was the top contributor of vegetables to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank during the June-to-October harvest season. Volunteers put in 650 hours last year in four-hour shifts.

Volunteers learn the basics of organic gardening, enjoy a rural setting and reap as many benefits as they sow, said Ashland dentist and Rotarian Mindy Beck.

"You get to know people, work hard, have a lot of fun and do good," she said. "It's nice to work a little elbow grease, be responsible for something and see people eat the food."

The goal, says garden coordinator and Rotarian Jeanne Stallman, is to get the community involved in making familiar, fresh, easy-to-cook vegetables available to those in need, with tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, peppers, eggplants, beans and squash heading the list.

The biggest crops last season were 1,058 pounds of tomatoes, 341 pounds of potatoes, 303 pounds of onions, 167 pounds of winter squash, 151 pounds of peppers and 146 pounds of beans.

"I just love the beans. They keep going and going, week after week, and are easy to prepare," says Stallman, director of the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center. "It's a great opportunity for volunteers to socialize in a beautiful setting and know you're doing good for people who need it."

Rotary volunteers do about 90 percent of the work, working two days a week, with help from Methodist and Presbyterian congregations and service clubs of Ashland High School and Southern Oregon University. The garden gets watered daily by Ned and Stella Schaaf, who also donate manure from their cows that is mixed with compost in a bin. Plant starts come from Gregg Williams of Ashland Greenhouse. Tractors are donated by Rotarians John Schweiger and Mark Mihaljevich, and a cultivator is provided by retired physician Bill Sager.

For every pound Rotary grows, it replaces a can of vegetables and steers clients to healthier eating and knowledge of using normally unaffordable fresh produce, said Susan Harris, director of the Ashland Emergency Food Bank.

Ann Marie Hutson, Food Bank board president at the garden's beginnings, said, "It was the first time in the history of the Food Bank that we were able to provide a steady stream of healthy, organic vegetables. The fresh produce was a hit with the customers and we were able to save money by not having to buy canned vegetables for those three months."

Personally, said Hutson, "the bonus was that I learned to love the Earth and its capabilities (and) it was a joyful time for me."

Rotary First Harvest, a statewide program with 10 gardens, started before the Ashland Rotary Garden and gives some funding to it, but the Ashland program started and runs independently, said Stallman.

Turning and watering the compost, retired SOU provost and Rotarian Stewart McCollom said garden organizers hope to hire a part-time coordinator and expand the operation to include a more centrally located teaching garden on larger, more fertile land near Bear Creek in Ashland, thus doubling or tripling output.

"We'd like to see it get more automated and we'd need twice the volunteers to harvest it," said McCollom, a Master Gardener. "We have hopes of doing bigger things in the future."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.


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