GATHER Speech- Mari Carl Duffer, Organic Garden Intern

My story starts with a farmer and a gardener from a small town in Virginia, as Flavio said, near Farmville…yes, it’s a real place. When I say small I mean not a single stoplight in the whole county. Growing up, there was probably more tobacco growing than there was people living there. The farmer was my grandfather, and I thought he was so cool because he grew sweet corn in the summers and let me name all the red baby calves we both liked best. I didn’t mind shucking corn for him or helping check on cows, because he helped me take care of my horses. The gardener was my grandmother, and the large garden she tended every summer was one of the things I loved about going to her house. I didn’t complain when I had to pick and shell butter beans, because I knew how good they tasted when she cooked them for me.

I was blessed with two grandparents who loved Creation and caring for their land and crops. So it’s no wonder I got a degree in Environmental Science. During my studies, what really caught my attention most was sustainable farming. My grandparents used what they knew worked to make their crops grow, and that included rather less eco-friendly products. Because I grew up with Sevin dust and MiracleGro and other chemical products, I never thought about what they did to my food or the environment. I decided to learn more about organic farming. My best friend had an idea for a non-profit farm that would grow vegetables organically and give them to the neediest people. We both decided to use our Senior Honors research to take a deeper look at how that would work. I farmed an acre of my family’s land and compared different organic methods and companion planting. This idea sparked a desire to see farming done in a way that restored and nurtured the earth as well as the people who so desperately needed the food it provided.

After graduating college, I spent some time in Mozambique, Africa with a missions organization that cared for orphans. While there, I spent hours every week gardening and caring for fruit trees that fed the children at the center. I also learned from the Mozambican gardeners who cared for the property. I got my first taste of tropical agriculture and feeding the poor. I got to see the smiles of kids who saw fresh fruit, something we can take so for granted, as a huge treat because until coming to live at the center they never had it.

This trip changed my perspective on things and left me searching for ways to put what I had seen and learned into action. It took me a little while to grasp what I wanted to do, but I finally realized and started looking for internships in organic agriculture. The Fruitful Field’s focus on not only organic gardening, but also providing fresh vegetables for those who need it, is what set it apart for me in a sea of hippie organic farmers offering housing and fresh produce in return for work.

I have learned a lot since I moved here. Not only about organic farming, but about life in the city, culture shock, food deserts, and city kids. Some people were really concerned about how I would adjust to living in South Florida, particularly living in such an urban environment and the neighborhood that the garden is in. I wasn’t that shocked by this area though. Really, I feel more comfortable here than I do most anywhere else in South Florida. Instead, I get overwhelmed every time I walk in the Boca mall or I pass that store called Diamonds and Doggies. I sometimes envy those of you who can walk to the nearest grocery store, and I become sad when I realize some in this neighborhood can’t get any further than the nearest corner store for food…which barely includes fruits and vegetables, and if it does you can imagine the quality. When I see some kids come through this garden with malnourishment and aversion to dirt and bugs, I am surprised. I grew up where almost every kid, even the ones who’s parents didn’t have a lot of money, helped work and harvest fresh vegetables from their families’ big summer gardens. Though the disconnect from nature and need for healthy food in kids’ lives has been unexpected, it has been encouraging to be a part of helping Vanessa’s classes realize how food is grown and how there are people who really benefit from what’s being done at the garden. It’s been even more amazing to be a part of feeding kids in families who may not be able to afford fresh vegetables, if it wasn’t for the garden’s buy one give one program.

When it comes to the buy one give one program, one of my favorite parts is the actual harvesting and gathering. It’s one of the times I feel most at peace in the garden, knowing that all of my hard work, planting, fertilizing, squishing bugs, mulching, weeding, adding dirt to rows, has finally paid off and there is finally food that goes not only to our subscribers, who care about good organic local food, but to families who might not otherwise be able to have fresh vegetables that week. Gathering these families together, that might not otherwise cross each others’ paths, to get the same exact share of vegetables has been incredible.

We have one family in the program that includes a grandmother who is taking care of six kids. When we first enrolled her, we were told she ALWAYS wanted Collard Greens when she came to the food pantry. We talked to her about the program, and she was excited. She immediately wanted to be signed up, so we told her we would start in two weeks time from that day. Well, lo and behold, a week later, I was working on a project in the back, and someone tells me that Grandma is here. I won’t lie…I got a little bit nervous. The program wasn’t supposed to actually start for another week, and I didn’t feel like I had enough produce to make a full share for her. But I couldn’t see sending her away without anything, so I put a pretty meager share of greens and daikon radishes together and anxiously took it to her. I told her that we didn’t have a lot that week, but I promised there would be more the next week. She looked at me and said “Oh, that’s alright! I’m gonna go home and cook these greens with a ham hock and we’ll eat them all. Don’t you worry about that.” And ever since then, she has been the same way every week. Always happy and thankful for her vegetables, no matter how much the amount or selection varies. No matter what I try to explain away…oh, we don’t have as many green this week, or oh, the squash plants died…she always gladly accepts her share of vegetables and reassures me that it will all get cooked somehow or another. Her gratefulness and joy has been an inspiration to me and has made me even more thankful to be here.

This is part of what the Fruitful Field is all about…not only gathering food, but gathering people . I hope the stories you’ve heard have impacted you and that you’ll somehow become a part of the gathering too.