A garden of giving

LOHRVILLE – Those in need of a little assistance in the area around Lohrville will be eating better this year. A bountiful harvest of fresh produce is available for the area’s food pantries thanks to a new community garden project.

The Lohrville Mass Gardens, founded by Lohrville resident Ruth Stephenson, provide food for pantries in Rockwell City and Lake City as well as the new pantry in Lohrville.

Stephenson said she and another woman who did not want to be named started the Lohrville food pantry and the gardens when they saw a need for better nutrition in her community.

“Calhoun County is one of the lowest counties per capita income per household in the state of Iowa,” Stephenson said. “Furthermore, they say we also have about the highest percentage of obesity and overweight students in Calhoun County.

“So I thought, how can we help the needy get fresh vegetables? What happens is, individuals who are struggling feel they can’t afford to buy fresh grown, or it’s too costly, and they’re not getting the proper nutrition. And home grown just tastes a lot better.”

The garden is big, sitting on about an acre and a half of donated land. Stephenson said there’s still room to expand more, and she has other locations around town where more gardens could be planted next year.

Stephenson does much of the day-to-day work herself.

“When weather permits I’m spending most of my time outside in the garden because I love to do it,” she said.

Still, it’s not usually hard to get volunteers to come and help for harvesting and planting.

“I called them angels of harvest, because I feel we’re doing God’s work,” she said. “I believe we’re all supposed to help one another.”

Often visitors to the food pantry come out to pick things themselves, said Joyce Berger, who runs the pantry. She said the garden has been very productive.

“I can’t believe all the food – what it started out with and what it’s become,” Berger said.

Stephenson said she sought donations from businesses in Carroll and Fort Dodge. One grant from Wal-Mart allowed the garden to buy a water tank, while another helped install an electric fence to keep the raccoons out, she said.

Stephenson said she will be seeking more grant money, now that the gardens have proven they can be successful.

“I’m hoping get funds so we can run a water source to the garden and have some self-irrigation,” she said. “It would help out a lot because right now it takes me about two days to water it all with a hose.”

Harvesting is currently going on at the gardens. The 36 rows of sweet corn have all been picked, and the stalks have been cut down.

Most of her plants were donated or purchased at a discount from Parkside Flowers in Rockwell City, Stephenson said. Seeds were also donated from Earl May in Shenandoah and Gardens Alive – including some vegetables she’d never planted before.

People have appreciated the fresh food.

“It has been very beneficial,” said Heidi Billmeier, coordinator of the New Opportunities Calhoun County Family Development Center, which runs the food pantry in Rockwell City.

“A lot of the families are working, and they’re just having a hard time making ends meet, and having time for a garden is sometimes difficult,” she said.

There’s been a lot of produce, too. Right now Billmeier said she has two 5-gallon buckets of green beans, and the same of potatoes, with more on the way. The potatoes always go quickly, she said, and people also get excited about the tomatoes.

But even when there is extra food, it doesn’t go to waste.

“People in the community have purchased it for a free-will donation, and that money is going to the food pantry as well,” she said.

“I think for our first year we are doing really good,” Stephenson said. “And the people are very grateful. You just don’t believe the stories they tell about people going without.”