[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 7/15/10.] According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vermont is the sixth hungriest state in the country. Each year, almost 86,000 people – 10 percent of Vermont’s total population – require assistance from state charitable food systems like the Vermont Foodbank.
In Rutland County, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 11 percent of our residents are living below the federal poverty line. Rutland County is also home to 658 registered farms, the fourth highest number per county in Vermont.
A couple years ago, Pawlet area farmer Bill Clark of Clark Farms, examined these two realities, and began planting the seeds that would become the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link’s (RAFFL) Grow an Extra Row campaign.
The idea came to Clark one day when he received a letter from the Rutland Area Women’s Shelter. The letter described how the shelter struggles to provide healthy, fresh food to its guests. Food shelters, which typically lack the capacity for cold storage, commonly request non-perishable items. While the immediate need of providing food to hungry families is served, the items donated tend not to be the healthiest.
The letter went on to ask if Clark would mind growing an extra row for the women’s shelter. He was happy to oblige.
“Compared to everything else that we farmers have to do, growing one extra row is easy,” he said.
Even before the letter, Clark made of habit of finding a home for his produce leftover from his days selling at farmers’ markets. He had occasionally dropped food off at Rutland’s Open-Door Mission or the Bardwell House.
However, making the deliveries was often a struggle since most of these organizations are not open on the weekends and the vegetables would not keep until Monday. A better system was needed.
As President of the Vermont Farmers’ Market, Clark began to talk up the concept of growing an extra row with other area farmers. Meanwhile, RAFFL, an organization which Clark (a former board member) notes is “never afraid to tackle anything,” developed a plan for pick-up and distribution.
Pick-up locations were designated at the Rutland and Poultney Farmers’ Markets. Once again, the issue of weekend storage came up. This time, Thomas Dairy stepped in to offer up a portion of their Rutland Town facility’s coolers for cold storage of all produce until it was picked up and distributed on Monday morning.
With a system in place, RAFFL began to promote the campaign’s four components: farmers’ market collections, community garden involvement, direct donations from gardeners and farmers, and gleaning. Through this campaign, the public learned that Grow an Extra Row wasn’t just for farmers.
Home gardeners were encouraged to do their part during the week, and bring their donations to market. At the Rutland Community Gardens on Woodstock Avenue, an entire plot is attended to by RAFFL volunteers, who use their time there to talk up the program with neighboring community gardeners.
RAFFL also set up a booth at Downtown Rutland’s Friday Night Live where they handed out free tomato and pepper plants. At this year’s first FNL on June 25, they handed out almost 1,000 plants to the community, encouraging the recipients to grow an extra row.
Last season, the program delivered over 1,000 pounds and 46 varieties of fresh food to area food shelves and shelters, including the Rutland Community Cupboard, the Open Door Mission, BROC, Parker House, the Rutland County Parent Child Center and Fair Haven Concerned.
This year, they are looking to double that amount.
To pull off this feat, RAFFL depends on both its hardworking staff and a dedicated corps of volunteers. One such volunteer is board member Steve Eddy. Eddy, who is the former owner of Book King spends his Monday mornings making deliveries around Rutland County.
Volunteering has been both rewarding and eye-opening for Eddy. “Doing this has really made the situation in this country strike home for me,” he said.
He notes that the people he encounters when making his deliveries are not there looking for easy handouts as some would characterize them, they are often victims of the economy – recently unemployed, trying to feed their families and in need of help.
“Everywhere you go people are so appreciative,” he added. “And it doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything. It’s people helping other people.”
That fact is important to Charlie Brown of Brown’s Farm.
“This is the way it should be,” said Brown of the opportunity Grow an Extra Row has provided him with being able to help the community in a very direct way.
Throughout the county, farmers are eager to give. Now in its second year, many are planning ahead, growing directly for the program.
Paul Horton of Foggy Meadow Farm in Benson takes satisfaction in knowing his extra produce is not going to waste, and that good, local food is getting to the community.
“By getting fresh food into people’s mouths, we are immediately building support for local foodsystems,” said Horton, who noted that blanket regulations designed to address issues at large-scale factory farms often impact small, independent farms adversely, making it harder to do business.
For Horton, fostering relationships between farmers and the community is a way to “fend off regulators, and build on what we have now.”
Similarly, Clark is keenly aware of the political implication of Grow a Row and the larger mission of RAFFL.
“There’s a health and security issue here,” he said, explaining that natural disasters, climate change and, potentially, terrorism puts our current national food system model at risk. “We need to have enough food to feed our own people.”
Clark added that today, farmers in Vermont are planting more diverse crops and growing year round. He also noted an increase in home gardeners; all factors which bring our state closer to self-sufficiency.
“If you look back 200 years, Vermont was much more self-sufficient,” said Clark. “We’re creeping back to that.”
Returning to Grow an Extra Row’s immediate impact, Clark is pleased with the outpouring of support the program has received in its short life.
“It says something good about the Rutland community. All Vermonters deserve to eat good, healthy food not just the wealthy.”
If you would like to donate your fresh vegetables to Grow an Extra Row, you can bring them to the Rutland Farmers’ Market every Saturday between 1:30 and 2 p.m., or to the Poultney Farmers’ Market on Thursdays between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. For more information about RAFFL, visit www.rutlandfarmandfood.org.