by Julie Rusin
We see a visual representation of the change in the season in October as the leaves change from green to amber, crimson, and sunset orange. The days get shorter, the air gets crisper, and we wind down for the harvest season. The change in the leaves is a great reminder to look at other changes happening around us as well. It is a wonderful time to reflect on not only the bountiful harvest we had but also the personal growth and change in perspective that takes place in the fields every day. From students to corporate groups to those who receive our food, people often come to volunteer hoping to make a difference and learn about agriculture and then leave having had a deep personal experience as well.
Students of all ages participate in our program. From preschool to grad school and everywhere in between, anyone who wants to learn about agriculture and how to give back is welcome. There is one university that brings out its athletics department every year to help us harvest. The students are always a hardworking group, but this year there was a newfound spark of enthusiasm when they came to the farm. One student explained to me that all of the America’s Grow-a-Row community service day spots had filled up before those of any other service opportunity. They had heard that our produce was going to a local community nearby as part of our Free Farm Market program, and as student athletes they had a deep understanding of the importance of healthy eating for a strong body and a clear mind. That day the group harvested nearly 9,000 pounds of tomatoes for their neighbors in need. The student athletes felt an emotional connection to the people who would be receiving the food and wanted to help give them the opportunity to nourish their bodies with healthy calories so they too could achieve great things.
Another type of group that we count on to come out and volunteer is corporate teams. They come for team-building days and community service days and are often thrilled for a morning in the fresh air and the hands-on opportunity to give back. After one day in the peach orchard, a volunteer pulled me aside after her team had left to express that Chip’s story of a humble garden turning into a mission for a much larger cause really touched her. With great emotion, she explained that she lives in a food desert community with massive wealth disparities and that on her drive to work every day she passes individuals who are in great need. She was never able to find a direct way to help until she came to our farm. She felt that she was really making a difference at our farm and now wants to invite her friends and family out to volunteer to give back in such a direct and meaningful way.
We also invite youth from the communities we serve to come out to the farm to learn about agriculture, harvest for their families, and volunteer as a way of giving back. We find that these children teach us just as much as we are trying to teach them and sometimes more! During nearly every Grow-a-Row Kids Farm Days event, we asked the children to “share” some of the produce they harvested for the day with those who could not make it out to the farm. Of course, we accounted for this aspect of giveback by making sure each student harvested extra and would still get to take a robust bounty home. What happened next was always surprising. We would see the children dumping their entire bags into the donation boxes saying that they want the kids who couldn’t get out to the farm to have just as much as them. This selfless act was a beautiful representation of how children understand the importance of helping others. We always made sure the children got back on the bus with full bags of food, but seeing them willingly give their whole harvest away shows how much they care for their communities and others in need. The children’s actions were so pure and kind, and we continue to remind ourselves of this when we are hot and tired and dirty in the fields – these are the people we are serving!
It’s easy to get caught up in the daily rush, and often we don’t take time to notice all the beauty around us. Just as the changing leaves remind us of the beautiful harvest season we’ve experienced, each golden sunset over America’s Grow-a-Row’s fields is an opportunity to reflect upon the learning and sharing that takes place each and every day here. We are greatly looking forward to another growing season where volunteers from all walks of life join us in the fields to help others.