HARLEYSVILLE, Pa. — An ecumenical church gardening project is supplying tons of food to needy people in southeastern Pennsylvania, providing opportunities for service for two congregations, and bridging a theological divide that has separated the Anabaptist and Lutheran faithful for some five centuries.
That divide is no longer even a bone of contention. And here in Harleysville, Pa., the congregants of Salford Mennonite Church and Advent Lutheran — just a few blocks apart — have put history behind them to labor in a half-acre garden that did, literally, provide some 10 tons of fresh produce to food banks, churches and senior centers in Chester and surrounding counties, and inner-city Philadelphia.
Advent members had been contemplating starting their own gardening program when Steve Godsall-Myers suggested they team up with Salford Mennonite, which had been gardening on their church grounds for 6 years. Godsall-Myers passes the garden when he rides his bicycle to work in the morning and had been impressed with what he saw.
Joe Hackman, lead pastor at Salford Mennonite, liked the idea of a joint venture, as did his congregation. The 2012 growing season was a trial run for the two churches, which turned into a formal agreement with a mission statement for the 2013 season.
Members from both congregations plant, pick, pack and distribute a mind-boggling number of fresh crops. Getting their hands and feet dirty has led to other joint experiences, like a combined Thanksgiving service. Salford Mennonite has about 300 regular attendees. Advent averages 180 at its Sunday services.
“So when we have joint services, we come to Salford, because we have more room,” said Godsall-Myers.
The garden is humming along nicely, and Steve Blank, who coordinates the venture, has ideas for fine-tuning the operation.
The garden isn’t certified organic, Blank said, but they don’t use chemical herbicides or pesticides. Mulch is used to discourage weeds, and those weeds that do spring up are pulled by hand. Insect pests that can be controlled with a bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spray get hit when the time is ripe. Compost comes from a number of sources, including crop residue from the garden itself.
Blank, who in his day job works in warehouse management for the nearby Hatfield Packing Corporation, led a tour of the garden, which was bursting with beans, in the late afternoon on Monday. There was also sweet corn just about ready to be picked, ground cherries ready to go, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage coming along as well as tomatoes and carrots ... varieties galore and plenty of each.
Blank pointed to a row of beets and noted that it was their seventh planting of the season. Although beets are primarily a cool-season crop, he said they kept them growing through this past torrid summer with generous applications of mulch and plenty of water.
Next to a row of Swiss chard, Blank mused about dealing with the deer damage the chard has suffered. He talked about the four or five varieties of each crop, including tomatoes, beans, eggplants. He explained the watering setup, where they use drip lines and where they use wands.
He explained which plants were started from seed and which from transplants. And then he said, “I’m no gardener. And I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for the people who grow our food.”
Hiram Hershey, a long-time Salford Mennonite member, shook his head at Blank’s no-gardener statement.
“Steve has an instinct for growing things,” Hershey said. “He’s being very modest.”
It did seem that Blank doesn’t know gardening the way John Madden doesn’t know football. And while the numbers may not count the same way they count in football, the Salford-Advent garden has put up some impressive figures.
The 2013 tally won’t be in until sometime in November, when the last of the root crops come out of the ground. But in 2012, if you tally all the things that were counted by the pound — snap peas, tomatoes, zucchini, beans — and all the things that were counted by the piece — watermelons, sweet corn, cauliflower — you’d come up with about 20,000 pounds of fresh produce, or 10 tons of free food distributed to people in need.
All the work is volunteered, many of the supplies are donated, and nothing is sold from the garden. A fundraiser in the spring will be held to raise money for seeds and seedlings. One of the from-the-garden products that will be sold at the fundraiser is salsa, which is canned by the Bauman’s Apple Butter plant in Sassasman, Pa., about 10 miles away from the churches. The church gardeners pay for the jars and other supplies, but Bauman’s does the processing for free.
While charity is the primary goal of the Salford-Advent garden, Salford’s Joe Hackman pointed out another reason. “This is a way for us to connect with our agrarian past,” he said. “Our church historian told me that in 1975, 90 percent of our families lived on farms. Today we only have two farm families out of 450 members. So this is a way for us to reconnect with our history.”