WSU Extension Offers Home Food Production Program for those Limited by Financial or Physical Hardship
March 28, 2013 | Andrea Watts
A new educational program in Cowlitz County, Wash., is taking the fear out of gardening and enabling people who are limited by financial or physical hardship to experience the rewards of having their own garden. In the program’s first year, there were 22 applicants vying for 10 spots; this year, there are 61.
“You really get to know these people after reading the application,” says Gary Fredricks, the director of the WSU Extension office for Cowlitz County. From this year’s 61 applicants, he and the committee of Master Gardeners selected the 10 applicants that are the next cohort of the Home Vegetable Educational Garden (VEG) program.
The program started in 2012 because, as Fredricks explains: “I was looking for some way for WSU Master Gardeners to connect with the public […] and vegetable gardens are becoming popular.” Master Gardeners are volunteers who serve as “educators about issues of importance in their local communities that enhance natural resources, sustain communities and improve the health and wellness of WA residents,” he says. Another reason for this program was to show how easy gardening can be. Fredricks recognized that while there is plenty of gardening information on the Internet, the sheer volume proves overwhelming to many. “People say ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ or ‘Am I doing this right?” To ease these fears, the program pairs the applicants with a Master Garden mentor who can answer questions and offer advice.
Home VEG is advertised through the office’s listserv, flyers at feed stores, in the newspaper, or through word of mouth. To be eligible for the program, the participants must reside in Cowlitz County and submit a completed application that asks questions such as “why do they want to garden?”, “where would the raised bed go?” and “why do they deserve to be selected?” After being selected by the Master Gardener committee, the participants must attend a 1 ½ hour gardening class and pledge to maintain their garden for three years. In exchange, they receive mentorship, a raised bed, and all the supplies needed to start their garden. Home VEG requires a three year commitment because the programs wants to see them continue gardening, Fredricks explains, and there are other families who want to participate, but funds and resources are limited.
The 4’x8’x2’ raised beds cost $200-$250. All the labor and cost of the materials, such as the soil and the western red cedar lumber, are donated by the county’s WSU Master Gardener program. Participants can choose any combination of 18 seed starts, with popular choices being corn, tomatoes and squash. From there, the gardening is up to them.
With their garden being in a raised bed, people with physical limitations do not have to bend, and the bed’s dimensions allow the entire garden to be weeded when seated on its edge. Fredricks says that Home Veg found that “once things start growing, not much help is needed.” The mentors, though, do regularly visit their mentees to see how their gardens are progressing.
Though other gardening programs may focus on food production, Fredricks’ focus is on educating people. “I believe we have a generation who didn’t have grandparents or parents who gardened … 3.8 percent of the country are farmers … [and] people have removed themselves from the food supply.” Fredricks remembers one applicant wanted to participate so her grandkids could come over and learn how to garden.
Of the 10 participants from last year’s cohort, all are continuing on with the program. Because of the time involved in the mentoring and the cost of supplies, Fredricks does not see the program expanding to serve more applicants. “It would be nice to expand the program out … [but] 10 is what we can manage successfully.” And all the Master Gardeners are volunteers, whether by serving on the selection committee or being mentors. Of the 10 Master Gardeners who volunteered last year, eight are continuing this year. To fund the program, Fredricks is considering pursing sponsors because the money used to run the program is coming from Master Gardener’s fundraisers.
This “started from scratch” Home VEG program is the only one that Fredricks is aware of that has an educational focus and increases gardening access for individuals with physical limitations or financial hardship. And given that the number of applicants for this year’s Home VEG cohort nearly tripled from last year, this program proves that people want to learn how to garden.