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Church members grow vegetables in fellowship

First Congregational Church volunteer Caitlin Connor, 8, makes a face as her mother, Sue Connor of Brookfield, pulls weeds from a garden in Sussex. Produce grown by the congregation is donated to Feed America.

First Congregational Church volunteer Caitlin Connor, 8, makes a face as her mother, Sue Connor of Brookfield, pulls weeds from a garden in Sussex. Produce grown by the congregation is donated to Feed America. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Aug. 22, 2012

Members of the First Congregational Church of Wauwatosa wanted more small-group fellowship opportunities, and gardening was a topic that kept coming up in conversations. That's when Jeff Kelling and Dave Wareham decided to start a group that is now in its third summer of caring for a garden that provides vegetables to Feeding America.

"This food is going to feeding programs and food pantries," Kelling said. "This is the good stuff. It's grown locally, and it's fresh."

Pumpkins pay the rent

Last fall, more than 20 members of the congregation headed out to the farm in Sussex to harvest 1,270 pounds of carrots, winter squash, and beets that were placed in bins provided by Feeding America and picked up for transport to a warehouse the next day.

The garden also produces pumpkins, but those are given to farmer Mike Fryda in exchange for using a half acre of his farmland and his water.

Fryda, who operates a dairy farm, lets his four children set up a roadside stand to sell the pumpkins. They save the money from the sales, he said.

Fryda has offered to let the church use more land, but additional volunteers are needed before that can happen, Wareham said.

The project got its start on a full acre of a different farm.

In the first year, the idea was to make it as simple an operation as possible, as it was completely manual. The group chose vegetables that could be handled roughly, only needed to be harvested once during the growing season, and have a long shelf life.

The group also planted flowers to be used in church.

But taking on an entire acre of land was too ambitious, Kelling said. The next year, they moved out to Fryda's farm, working a smaller space - and cut out the flowers.

"We want the yield, but we said, 'Let's also make it enjoyable,' " Kelling explained.

Little changes, big difference

This year, a church member donated a rototiller, which has made a huge difference, the duo said.

Also, church members have been asked to adopt rows so the work doesn't get overwhelming, and they've made improvements to the watering system and installed an electric fence so cows don't trample the plants.

"It's above a little backyard garden but no commercial operation," Wareham said.

There's still plenty of work ahead for the group. It takes about five years of tilling and weeding before only the newly planted seeds germinate and maintenance work decreases, he said.

But as they get more experience, they're willing to start expanding the operations a bit. Wareham wants to try a method of planting potatoes in tires. Each stack would become a mini row, and animals wouldn't be able to get in, he said.

While First Congregational started the garden and sponsors it, Wareham said he would like to see people from all denominations get involved. Newcomers will have the benefit of learning from parishioners' experience, he said.

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