LIKE A PLANT STARTS as a seed, sometimes an idea starts as an initiative before it takes root. About 17 years ago, colleagues with a similar desire used their initiative to form Restaurants Against Hunger Community Farm to raise money to help The Mission in Winter Haven.
Members rebuilt the Mission’s kitchen and service area, showers and laundry area over the years.
“About a year ago last summer, we were approached by a group with a $1,000 grant to start a community garden,” says Grant Piche, founder of Restaurants Against Hunger Community Farm. The individual approached my wife and I asked her which one of us is the farmer? We didn’t know anything about farming.”
But Piche has Gil Daigneau in Lakeland, a friend and cooperative farmer, who agreed to help, providing not only his expertise, but also the vegetables and eggs from his chickens to the community garden’s members. The members pay a certain amount of money to come and pick the vegetables and eggs.
“I thought we could take a piece of his farm and plant it,” Piche says. “Gil (Daigneau) suggested planting a garden in downtown Winter Haven.” Agreeing to move forward on that venture with Restaurants Against Hunger Community Farm, Piche researched the requirements of having a garden in the City of Winter Haven and how receptive the area would be to such a venture, but not sure what the cost versus revenues would bring.
In August 2015, the whole idea began to materialize. “The City of Winter Haven had code ordinances against farms in the city that dated back to the 1920s,” Piche explains. “We had to approach that particular piece first. The 610 Corporation (in Winter Haven) had a piece of land it was willing to let us use for a dollar a month. We went through zoning by working with the City of Winter Haven and received approval in January 2016.”
“We were behind the eight ball, but had things grown to have stuff to sell. The growing process began in August and September 2015. We opened the farm in February (2016) and missed the whole fall season,” he recalls.
Growing to 130 members participating in the garden venture, because of the unknowns, all were charged $100 to participate. That became their bank to pay for their picked produce, writing down their name and what they harvested in ledgers on the honor system.
“There were featured crops of three types of lettuce— romaine, red, and green leaf; three types of tomatoes— cherry, slicing, and plum; and carrots, beets, onions, and bell peppers,” Piche says. “You could take home a pot of the lettuce, cut as needed, then bring back the pot and get another one.”
That selection is their year-round staple crop with Daigneau knowing what version of what people want and use with his more than 26 years of experience. If someone participating in the program wants something special they will give it a shot and try growing it.
“All vegetables are organically grown with fertilizer but no pesticides, Piche says. “The garden is now closed for the summer as it is too hot so we shut down for the season.”
“The key to it is that once we try it, it is probably as good as the people that use it,” Piche observes. “Some people pay and not use and others use it quite a bit.”
The growing process for this fall is still in the working stages. Piche says that it is easier to have Daigneau grow the things at the farm and then bring them into Winter Haven.
“This garden is a beautiful spot to read a book or hangout,” Piche says. “We have found people eating lunch there. We have places to sit. When it first opened up we had music or whatever and people would donate and we would cook some food for The Mission or Project Love in Eloise or House of Hope in Auburndale to provide meals.”
The goal of the Restaurants Against Hunger Community Farm is to make the opportunity to continue serving those in the community for a frontline to hunger, according to Piche. “Where one church opens a thrift store and sells clothing, our gig is to make that same thing, but we are raising funds to try to make the community eat better.”
Anyone can participate. To sign up for the 501(3)c-designated charity, call (863) 604-1743. Charge is a one-time $50 annual fee and a $100 fee to use as credit to pick vegetables. The garden will begin in September with lettuce and tomatoes ready in October.
The garden is found at Avenue D Southwest, actually across the street from Egg Haven in Winter Haven and behind a brewery.
story by BRENDA EGGERT BRADER
photo by PEZZIMENTI