Organic farmer Mary Shultz claims that sustainability isn’t what we often define it as. Shultz says sustainability is about empowering a once powerless community.
Shultz is the lead coordinator at UGArden, a relatively unheard of organization that very literally works to promote the social, environmental and nutritional benefits of sustainable gardening.
On land that was formerly dedicated to sheep and hog farming, the garden harvests produce that is later distributed to those who are in need in the local Athens area.
“We grow vegetables here simply to solve an ever-present issue of hunger amongst the elderly and low income individuals in the community. We grow not to make money but to provide an outlet for us to get our produce out there,” said Shultz.
Home to fruit plantings, bee hives, green walls, medicinal herbs, a high tunnel and a woodland mushroom demonstration area, the garden thrives off of intern and student volunteer labor who work to maintain the four acre organic farm.
“I was never a morning person. Now, you can find me working in the garden before 8:00am strangely enough,” said UGArden intern Kaitlin Conlan, a senior English major. “I came out here to volunteer on a whim one day and I can’t stay away. It’s good for your sanity.”
Since its first day of operation in May 2010, the garden has clocked 15,500 volunteer hours. Working in alliance with Campus Kitchen, another student-run organization at the university fighting hunger, collected produce makes it to people’s plates in less than a day’s time.
“At the end of the week, we don’t want any produce left at our site. We want all of it distributed to the community even if it is distributed through other meal programs,” said Shultz. “None of the collected produce comes back to us.”
Meals are currently distributed to over 60 families in the Athens area. Small portions of produce are sold through the club’s mobile market set up in downtown at the Athens Community Council on Aging. Items are sold at half market price to those with EBT cards in order to promote organic diets for those who might have trouble otherwise affording such products in grocery stores.
Weekly offerings include vegetables, shitake mushrooms, herbs and mixed herb teas.
“I added a Horticulture minor very soon after volunteering at the garden,” said Raymond Frias, a junior biological sciences major. “Doing this isn’t work or labor in any of our minds. It is enjoyable to do and even better knowing we are helping put food on people’s plates.”
With satellite gardens at Clarke Central Middle School and at the Athens Community Council on Aging, UGArden teaches sustainable growing practices to not only local and university students but to older citizens in the community as well.
“If we practice education and push for community outreach to other people besides the ones who work in a main garden, we find that students not only learn practical skills but they become actively engaged with the community as an entity,” said Shultz.
To learn more about service learning and organic practices, volunteers are encouraged to visit the farm and aid in gardening Monday through Thursday from 8:00am until noon.
“We always want to help people be self-determinant, make healthy decisions themselves, be empowered and not solely depend on a food donation,” said Shultz. “Our sustainable work is a system. We grow healthy foods on healthy soil and consumers later make up a healthy community.”
Visit the UGArden Facebook page to learn about mobile produce stand times, what vegetables are in season and other miscellaneous news.