Funds sought to keep community garden operational
by Mark Ledbetter
OAK GROVE — Faced with budget cuts and an uncertain financial future, the Oak Grove Community Garden has fallen victim to budget cuts by the Town Council for 2012-2013.

The Comet Community Garden is just one of several programs the town has provided that reaches beyond the community. Community services such as the transportation program, fire department, senior center and walking track are used by local and non-local patrons.

For the past three years the garden has produced several tons of produce and has been a major supporter of The Care House in Sylacauga.

“I understand their problem,” Care House director Earl Lewis said. “It would be a definite blow to our program. They have provided really good service by providing fresh vegetables and will be missed. Hopefully they can save the program.”

Lewis said Care House has benefited from the seasonal boost with fresh produce provided by both the Sylacauga and Oak Grove community gardens.

During the gathering season, Care House issued vouchers to clients who went to the garden on Tuesdays and Thursdays and received a bag of fresh produce, and sometimes two if produce was available.

Much of the produce given away was gathered either by individuals who picked on halves, giving half of what they picked to support the voucher system, or gathered by volunteers who wanted to support the program.

During the last growing season, expenses were $7,722 but because of donations and a Rural Community Development Grant of $3,000 Oak Grove’s actual expense was $3,855.

City clerk Wendy Kelly said expenditures included fertilizer, seed, tractor fuel, hand tools, plants, water and other expenses.

Two issues affecting the council’s decision to cut the garden out of the budget was the lack of grant funds available and the loss of support from David Matthews Center for Civic Life, an organization that provided an intern to assist with the operations of the garden.

Councilman Carl Armstrong has invested a lot of time in the garden the past three years. Last season he put in 236 hours in planting and gathering. Armstrong said garden director Carolyn Zeigler put in many more hours than he did.

Armstrong said Zeigler is at the farm on distribution days and keeps operation records. Mayor Charles Merkel said the garden produced more than 14,000 pounds of produce the past season.

Armstrong grew up on a farm in Red Bay where he and his brothers and sisters got up early every morning and went to the fields, hoeing or gathering corn and cotton.

“When you work from daylight to dark you don’t have time to get in trouble,” Armstrong said.

The labor involved in keeping a garden are typical, Armstrong said. He said there’s breaking ground, planting, cultivating, fertilizing and gathering.

Popular crops planted include corn, peas, beans, okra, tomatoes, pepper, cucumber, butterbeans and squash.

At one time Merkel and Armstrong were discussing working with the Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement program. Bill Roberts, head gardener for the Sylacauga Grows Community Garden, said SAFE had not reached a firm decision because of budget concerns. “We’re still working on it,” Roberts said.

“We can’t grow enough for the whole community,” he said. “We need Oak Grove.”

Roberts said Sylacauga Grows was able to reduce some expenses with a variety of methods.

One method has been working through the probation office that allows some people to work off their fines by providing community service.

“Many are amazed when something they plant comes up,” Roberts said. “Then they are amazed when they bear fruit and the real thrill comes when they see people worse off than they benefit from what they planted.”

Roberts has also been able to get some local churches to adopt-a-plot. This past season Sylacauga First Methodist, ChristPoint Community Church, and St. Jude Catholic Church adopted and worked a plot.

“This has been very successful,” Roberts said. “If they have someone in their church that has a need, they can use what they plant.”

To cut water expenses Robert said the program has two-1,000 gallon barrels and one-500 gallon barrel to collect rain.

Armstrong said in the past Harrell’s has donated seed. With donations of materials and more volunteers Armstrong said expenses could be cut.

Although the Oak Grove Council doesn’t plan to allocate funds for the 2013 growing season, Merkel said the Zeigler family has agreed to lease the property to Oak Grove but without stipulations.

Armstrong said the late Bloise Zeigler, community leader and former Oak Grove mayor, took interest in the garden. “Every day he would come by and asked what we planted or give out,” Armstrong said.

Merkel wrote in an email, “It’s just come down to the garden having been so successful over such a wide area that it needs greater outside support and we need time to pull that together hence the request to hold the property while we canvass for support.”

Roberts said there may be grant funds available, “but grants are a lot more competitive.”

Armstrong said if the funds are available he would continue working. “I enjoyed working with it.”

Contact Mark Ledbetter at mledbetter@dailyhome.com.

© 2012