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Harvest for the Hungry

This autumn, the harvest will be particularly meaningful for a special group of gardeners and the families they affect.

A group of volunteer gardeners with the Rockdale County Master Gardeners Volunteer Program created a garden to provide fresh produce to the Rockdale Emergency Relief food bank and the Olivia Haydel Senior Center.

The volunteer group, made up of only around ten people, began the project in May of this year. The group cultivates about 17 different varieties of produce, including okra, eggplants, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. The group meets every two or three days to harvest and maintain the garden. On Thursday, a few volunteers met to harvest, putting their total weight of produce grown at 612 pounds.

"We usually have 10-20 pounds every time we pick," said Janie Mitchell, a volunteer in the Master Gardeners program. "Pound-wise, tomatoes, okra and eggplants have been our best crops."

The garden, located in northern Rockdale, has been very successful, despite it not being the ideal growing location for certain types of crops.

"We couldn't plant any ground produce, such as carrots," said Bobbie Hicks, a volunteer gardener and 11-year member of the Master Gardeners program. "The ground is just too hard."

In May 2010, Jule-Lynne Macie, the director of the Rockdale County Extension Office, which oversees the Master Gardener Volunteer Program in Rockdale, heard about the property and had it donated to the group.

"Jule-Lynne found out about the property, and we got started very quickly," Hicks said. "We had approval, bought seed, and two days later got the planting done. We got this off the ground in two days."

The plot of land was previously a Japanese maple orchard. The owner of the land, who asked to remain anonymous, had sold all the maple trees and subsequently donated the land to the volunteer group. The land was ideal for getting a garden started quickly since there was farming irrigation already in place.

"This is the first time our Master Gardener group has had a plot of land," Hicks said.

After each harvesting session, the group delivers the fresh produce to the Rockdale Emergency Relief food bank, as well as donating some to the Haydel senior center.

"The people [at the food bank] were so glad to see fresh veggies," Mitchell said on Thursday after the harvesting session.

RER Executive Director Ashley Roessler said having the produce provided a different type of commodity for the food bank. "It’s been such a great experience," she said. "The master gardeners, they’re absolutely wonderful."

"Having those fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown by people in the community, it’s a really special touch in a really direct way. Hands and hearts grew those fruits and vegetables and turn around and gave them to families in Rockdale."

The Master Gardener Volunteer Program is a nationwide community devoted to promoting gardening and improving communities agricultural programs, clinics and horticulture projects. The Rockdale County Master Gardener Volunteer Program, run by the Rockdale County Extension Office, is sponsored by the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service.

The group plans to continue their gardening project after the growing season is over, signaled by the first frost of the year. However, this particular plot of land might not be used for the garden in the future, and the group is currently looking at other plots to house their produce garden.