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Community garden is a dynamo of produce production

August 4, 2013

Volunteers take part in Tending Night out in the fields at Franklin Farm Community Garden in Cumberland.

CUMBERLAND – It’s mid-summer and the town-owned Metcalf-Franklin Farm on Abbott Run Valley Road in Cumberland has already harvested 10,000 pounds of vegetables and is well on its way towards an anticipated annual yield of 34,000 pounds by the end of the growing season.

And every ounce of it goes to nearly a dozen food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency food centers from Woonsocket to Pawtucket to Central Falls.

It’s been another bumper crop season for the farm, which was in the spotlight Tuesday when film crews were out in the fields for three hours to film a segment for Capitol Television, the television production department of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

It was state Rep. Mia A. Ackerman, who has a long history of involvement with Metcalf Franklin Farm Preservation Association, who convinced the producers to do a show on the farm, the last complete farm in Rhode Island with 65 acres of pristine meadows and wooded areas, an 1800 English-style Barn and an 1854 Colonial farmhouse.

But what the farm is best known for is its Franklin Farm Community Garden, an all-volunteer organization that grows farm fresh produce for the Rhode Island Food Bank and several local food pantries. Now in its eighth year of growing vegetables on one acre, volunteers plant, tend, harvest and transport the produce every week from June to through September. Over the past seven years, the farm has produced more than 125,000 pounds of vegetables for those in need.

Beneficiaries of the farm-fresh vegetables include the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen Blackstone Valley Emergency Food Center and Salvation Army Food Pantry, all in Pawtucket; St. George's Episcopal Church Soup Kitchen in Central Falls; the Northern Rhode Island Food Pantry in Cumberland; We-R-Group Hug in Providence; and Because He Lives Soup Kitchen and the River UMC Soup Kitchen, both in Woonsocket.

During the height of the growing season, the farm holds so-called Tending Nights every Monday and Thursday from 5:30 to dusk. No sign-up is necessary, and volunteers just show up, check in with a team leader and start picking.

Over the past seven summers, hundreds of volunteers have donated thousands of hours working on the farm.

“We’re able to do what we do because of our volunteers,” says Metcalf Franklin Farm Preservation Association Vice President Denise Mudge. “Volunteers are essential and we have some amazing people who come and help us every year, including families, retirees, and local scouts. We don’t have any age restrictions and anyone can come down and help out.”

On a good tending night, there might be upwards of 30 people out in the fields picking everything from zucchini to eggplant to butternut squash.

“We never use pesticides, only fish fertilizers,” says Mudge.

And the fertilizer seems to be working.

On July 11, 907 pounds of vegetables were picked. On July 17 there was a record single-day harvest of nearly 3,000 pound. And on July 19, more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables were picked and donated.

Twice a week, produce is driven by volunteers to the Rhode Island Food Bank and many other organizations and needy families in the surrounding communities. During the height of production, surplus produce is offered to local residents at an old fashioned, honor system farm stand, which helps the garden to work towards sustainability.

By late September and early October the garden is broken down and the soil is turned in preparation for the winter months.

Used for many years as a dairy farm, the land and buildings of the Metcalf-Franklin Farm now belong to the public, under the direction of the Historic Metcalf-Franklin Farm Preservation Association.

In 2005, a group of local volunteers created an organization called Friends of the Franklin Farm with the mission of preserving the farm, educating kids about the importance of being environmental stewards, and helping those in need through the donation of fresh organically-grown produce to local food pantries and soup kitchens.

The town owns the farm property, which was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.

With the latest figures from the Rhode Island Food Bank showing 21.9 percent of children in Rhode Island living in poverty and more than 51,300 children in the state receiving free or reduced price school lunches, the Franklin Farm Community Garden is making a small difference.

“It’s a simple concept really,” says Mudge. “People come together to work the land and then donate what is harvested to those most in need.”

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