Sowing seeds of Hope
SATURDAY, AUGUST 10, 2013
They’re calling it Hope of the Harvest, a garden with a charitable mission – to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for hungry people in Bucks County and the region.
“We thought, let’s connect people with the food they eat and make a difference. It’s so simple, it worked,” says Zach Gihorski, the young man in the cowboy hat and boots who is running the Hope project.
In 2012, its maiden season, the sprawling garden on the Doylestown campus of Delaware Valley College brought forth 16,000 pounds – eight tons – of peppers and tomatoes, cantaloupes and squash, and all else.
This summer has been a trial, with 15 days of rain in June and seven in the first 10 days of July, and brutal heat and humidity for weeks at a time. But Gihorski is undaunted: He wants 32,000 pounds this year, 100,000 by 2017.
Gihorski, 25, graduated in December from DelVal, as it’s called, a school steeped in more than a century of farming tradition. It’s a logical host for this unusual garden, which is part organic and part conventional, three acres altogether this year – two at the college’s main campus, a former farm along East Butler Avenue, and one at another school-owned farm, in North Wales, which DelVal calls the Roth Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
The Roth garden took a big hit from rain this summer, so most of the harvest will come from Doylestown, where DelVal students and staff work alongside volunteers.
They come from several companies and two partners – Philabundance, the giant hunger-relief agency, and Bucks County Opportunity Council, whose 27 local food pantries had 52,000 visits last year, a 19 percent increase over the previous three years.
Philabundance gets most of DelVal’s harvest, which is added to its food inventory and distributed to nonprofits in Philadelphia and surrounding counties, including South Jersey.
While the 14,000 pounds Philabundance received from the garden last year was not a huge part of its 25-million pound inventory, “It is not insignificant by any means, and it is deeply appreciated, not just in terms of providing produce,” says Lisa Hodaei, Philabundance’s deputy director of food acquisition.
“It engages our volunteers and connects them more to where our food comes from. I think we all need that connection to be reinforced,” Hodaei says.
DelVal’s contribution also matters because, while need is up, produce donations overall are down – 22 percent between 2009 and 2012, mostly due to the recession.
“There is a secondary market developing for produce,” Hodaei explains, “so things that used to be donated readily to food banks are not. More and more brokers, farmers, distributors, and wholesalers are looking to get that extra food to the private sector to sell.”
The idea for the Hope garden came about rather serendipitously in 2011. Philabundance was looking for “agricultural partners,” and DelVal was thinking about what it could do to alleviate hunger.
“We want to have the students understand that they’re part of something bigger and that their energy, knowledge, and relationships are helping us all with a contemporary pressing issue, which is hunger,” says Russell C. Redding, DelVal’s dean of agriculture and environmental sciences, and former agriculture secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell.
So the Hope project is a teaching tool. It also makes productive use of campus land and supplies produce to the college’s food service and Farm Market store.
Redding, who grew up on a dairy farm in Gettysburg, is both boss and mentor to Gihorski. The young project leader reminds Redding of his own mentor – the late Donald Evans – when he was a student at Pennsylvania State University.
“He had insight. He was giving you some perspective on the world that you didn’t have,” says Redding, who describes his protégé as “someone who doesn’t view his degree as the only thing he came here to do. We want Zach to think globally.”
Gihorski grew up in tiny Port Norris, Cumberland County, on a 25-acre livestock farm with goats, sheep, cows, and horses. Still active in 4-H, he judges a half-dozen county fairs a year.
He started at DelVal in 2006. Three years later, he quit to manage the farm while his mother cared for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s.
After his grandmother died last year, Gihorski returned to DelVal “super-motivated.” He jumped into his studies and extracurricular activities and won the college’s Founders Day award.
“Coming back to DelVal changed my life,” he says.
Throughout, Gihorski worked as a waiter, at a friend’s investment firm, and at TD Bank to pay tuition. He still has $40,000 in student debt.
He credits Redding with pushing him to think about a career path. He’s applying to law school this fall, hoping to become a lawyer who helps farmers. Someday, maybe, he’d like to be agriculture secretary for the state, like his mentor, or for the country.
“Why not?” he says. “I have a lot more big things to do.”
Redding agrees: “That’s not crazy talk.”
For now, Gihorski represents the college at agriculture and alumni events, and makes sure the Hope project has everything it needs, such as volunteers.
One recent morning, Susan Vorwerk and her son David, 13, were inching their way along a row of tomatoes, picking and weeding as they went. They arrived around 8:45 a.m. and would leave by noon.
It was, blessedly, a cloudy day with a slight breeze and bearable temperature.
“I’m really interested in sustainable agriculture, and the garden is a really exciting thing. It’s actually fun to do this,” says Vorwerk, a Doylestown resident and board member of the borough’s new food co-op, which is aiming to open by November.
Exciting, yes, but, as Gihorski has learned, farming is hard work. “Raising money is tough, too,” he says.
DelVal provided the entire $25,000 to $30,000 for the Hope project’s start-up. Redding estimates it will take $10,000 per acre a year to keep going.