What is outreach? To some it conjures pictures of church groups feeding the homeless, providing clothing for the needy, providing transportation for the elderly or helping to repair a home for the indigent. The current generation, appropriately termed “Millennials,” have surprisingly made it in vogue to participate in church mission trips to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Appalachia and even the Bahamas. One church, however, has taken a different approach: a community garden.
The Blythewood Community Garden is the outreach project of Blythewood Presbyterian Church — a church launched in 2010 with support from Northeast Presbyterian Church on Polo Road. Rhett Sanders, organizing pastor of Blythewood Presbyterian Church, states, “It has the desire to become a great church for the community.” The church currently meets at Blythewood High School, communicates mainly through email and is in the process of considering all elements of financing and construction for a new sanctuary.
The garden, started in winter 2013, is located at 441 Rimer Pond Rd. in Blythewood. The site, formerly a driving range, is owned by the church and will later serve as the location for the sanctuary. During Advent, Blythewood Presbyterian holds a Christmas in the Fields worship service on the property.
The idea of a community garden was first mentioned at a yard sale. Eventually, the idea was discussed among the church’s life groups and spread to the majority of the congregation.
The constant growth of Blythewood is evident. Because the Blythewood area has become more affluent, the garden’s purpose was born out of a perceived need identified by Blythewood Presbyterian’s community focus team: a way to identify and nurture the invisible poor in the Blythewood community. The garden project is guided by the Biblical principle found in Proverbs 3:9 that states: “Honor the Lord with your wealth and first fruits of all your crops.”
Rhett emphasizes, “We are striving to be a great neighbor in the community. It’s all about opening doors and building relationships. We rely on God’s provision and love to serve the community.” Besides growing vegetables, the garden also provides an opportunity to educate the community on the farming operation while instructing the community on how to eat healthy. Recently, the garden was the site of a field trip for 100 first graders from a nearby school, Round Top Elementary.
On site, the garden has several structures. One greenhouse utilizes a method called hydroponics employing a vertical growing mechanism termed Verti-Gro. The plants are planted in pots stacked vertically and filled with coconut husks instead of soil. The plants receive their nutrients through a vertical irrigation system above, where the watering system uses nutrient water in barrels to irrigate during short periods of time.
The nutrient water is pumped through piping above the plants on a timer. The main pipe has vertical connectors that extend through each pot. The system allows for temperature stability, space efficiency and growth of a greater quantity of plants.
Mat Fairfax, a graduate of Presbyterian College with a degree in biology, oversees the garden’s operation. When asked how he became involved with the project, he replies, “I was always predominately interested in hydroponics. The vegetables are grown with pesticides close to organic standards,” he explains. “They are as close to organic as you can get.”
There is also one traditional greenhouse with planting tables purchased from Batesburg-Leesville High School, one open-air hoop house with shade cloth and nine organic-raised beds located around the hoop house.
One of Blythewood Presbyterian Church’s main objectives is to provide free produce for those in need — this goal is accomplished by giving away fresh vegetables where it is needed most.
Once a month, fresh vegetables are supplied to help Round Top Baptist Church stock its food pantry. The church gives out vouchers to families who participate in the “Backpack Program.” This effort provides children with food from end-of-school Friday until the beginning of school Monday. An endeavor that ensures children will have enough food who might otherwise not have anything to eat over the weekend. Blythewood Presbyterian is also involved in a partnership called the Community Assistance Bridge (CAB) with other area churches such as Round Top Baptist, Trinity Methodist and Breath of Life Lutheran, to assist those in need with fresh vegetables and clothing. Additionally, as so many secondary schools have emerged in the area, Blythewood Presbyterian Church and its garden have now become a family conduit when tragedy strikes.
Blythewood Presbyterian estimates that it gives away 75 percent of the produce harvested and sells the other 25 percent. The garden’s main day of operation is Wednesday. In the morning, the vegetables are harvested and in the afternoon, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., they are sold at a local farmers market with all profit going to recoup the garden’s cost of operation. Any additional monies are used by the church for additional outreach. Members of the church who wish to volunteer to work in or assist the garden’s operation may do so on the other weekdays, including Saturday.
A recent request from the Town of Blythewood to manage the town’s farmers market, is an exciting venture for Blythewood Presbyterian. Different independent vendors participate as a part of the market. Vendors such as a honey producer, a bakery and a pottery maker share space. Members of the church and volunteers entertain the children with story time and face painting.
Both Rhett and Mat stress that while their desire is to serve the community, Blythewood Presbyterian’s intention is not to undercut the vendors in any way. A peaceful co-existence is strongly maintained. The Blythewood farmers market ran about six weeks in the summer starting mid-June and continued until the end of July. Recently, the Town of Blythewood has discussed the idea of having a fall farmers market in conjunction with the church, and plans are in the works regarding that venture.
During the month of September and the remaining months following, the market is closed. Efforts to grow other types of vegetables continue during the dormant season for there is a large array of vegetables planted and harvested at any given time. Some produce that can be grown year-round are: broccoli, bush beans, cantaloupes, cilantro, cucumbers, kale, kohlrabi, okra, peppers, red chard, romaine lettuce, sorrel, spinach, tomatoes, yellow squash and watermelon.
Plans for the future include efforts to further promote the “farm to table” initiative where local restaurants use local produce by selling their vegetables to the Blythewood High School Culinary Program to assist them with the creation of recipes for strange plants and to become more familiar with the farm to table concept.
As far as an impact in the world? Rhett and Mat envision creating a good model to take to other communities for church plans nationally and internationally.