The Lord's Acre

This is much more than a community garden
By Leah Chester-Davis | Photos by The Lord’s Acre

Click on the photo to view slideshow.

A garden in western North Carolina is drawing on its Depression-era roots that emphasized helping your neighbor. Called The Lord’s Acre, a band of farmers donated produce from one acre of their crops to feed others in need during the 1920s and early 1930s.

The idea was resurrected in 2009 when a group in the Fairview community in Buncombe County decided the local food pantry needed fresh fruits and vegetables. Instrumental in the new effort was Pat Stone, a former editor of the Mother Earth News. He and others in the area formed a board of directors, and then recruited a former garden manager and writer for the magazine, Susan Sides, who happened to live in the area, to be the executive director. They all worked together to form a nonprofit organization that was centered on growing food for those in need. They named the new garden The Lord’s Acre to honor the farmers before them.

The Lord’s Acre isn’t affiliated with any church, yet it draws people of all faiths who volunteer in and visit the garden. The result is a welcoming space that feeds people with much more than the impressive nine tons of food harvested each year.

Feeding people in many ways

As Susan Sides says, the true growth of the garden can’t be measured. Yes, more than 3,000 volunteer hours are contributed, and the local food pantry is stocked with beautiful eggplants, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, green beans and much more. But the garden is known as much for its community building as it is for its healthy, delicious produce.

The garden and its work have become quite well-known throughout the state and beyond. It has been featured in several books. It often is a stopping point for conference groups wanting to learn more about community gardens and what it takes to start and sustain one.

One of the goals of The Lord’s Acre, says Sides, is to create a space where people are free to talk. “It is sometimes difficult for giving gardens at churches and other organizations to get people to volunteer,” she explains, “but The Lord’s Acre has a reputation that gets around. It is a place where people can come and not have to be concerned about fitting into a group that adheres to a certain set of beliefs. We are intentional about creating a space that feeds people in many ways.”

A learning garden

Gardens offer many lessons and this one is, no doubt, a learning garden. Sides says that it doesn’t matter if it’s a young child or a lifelong gardener, she has seen many people through the years have moments of delight where they discover something new.

Children from 3 to 8 are introduced to the wonders of a garden in the Sprouts Program. While they are immersed in garden activities, their parents are able to serve their community, learn more about gardening and share what they know.

The Lord’s Acre welcomes interns of all ages each year, with many moving on to other communities to implement lessons learned.

Sides and garden manager Jon Strom, along with volunteers, have tapped into a nearby resource, Warren Wilson College, which helps strengthen its relationship with the community. The garden serves as a laboratory of sorts for the college students. As Sides points out, it’s not only the students who benefit, but the garden, the organization and the community as well.

The students have been involved in a geographic food mapping project of the community to help bring greater awareness of gaps in food availability and where needs lie. They also have assisted with the garden’s community food survey and have worked in the garden. They are working on an oral history project that highlights local gardeners. Sides says future projects include recording the history of gardens and farms in the community, while social work classes will learn and teach about how best to engage the community at large.

Each Wednesday night is Open Volunteer Night at the garden. The garden staff welcomes anyone who wants to dig in the dirt, learn more about gardening or who wants to share their knowledge. There’s no need to worry if you don’t have gardening experience, says Sides. “We welcome everyone of any skill level and make it a point to have garden staff on each project so no one feels lost. There will be someone there to show you the way and to guide you.”

Reaching the community

The garden’s efforts continue to expand. In addition to providing fresh produce to the local food pantry, fruits and vegetables go to a new effort called The Welcome Table, started by local resident Barbara Trombatori.

Each week volunteers prepare a meal and everyone is welcome. Good, fresh food and camaraderie bring people together, regardless of economic status. The goal is to weave a more united community. The set-up is such that it isn’t obvious who pays and who doesn’t. You pay what you can for the meal.

Last year, The Lord’s Acre also started a Share-the-Harvest Market, which involves gardeners in the greater community donating leftover produce from their own gardens to fill a free market every week.

No doubt those early farmers would be proud of the legacy they left for this community.  While they went into action because of the Depression-era soup lines, The Lord’s Acre today recognizes there are many other forms of hunger. 

“Everyone is hungry for something,” says Sides. “Often, people are hungry for an opportunity to give, to be of service and to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

The garden hosts open houses and tours each year, and the staff is happy to share both gardening tips and advice to others who are interested in starting a similar effort in their communities.

For directions and to learn more about The Lord’s Acre, visit thelordsacre.org

About the Author

After many years with N.C. State University and other organizations, Leah Chester-Davis started her own communications business. She got her start long ago as a 4-H’er giving small kitchen appliance demonstrations for her electric cooperative.

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