August 30, 2006 | By: Terri McLean
ASHLAND, Ky.

By most accounts, farmers in Boyd County would give the shirt off their backs to help others. Now, several are giving their freshly picked produce as well.

The farmers, members of the Boyd County Farmers’ Market, are donating their leftover corn, green beans, watermelons and other items each week to River Cities Harvest, an organization that collects and distributes perishable food to agencies that help feed hungry people in the area.

“The farmers love being able to give the leftover produce to people who could really use it,” said Lyndall Harned, agriculture and natural resources Extension agent for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture in Boyd County. “Otherwise, they would have to pitch it over the fence to the cows or plow it under. Now they know it’s going to a good cause.”

Harned, who sits on River Cities Harvest’s board of directors, had a hand in bringing area farmers and the 15-year-old organization together in the local fight against hunger. But both he and Amanda Gilmore, operations coordinator for River Cities Harvest, agree that the farmers are the heart and soul of the successful first-year effort.

“They’ve been great,” said Gilmore, as she worked at her organization’s makeshift collection booth – the back of her PT Cruiser. ”We had a couple of weeks in late July where we were getting 600 pounds of produce donated (each week).”

To an agency that collects about 250,000 pounds of both perishable and nonperishable food each year, 600 pounds or less of fresh produce a week might not sound like it would make much of an impact. However, it’s not the amount of food that makes the biggest difference, Gilmore said. It’s the type of food.

“This is the freshest of the fresh,” she said. “The people who are receiving it are loving it because they usually get canned instead of fresh.”

Six of the 15 agencies served by River Cities Harvest are equipped to handle fresh produce. They pick it up at the end of the Saturday market and prepare and distribute it almost immediately. Included is Safe Harbor, a domestic violence shelter in Ashland that serves threemeals a day to as many as 35 women and children. 

“We access as much local community support as possible, and this was just a tremendous opportunity for us to get fresh produce in for our families,” said Ann Perkins, executive director of Safe Harbor and another River Cities Harvest board member. “Last week, we had fresh corn, we had fresh green beans, we had freshly dug new potatoes, we had watermelon, we had cantaloupe and we had apples.”

Because of a good growing season this year and an abundance of donated produce, Safe Harbor’s cooks have also frozen some items for later use, Perkins said.

“It’s not just here today and dinner tonight, but because we do get such a large volume of produce we can put it to good use throughout the year,” she said. 

Perhaps the most important benefit of the farmers’ donations, however, is one that can’t be seen but can be felt, Perkins said.

“It is heartwarming (for our clients) bringing fresh produce to the table …knowing that it comes from the farmers and knowing that people actually care about them. It’s a connection that they feel,” she said.

One of those farmers is Sara Sexton, who grows a variety of fruits and vegetables on her family farm in nearby Lawrence County. So far this summer, the Sextons have donated leftover corn, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and watermelons. 

“We’ve got big hearts,” she said. “We’d rather give it away than take it home and pitch it over the hill.”

Farmers’ market members from Carter and Greenup counties, as well as Boyd County, and a few from neighboring West Virginia and Ohio also participate in the program, said market master Ed Brown.

“It’s good for all of us,” he said. “The farmers themselves they don’t like to waste stuff they grow. What they don’t sell they like it to be used one way or another.”

In fact, Brown said with a laugh, “they get kind of hostile if the ‘buggy’ ain’t here when they leave because they don’t want to throw it away.”

Customers who shop the farmers’ market, located in the parking lot of Fannin Motors in Ashland, also have a chance to get it on the action. They can buy extra produce to donate or make a monetary contribution.

“An unexpected benefit is the cash donations,” said Extension’s Harned. “There have been some days when they’ve gotten $100 in cash and River Cities goes right back to the vendors and buys their produce to distribute.”

Because of the success of the produce donation project, River Cities Harvest, at Harned’s suggestion, this year initiated an effort to provide fresh meat products to the organization. Supporters bought animals at the Boyd County Fair Youth Livestock Auction, which was held in August, and then donated the animals back to River Cities Harvest. Three lambs and one goat were initially donated and, after a trade, four lambs ended up going to the processing house to provide meat to three agencies that prepare meals for the needy.

“With the prices that the animals brought at the auction, this was about $1,700 of ‘fair’ value,” Harned said. “I think everyone was pleased.”

Contact: 

Lyndall Harned, 606-739-5184, Amanda Gilmore, 606-329-3045