Bountiful Harvest

DALLAS -- A growing frenzy started last spring with a request from Dallas Community Action. The challenge was to local churches to help raise 1,000 pounds of produce for the needy in the Dallas Commun

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Wayne Parks has to dig deep to find the potatoes, but the effort is well worth it as a bumper crop is harvested.

DALLAS -- A growing frenzy started last spring with a request from Dallas Community Action. The challenge was to local churches to help raise 1,000 pounds of produce for the needy in the Dallas Community Garden.

Grace Baptist Church put in its own garden and far exceeded that mark during last growing season, donating more than 4,000 pounds.

The output earned the small community church a name Pastor Russ Hilsinger is proud of: "the food church."

This year, church garden volunteers have set their sights on a loftier goal -- 10,000 pounds. Hilsinger was doubtful when volunteers suggested the mark. But then again, they have a few advantages in their corner.

The garden was expanded to half an acre and they have a water well, paid for by donations, that can supply 44 gallons of water per minute if needed. From the well, volunteers set up soaker hoses throughout the garden and installed tall sprinklers in the corn. Local farmers donated truck loads of manure and mushroom compost and the tractors to till it into the soil.

Still, Hilsinger was unsure they would be able to pull off 10,000 pounds.

"I told them 'it just seems a little ambitious,'" he said.

Those in charge of the growing had faith. Now, after supplying the Dallas Food Bank with about 5,000 pounds of vegetables this season and watching pickers haul 703 pounds of produce out of the garden in one morning, Hilsinger is beginning to have faith, too.

"That's a whole lot of produce," he said. "I think we will hit that 10,000 pounds."

Seeing the tall corn, bushy pole beans, overgrown squash plants and tomato vines loaded with not-quite-ripe fruit, it's easy to understand why.

One morning last week, bright sunshine combined with the distinctly fall-like scent of burning wood, a strong reminder a shift in the seasons is approaching -- and with it, the best of the harvest.

Looking over the half-acre, Hilsinger drew another contrast.

"For a long time all we grew here was dandelions," he said.

Much more than growing those common yellow-flowered weeds, the land at Grace Baptist is feeding families in a time when demand for food assistance is on to the raise. P.J. Johnson, the Polk County community resource specialist for Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action, couldn't be happier to take the abundant harvest off the church's hands.

"Families are actually getting to eat fresh, organic food grown locally," Johnson said. "I don't think people realize how much better fresh green beans are for their children than canned."

Volunteer Ed Gilkison was in charge of the harvest last Thursday morning, the day that tipped the donated total to more than 5,000 pounds. Hilsinger and other volunteers credit him and two other dedicated gardeners in the church with the growing season's success.

Gilkison handed the credit elsewhere, saying without the numerous donations, including the well, the harvest would have never reached such an impressive level.

"We've been really blessed," he said. "The garden has grown well."

It may grow again.

The garden is on a half-acre plot with room to expand on two sides and another piece of land across a gravel driveway sitting empty. The church would need to apply for water rights from the state of Oregon to irrigate more than a half acre, but that is the only obstacle Hilsinger sees in the way of growing a bigger garden.

Church members have taken the project on and volunteers and donations, including next year's seeds and a gardener and greenhouse to start them, already are lined up.

Growth could happen through other means, too. Hilsinger has challenged other Dallas churches to put in their own gardens.

The prospect of having even just one other church try to live up to Grace Baptist's standard makes Johnson more than a little giddy.

"It excites me that a community wants to compete to raise food for the hungry," she said. "How much more blessed can we be?"

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