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It’s a simple idea that has “exploded,” according to Bernie Fowler Jr., the son of former state Sen. Bernie Fowler Sr. “It started out as just growing food for local people,” the younger Fowler said.
Farming 4 Hunger, a Prince Frederick nonprofit Fowler founded, is growing into something that could provide business opportunities for area farmers, offer children a connection to the area’s agricultural heritage and provide meaningful volunteer opportunities for area churches and other groups. Farming 4 Hunger organizes volunteers to harvest locally grown produce to stock local food banks.
Fowler said that as a homebuilder he owns Bernie Fowler Homes in Prince Frederick he suffered from the economic downturn of the past few years and getting Farming 4 Hunger started and running was “spiritually driven.”
“The more I got involved in this, the less I thought about my problems and focused on helping other people,” Fowler said.
This fall is the first harvest for Farming 4 Hunger, he said.
End Hunger in Calvert County, a Huntingtown nonprofit that now partners with Farming 4 Hunger by distributing produce to food pantries in Calvert County, hosted a similar harvest last year that brought in slightly less than 200,000 pounds of produce, according to Farming 4 Hunger’s website at www.farming4hunger.com.
Fowler said he ran and managed that harvest also, but established Farming 4 Hunger to grow produce on a larger scale.
“There were too many people who needed help in our area,” he said.
Brenda DiCarlo, director of the Southern Maryland Food Bank in Hughesville, wrote in an email that the food bank’s 28 member sites, which include several in St. Mary’s County, have reported an increase in the number of families requesting assistance and produced 36 percent more food in July than in the same month the previous year. Currently, the food bank and its member sites are serving more than 5,500 Southern Maryland families each month, DiCarlo said.
Fowler projects that Farming 4 Hunger’s first harvest will approach 500,000 pounds of fresh local produce, including potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes and other produce, which will go to local food pantries this year.
DiCarlo said the food bank usually suggests five to eight pounds of produce for a family of three to five people, although families are not limited to that amount. The food bank sites also offer produce by its availability, family size and each family’s situation, DiCarlo added.
Based on that estimate, this year’s Farming 4 Hunger harvest could provide enough food for each of the 5,500 families that Southern Maryland Food Bank serves 11 to 18 times, assuming a three-to-five-person average per family.
The harvest will go to several food banks, including the Southern Maryland Food Bank, Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore and Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., although the focus of Farming 4 Hunger is to provide produce for hungry people in Southern Maryland.
“My heart and vision was to help Southern Maryland,” Fowler said.
Serenity Farm in Benedict is one of the two currently participating farms, playing host to harvesting days most recently on Sept. 12, 15, 22 and 29. Additional harvest days are scheduled Oct. 6 and 13 at the other participating farm, Spider Hall Farm in Prince Frederick, to bring in the sweet potato crop.
Theresa Robinson, Serenity Farm’s owner and manager, said the work has been rewarding.
“Bernie came to us to say what he’d like to see happen and was looking around for help,” Robinson said, adding her brother, David Robinson, really got the farm involved in the food effort.
David said he and Fowler attended the same high school and church.
“It was a call to faith and it was about helping people out — the needy — first and foremost,” Robinson said.
The farmers also received reimbursement for growing the crops, Robinson said, adding that the income has helped the farm.
Donations from individuals, businesses and churches have funded the farming operation, Fowler said, adding that the nonprofit staff is comprised of volunteers.
Fowler called the effort a “win-win” for farmers, in that they receive income for growing crops while providing fresh produce for food banks. While two farms are the focus of Farming 4 Hunger this year, Fowler said he is working to organize additional area farmers and set up expanded business opportunities.
“This is evolving all the time,” he said.
Twenty-three fifth-grade students from Barstow Elementary School came to Serenity Farms to help with the harvesting work Sept. 12. The day was geared toward giving students the experience of learning about harvesting and providing for the hungry, said teacher Kelli Short.
“I don’t think the kids understand how much work goes into harvesting and how many people are in need of food in the area,” Short said.
Students also had fun helping with the harvest.
“It’s fun,” said Sophia Santoyo, 10. “It’s hard work but it’s for the hungry, so it’s good.”
Fowler said he’s hoping to also expand other schoolchildren’s exposure to the Farming 4 Hunger effort. “I’d love to get all the fifth-graders in St. Mary’s County out to the farm,” he said.
Volunteers from the United Way of Calvert County, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, local businesses and parents also helped out on the Sept. 12 harvesting day. Local churches, businesses and nonprofits have assisted on previous harvesting days, Fowler said.
Fowler hopes the effort will grow in every way the output of produce donated, the outreach effort and community involvement.
“My goal is to be able to grow and produce a million pounds of fresh produce every year,” Fowler said.
Another possibility is to have a missions and retreat center for high school and college students to stay and work at Serenity Farm, Fowler said.
Renovating greenhouses and growing food year-round is another goal, Fowler said, as is educating people about sustainable agriculture.
Fowler said he hopes the experience teaches children to give to others and to grow their own food.
“We’re all supposed to serve others and by serving others first, it’s fed me as much as we’ve fed others,” he said.
Staff writer Susan Craton contributed to this article