Community Gardens tackling rural hunger and education in ag

Same purpose, new leadership in WinField United Community Gardens

WinField United Community Garden

The grass is turning greener, the birds are singing: it’s obvious that spring is just around the corner. Another indication of the warmer summer months to come? Efforts for the WinField United AnswerPlot® Community Gardens are starting up again, all across the country.

Matt Heberling and Nathan Pohlen, and many other passionate WinField United employees—master researchers, researchers and agronomists—volunteer their time to help with the Community Gardens program. The program works by involving WinField United advisors with local FFA chapters in maintaining and upkeeping a community garden over the summer – at the end, the fresh produce is donated to local food pantries.

Matt, a master research specialist in Illinois, has been overseeing the national program since it was first started back in 2011 by Kevin Eye, VP agronomy and product development, and Lydia Botham, VP Land O’Lakes Foundation and community relations . Over Matt’s time, the program has grown from five Answer Plot® Community Gardens to 22 this past year.

But Matt is retiring from his volunteer leadership position. Enter Nathan Pohlen, a research specialist in Iowa, who will be picking up from Matt. Nathan has been a part of the Community Gardens since the early years and has an enormous passion for both aspects of the program: the community service and the ag education for kids.

Giving back in our communities

“My time with the Community Gardens has been a humbling experience,” says Matt. “You constantly hear about the hunger and need for access to fresh food when you get out of the cities. We’re here, working in those communities on a daily basis. And we get to involve high school kids in the experience of agriculture and community service at the same time.”

For Nathan, he’s enjoyed watching the kids change their perspectives about agriculture, and it’s changed his perspective on communities at the same time. “It’s opened my eyes to food pantries and what the needs are in these communities,” says Nathan. “I’ve seen that same realization in the kids, too – it’s really opened their eyes to volunteering and giving back.”

In 2015, USDA reported that there were 42.2 million food-insecure people in the U.S., and the highest rates of food insecurity came from rural areas.

The Community Gardens program produced 87,964 pounds of produce this past year. Matt says that one of the most common struggles for the FFA chapters is that they may simply have too much of a produce and a single food pantry may not be able to take all of it.

Matt and Nathan help the FFA advisors figure out how to make donations that matter most to the community and ensure nothing goes to waste. This means working with the food pantries to ensure that a good variety of produce is given – not all of one type. It might mean finding a few other food pantries in the areas. It might mean selling some of the produce at a farmer’s market and donating the cash. One of Nathan’s chapters also gave the vegetables to the school cafeterias to use in free and reduced meals.

“It’s always going back to the community,” says Nathan. “It’s been amazing to see the impact with the food pantries. Usually the donations they get are canned foods or things that have a long shelf life – fresh produce can make a big difference.”

Kids experiencing hands-on agriculture

And of course, it’s also opened up the kids’ eyes to agriculture. The students and their FFA advisors will get together every spring with a WinField United specialist to talk through strategy for the year. They talk about the responsibilities of tending to a garden: pest control management, how to plant the seeds, how to weed a garden – things that kids may not readily know without experience.

“In one of the other Community Gardens chapters, I remember hearing about how there was a girl involved from FFA who didn’t have an interest in ag,” says Matt. “She ended up going on to get a four-year degree in ag business.”

It’s an opportunity to show them that Land O’Lakes is more than butter, and beyond that, an opportunity to show them that agriculture can be a viable and exciting career path. By forging relationships with advisors and high schools, Land O’Lakes is front and center when kids are starting to think about secondary education and careers.

“I’m hoping to see Nathan bring a fresh perspective to the program,” says Matt. “I think he can push the envelope and put his own touches on this program –– I’m just grateful the program continues to gain traction and still be a learning experience for the kids.”

For Nathan, it’s some big shoes to fill, but it’s clear that he’s more than capable. And the driving factor always has been and will continue to be about the kids.

“Ultimately, we’d like to grow the program,” says Nathan. “It’s a good opportunity for kids to learn about horticulture. With one of the chapters in Iowa, we have about 170 kids in the FFA program, but only about three of them came from a farming background. Any way we can take this community involvement program and turn it into a learning experience – that’s what I want to see.”