Planting Generosity

Today’s New South Essay comes from good friend and former colleague Don Durham. I’ve invited Don to tell us about his life on the farm, feeding the hungry, launching a podcast, and challenging all of us to do our part to end hunger.

In another life I had the privilege of working with Lance for most of a decade when we both worked for the same Baptist organization. I worked with the foundation connected to the organization, and Lance worked in the communication office. That’s when I learned how talented, incisive, focused, creative, driven, and effective he was. I even got to peek behind the scenes with a writing project or two he was working on at the time. Even though I was already a fan of his work at the day job, those sneak peaks still afforded me the opportunity to fall into that favorite vortex of enjoyment that only comes from discovering a new writer whose voice speaks to you. After Lance and I both moved on to other work in other places this blog was my only source of an occasional fix of the writing I’d come to enjoy so much.

All of that to say what a particular honor and pleasure it is to be invited into this space to share a bit of a story. Thank you, Lance.

The new work I moved on to was starting a farm to grow food to give away. The place where that work happens is a farm, Healing Springs Acres, in central North Carolina. It’s owned by another former co-worker of ours whose family donated the property for this purpose. How I found that property and came to have the use of it is a whole ‘nother story involving far more Providence than I actually believe in. We’ll save that for another time.

Tractor plowing a field
Growing food to give away isn’t glamorous, but it is important.

For about 10 years I’ve been planting a few acres of produce to give away. The usual mix is green beans, corn, okra, squash, zucchini, and pink-eyed purple hulled peas – because I like to say, “pink-eyed purple hulled peas.” The other reason I use that mix of vegetables is that they are relatively dense in nutrition, and they have a fairly stable shelf life.

All of the food I grow is distributed through existing food pantries or distribution programs. I’ve got all I can say grace over to keep the Johnson grass from spreading its pernicious evil through the fields, and I’m not qualified to set up and run a legit intake and needs assessment process to determine who should get the food. I’d never be able to get past the assumption that everyone should have all the food they need. So, I just grow the food and take it to folks who have already figured out how to distribute it in the most helpful ways.

Planting acres and acres of food is easy. Having enough hands to hoe the weeds and harvest the produce is a different matter. Volunteers are an essential ingredient in making everything work at harvest time. Given that constraint, I usually only plant a couple of acres in total. That usually yields six to eight thousand pounds of food.

Fortunately, the solution to hunger is not for my farm to grow bigger and bigger. From the beginning our mantra has been: Planting Generosity. Providing Food. Proclaiming Others Can Do the Same!

Healing Springs Acres logoThe solution to hunger is for more and more small local projects to emerge here and there in your community and other communities. I’m not even saying everyone should go start a farm to grow food to give away. That probably wouldn’t make much sense in a lot of situations. I had a unique set of circumstances that made that a feasible option for me. The question is, what is the best thing for you and your neighbors to do to help end hunger in your community’s unique set of circumstances? Once you answer that question, I’d love to hear the answer.

A little over a year ago I was approached by a podcast producer in Atlanta who had heard about the farm and thought it would make an interesting podcast to tell that story – unbelievable Providence and all.  I thought it over for about five minutes and decided it would bore me to death to have to listen to myself monologue for 30 minutes or so at a time about my own project. It would also be a fairly short-lived podcast.  It’s just not that complicated of a story. I have a farm. I grow food to give away. Done.

The good thing about a mantra is that if you say it often enough, you can hear yourself repeating it back in those moments when you most need to hear it.  “… Proclaiming That Others Can Do the Same!”

After a few days, I called him back. “Yes. I want to make a podcast. No. It’s not going to be about me or my farm.”

In the 10 years I’ve been working on this project, a lot of other folks have started a lot of other really cool and effective food and hunger focused projects of their own. Those are stories I want to hear. What are people doing to end hunger?

One of my favorite adages is, “Those who say something can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt the folks who are doing it.” No doubt about it, hunger is an overwhelming, pervasive, systemic problem that is bigger than any one of us. But, there are people solving that problem. I wanted to create an uninterrupted platform for telling their stories.

So, “Welcome to the Table!: what people are doing to end hunger.”

Welcome to the Table podcast logoNot only did the mantra lead me to the right focus for the podcast, but finding the right focus for the podcast finally made the last part of the mantra a true reality. We’ve done a decent enough job of living into the first two parts, “Planting Generosity & Providing Food.” Until now though, the third part has just been rhetoric.

Each episode is an interview with an entrepreneurial instigator who has started their own food or hunger focused project from scratch. I love that these efforts grow up and become institutionalized in some way. However, I’m not interested in interviewing the staff that carries on the work. I’m focused on sharing the stories of the folks who went from doing nothing, to doing something. Of course, sometimes it’s important to break your own rules. When the story is worth it, I’ll expand the focus. No matter who I’m talking to, the questions I always ask are:

  • Why did this matter to you and how did you get started?
  • How do you define success and what have your experiences been?
  • What are your most significant challenges and what are you doing about them?
  • Why are people hungry in your area?
  • What do you wish more people would do more of, more often to help end hunger?

It’s the last two questions that I hope will linger in listeners’ ears.  Why are people hungry in your area, and what can you do more of, more often to help end hunger in your community?

If you’d like to find your way to good answers to those questions, I’d invite you to listen to the conversations I’m having with the people who are “doing it.”  We can all learn from their experiences and benefit from their inspiring wisdom. There are also coaches available if you’d like to talk with someone about helpful things to consider as you’re just getting started with your own food or hunger focused project, or if you’d like to consider ways to make an existing project more effective.

The first cluster of episodes tell the story of how my hometown of High Point, N.C., responded to being named the number one city in the entire country for concentrated food hardship in 2015. They’ve moved up to number #14. Listen to find out how.

I’m currently releasing a series of episodes from Immokalee, Fla., focused on efforts to help end hunger among the farm workers who pick most of America’s wintertime produce, particularly tomatoes.  These are the workers who pay the brutal cost of providing inexpensive groceries to American grocery stores year round. You’re probably already involved in these stories.  Listen to find out how.

Either way, I appreciate Lance inviting me to invite you to take a listen to the new podcast. I hope you hear something that inspires you to do more of something effective to help end hunger in your community.  I’d also love to hear from you if you know of a story worth telling about an entrepreneurial instigator who is doing something to help end hunger.

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