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Growing community in the Courthouse Community Garden.

Currently in its fourth season, the Courthouse Community Garden's evolution into a community fixture in Salem started more than four years ago from an idea tossed around for at least a couple of years before the seed of the idea took hold.

Salem, New York, is small town in upstate New York, located in Washington County, and just a couple of miles from the Vermont border. Primarily agrarian in makeup, with a population around 2,000, this place is known to house a greater number of cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens than people. The county boasts covered bridges, a span of the famed Batten Kill, and the home of renowned American folk artist Grandma Moses.


Salem's Courthouse Community Center is located in the historic courthouse built in 1869 by Troy, New York, architect Marcus Cummings. Attached to the courthouse was a jail and kitchen that was used for the jail's "trustees," and in 2001, the jail moved to the county seat, with the county vacating the building. Not long after, the town took ownership of the historic structure and a 501(c)(3) was established. Restoration work began as the courtroom was transformed with youth and arts programming; the kitchen space presented an opportunity for adaptive reuse, where volunteers established a space for small scale food processing and individuals could create a product for market in a licensed facility. The kitchen (now officially the Battenkill Kitchen, Inc., or BKI) has also became known as a location for cooking classes and the hive of activity during the annual Al Fresco dinner, a celebration of Salem's agricultural heritage and the region's farmers and producers, with a dinner for 400 created entirely from locally-sourced ingredients.


Through numerous conversations, the idea of a community garden would surface, a complement to the checkerboard hillsides adjacent to the Courthouse Community Center campus. The location would be perfect, it was thought, especially with its proximity to the Battenkill Kitchen--where lessons of planting, growing, harvesting, cooking, and eating, could all take place. In January 2009, a core group spearheaded the effort and reached out to the owners of the farmland near the courthouse, specifically Sheldon Brown, a partner with Woody Hill Farm.

Brown said that the first and most compelling reason for the farm to donate use of the land for the garden project was that he and the other farm partners always wanted to be active members of the community.

"We live, work, raise our children here, and our futures are with the Salem community," says Brown, "and, as with all farmers, the physical (land) is very important. The ability to carry out our passion and livelihood is intrinsically tied to the land, making the community where the farm is located of extreme importance."

In addition, Brown cites reasons of ancestry, such as the fact that the early owner of the farm (located near the courthouse) donated the land to the county for the courthouse as well as donated the property where the K--12 school is located, across the street from the courthouse--all to help the community thrive, prosper, and grow.

An 8,000 square-foot piece of land, part of the Woody Hill Farm's field adjacent to the courthouse complex, was identified as the new garden space, and the garden was set up under the umbrella of the Courthouse Community Center, facilitating contributions to the project, financial and otherwise.

It was also Sheldon Brown's strong belief in agriculture and what a garden exemplifies--"the importance of educating all to both the act of growing food and the importance of nutrition in all of our lives, from school age children to adults," that led the core group to establish a mission statement for the Courthouse Community Garden:
 The Courthouse Community Garden
 (CCG) includes an enthusiastic group
 of individuals that have come together
 under a larger 501(c)(3) organization,
 the Historic Salem Courthouse
 Preservation Association, Inc. (The
 Courthouse Community Center) to
 plant a garden on a parcel of land adjacent
 to the Courthouse Community
 Center campus in Salem, New York,
 a rural community in Washington
 County. The CCG program, in its
 broadest definition will offer opportunities
 to teach youth of all ages to
 grow, process, and market food, developing
 intergenerational community

The CCG working group included a range of objectives for the 2009 season that included: growing vegetables that would be donated to the local food pantry, providing a business venture for local teens and agriculture students where they could grow and sell at the local farmers' market (using any season's profits to roll over into the next season), having the opportunity to teach the science of gardening to include soil testing and the plant cycle, serving as an activity and providing educational opportunities through the Courthouse summer youth programming (Lunch, Learn 'n' Play--a free camp for Salem students with extensive educational programming and a nutritious lunch each day), dovetailing with seasonal cooking classes at the Battenkill Kitchen (the shared-use licensed facility for start-up food businesses and culinary education), as well as providing multiple entry points for volunteers to include teaching and tending and also providing opportunities to partner with other community and regional organizations. In the first year, the garden had modest expectations of also being able to provide herbs and flowers for the annual Courthouse Al Fresco dinner, while speaking to broader issues of sustainability in the Salem community.


It was a key part of the garden group's plan to engage the students at the K--12 school--and the location, across the street from the school, was perfect for bringing in the students to be a part of the entire garden process--from planning to eating. A couple of the members scheduled assemblies to speak with the students and teachers at the elementary level, asking them what sort of things they'd like to see planted in the garden ("an apple tree" and pumpkins were popular responses), what vegetables and fruits they most liked to eat (carrots, berries, potatoes, corn), and to ask for their assistance in starting seeds in the classroom, ultimately planting the seedlings in the garden before the end of the school year.


During the inaugural year of the garden, Jane Lourie was an elementary school teacher and currently serves as the Salem Central School's K--12 principal. She notes, "Our school has long been the central hub for Salem, focused on our community's youth. With the opportunity to engage the students in the process from the beginning, they were able to work with their teachers, reinforcing lessons to support age-appropriate learning goals in the classroom--whether it was a second grader understanding the plant life cycle or a fifth grader learning about different types of seeds and germination, they took away the important lesson of teamwork and coming together to create something for their town." Lourie adds, "With the ability to participate in the process of growing food that would be used by the summer Lunch, Learn 'n' Play program or benefit participants of the food pantry, all of the students learned the important lesson of giving back to the community."

Nancy Hand-Higby, a noted garden designer with expertise in vegetable and cutting gardens led the garden planning sessions, guiding the selection of seeds and placement, taking into account realistic expectations based on a growing season specific to Salem's zone. Seeds were secured through a grant from the America the Beautiful Fund, while the high school agriculture students and their teacher started preparing the garden for planting.

Amy Maxwell, Salem Central School's high school agriculture teacher said, "I am pleased to have a location so close to school where we can do some 'dirty work' and practice what we learn in the classroom." Maxwell notes that the people she works with at the CCG are great with her students, too.

"During the first year we were involved in some soil testing using the soil test kits from Cornell Cooperative Extension and also setting up the beds for the garden. The growth that has occurred at the garden in the past four years has been phenomenal, and the participation by my students has changed. This year we were involved in planning and preparing the beds for the Lunch, Learn 'n' Play garden and also were able to put in some early crops in the barrels around the courthouse. We started the majority of the flowers that were in the CCG and also along the south side of the courthouse this summer. The students were able to determine indoor seed starting dates, using the information on the seed packets, our last frost date, and also when we wanted to have the beds planted, and actually start the seeds, grow the flowers, and transplant them outside."

Executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Washington County, Brian Gilchrist, says that there has definitely been an increase in interest in community gardens throughout the county. He said that most of the gardens he's seeing aren't the typical allotment-style garden where local residents would rent or lease space in a garden plot. "The gardens we are seeing truly are community gardens that are maintained by community members--serving and feeding the community. Produce from these gardens may be given to the local food pantries, given directly to community members via local pick-up sites, used in summer feeding programs, or 'sold' using things like the Green Grocer Program where the funds are used to reinvest for the next year's plantings and seeds. Many of the community gardens are maintained by a church or other civic organizations."

Gilchrist also notes other ways that community gardens create partnerships throughout the county--the Washington County Youth Bureau's alternative sentencing program maintains a garden with individuals that have a community service requirement, and Washington County Public Health and Cornell Cooperative Extension have partnered once again on a garden in the county jail maintained by inmates. Produce from the garden is used in jail meals and the home-delivered meals program.

As there has been an increase in interest in community gardens throughout the county, Gilchrist states that their office receives more calls with individuals seeking advice on how to start a garden, including soil testing, and what to plant. "We obviously encourage anyone or groups to make sure that they have the volunteers to be able to maintain these gardens," and adds that distribution of the product is key, since the produce is perishable. "In addition, we encourage groups to think about providing recipients with information and recipes with the produce so that the recipients, who may not be used to using fresh, local product, know how to use them."

The CCG has provided the Salem Food Pantry with a large variety of fresh produce ranging from salad greens, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squashes, radishes, onions, and tomatoes, adding to the stock of staples like dairy products, canned fish, cereals, pasta, and grains.

Seth Pitts, executive director of the Salem Food Pantry, also serves as Salem's Town Supervisor. "The community garden allows the food pantry to expand its offerings of fresh produce to our clients and allows us to introduce new foods for them to enjoy. Every week everything is taken and well received."

The Courthouse Community Center's executive director Donna Farringer says that the garden has yielded more than healthy produce that serves the area. "It has brought together volunteers of all ages for a common good. The garden has taught many lessons, fostering a sense of pride and accomplishment, as well as creating bonds of enduring friendship." She adds that the garden has allowed the Courthouse Community Center to expand their scope of programming to incorporate a wider range of hands-on experiences that have been valuable learning tools. "The garden has benefited our organization by attracting the interest and participation of new volunteers who would otherwise not have thought to become involved."

The garden's reach included one of the local churches that housed the Salem Food Pantry. Reverend Donna Frischknecht-Jackson, with the First United Presbyterian Church, participated in planting activities through a weekly after-school program at the church. "Since coming to Salem as pastor in 2008, my message to the congregation has been, 'how do we become the church out in the world rather than seeking ways to serve ourselves?' So when I heard about the Courthouse Community Garden in 2009, I was so excited. It was the perfect venue for the children of our after school program, Faith Filled Fridays, to participate in. By starting with nothing but seeds and then planting the fragile seedlings, the children were given a great opportunity to experience what they heard about 'loving your neighbors.'"

Frischknecht-Jackson continues, "By getting their hands dirty in the soil and doing the back-breaking work of planting and weeding, they understood better that in this world it is imperative that we seek ways of helping others, and we must learn how to give back. In return, the Courthouse Community Garden helped this pastor plant a little seed of faith in these kids."

In the first year, a couple of Salem residents tilled the garden soil by tractor, and volunteers stepped up to rake the soil into 80 separate 4- by 10-foot beds to prepare for the June 5th Planting Day. Members from the county office met with high school students interested in (qualifying) paid positions with summer placement at the community garden, and outreach continued into the community for ongoing assignments.

During the same time, students and teachers created individual recycled newspaper pots, and the students started the seeds in their classrooms with coordinating classroom lessons, learning about soil science, the difference between fruits and vegetables, nutrition, and the history of the Salem area as an agricultural community. The garden project also provided an opportunity to discuss how the produce would increase the offerings at the local food pantry--a place many of the students visit during different times of the year when they collect canned goods to replenish the food pantry shelves.

Contributions were obtained as one member of the garden group, Charlie Burd, solicited community support. AJ Agway donated over $1,000 of gardening tools and supplies; a few individuals provided a dedicated water hook-up for irrigation at the garden's edge; Salem Hardware contributed tools and canning supplies for the harvest season; and businesses and organizations like CaroVail, Justin Rushinski Contracting, Salem Rotary, Glens Falls Hospital, The Shoppe Off Broadway, Stewart's Holiday Match, MilkHouse Artworks, Gardenworks Farm, and the National Peanut Board made monetary or in-kind donations.



Suvir Saran, noted chef and cookbook author who has conducted cooking classes and culinary events at the Battenkill Kitchen, stated that the garden's impact on the students becomes far-reaching and long lasting. "Donors like The Peanut Farmers of America (through a gift from the National Peanut Board) were able to give a gift to the kids of our community--today they know about planting a garden, and as they grow up and understand the gift given by farmers from states far away, we're all hopeful they will remember charity, as well as the farming practices that this garden will instill in them."

On the inaugural planting day, about 300 elementary students, teachers, and staff walked across the street carrying their seedlings and quickly found their classroom's planting bed identified with signage and a picture of the produce when harvested. The students were able to listen to Noah Sheetz, executive chef at the Executive Mansion serving during Governor Patterson's term, speak to them about their garden project and a similar garden that was making its debut on the White House lawn in Washington, DC, that same year. The chef also brought seedlings of different plants to include in the Courthouse Community Garden, speaking with the students about the importance of healthful eating and exercise.

Throughout the season, the garden receives a number of visitors--sometimes it's a neighboring town wanting information on how to start a garden, or a senior citizen group invited in to glean at the end of the season. Elected officials have been invited to speak with the students involved in the Courthouse Community Center's Lunch, Learn 'n' Play summer programming, and members of the community have conducted cooking classes with these students using the produce they harvest from the garden, making for an authentic garden to table experience.

The CCG is now managed full-time by Courthouse Community Center president Dottie Schneider who says, "I have had the pleasure of watching the growth of all the young people who have been touched by this powerful initiative. Not only did the seeds lovingly planted and tended by so many young hands grow and flourish, but the seeds planted within the fertile minds of the young participants grew as well with the knowledge of the limitless potential a garden provides."

The garden's focus on sustainability has included marketing the product to generate revenue for the next season. In 2009, student workers would drop off produce at the food pantry and then take product to the local farmers' market each Saturday, being careful to select items different than those sold by other farmers and producers at the market. Their marketing approach would often include providing recipes for Swiss chard, beet greens, and different varieties of kale and herbs, not normally found there. Now, the sale of produce has evolved into a green grocer program, where members of the community can purchase the fresh garden harvest in the village at the garden. The garden also produces more vegetables and herbs for the annual Al Fresco dinner and subsequent chef's brunch, the annual fundraiser for the Courthouse Community Center, sometimes supplying an entire menu item like roasted vegetables, for the 400 dinner guests.

Schneider oversees the teens that have been working at the CCG throughout the 2012 summer season, including Jillian Borntraeger and Victoria Vincent, both high school students entering their senior year at Salem Central School. Says Vincent, "The Courthouse Community Garden is important to me because it shows how our community can work together to make the garden a possibility. Everyone has the opportunity to share in the responsibilities as well as the fresh produce. The garden is like a little child--you can't neglect it and expect it to grow. You have to give it lots of attention on a regular basis, so it can grow healthy and strong." Borntraeger concurs and states, "It has been organized in an impressive way, allowing many people access to fresh vegetables and teaching children that you can't just plant seeds and pay no mind to their care. Like people, a garden must be tended to continuously."

Tim Phillips, a former CCG employee, worked in the garden through his early high school years and also took agriculture classes at Salem Central and was involved in the local chapter of the FFA. "The CCG has had an impact on me because it was a chance to be a part of the community while being part of something that could give back to the community. It was an awesome experience."

Annette Nielsen is a food writer, speaker at the 2012 New York State Folk Arts Roundtable, and a one-time resident of Salem, Washington County, New York.
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Author:Nielsen, Annette
Publication:Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 22, 2012
Previous Article:Long ago and far away.
Next Article:"Local sustainability in the Battenkill Valley": focus of folklorist retreat in Washington County.

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