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Harrington: Growing for Others

It's a cool and cloudy June morning, and 800 pepper plants are gently waving in the breeze in a Jericho field. Long lines of cabbage plants stand beyond – and 180 mulched tomato plants, followed by sections of broccoli, winter squash and carrots.

At first glance, it looks like one of Vermont 's many CSA farms is off to a good season. But Charlie Siegchrist, the vegetable grower here, has taken on a different responsibility – he's producing tons of vegetables to give away to Vermonters in need.

Growing vegetables for the Vermont Food Bank is the latest agricultural use for Barber Farm. During the 1980s Charlie and his wife Jean grew pick-your-own strawberries here and commercial vegetables “from asparagus to zucchini” – with 40 acres in production. Charlie has also run a landscaping business, and Jean's family milked cows here from 1942 to 1977.

But Siegchrist is now growing for others. He began adding rows of vegetables for the Vermont Food Bank to the family garden in 2009, and this year will probably surpass the roughly 9,000 pounds he produced – and gave away – that summer.

The semi-retired 63-year-old says it's just his labor, plus a few hundred dollars for seeds, supplies, and fertilizer. He says that past experience – and owning the necessary farm equipment – helps a lot. There’s no grant or program making this happen – just a Vermonter seeing a need and stepping in to meet it. He buys the seed, plants it, tends the crop, harvests it, and then delivers it to the weekly pick-up site for the Vermont Food Bank truck.

Barber Farm, set on a high plateau in populous Chittenden County , was preserved for agricultural use by the Vermont Land Trust in 2010. Jericho Settlers Farm leases nearly all the land for production of beef and vegetables – but a section of this historic farm goes into Siegchrist’s food shelf mission.

“It's just interesting to think of the homes that the food ends up in,” Siegchrist said, looking out over his 5,000 row feet of healthy plants.

The Vermont Food Bank gleans produce from more than 60 farms, says Michelle Wallace, program manager. Many gardeners donate extra vegetables, but Siegchrist is one of the largest producers to grow crops specifically for the Food Bank.

The greenhouse at Barber Farm holds cabbage seedlings at different stages. Five hundred will go into the ground every two weeks. The 3-pound cabbages that result – and all the other vegetables – were popular last year. But also, Siegchrist says, “It's stuff I like to grow.” And unlike the strawberries he once grew commercially, picking dates are flexible for these crops. “If you don't pick it this Thursday, you can pick it next Thursday,” he says.

Last year the food shelves of Lamoille County went through eleven hundred pounds of his cabbage in two days; back in 2009, food shelves in Chittenden County used 9,000 pounds of Barber Farm potatoes in two weeks. It’s hard to think of a more direct way to help one’s neighbors. “The vegetables will be there,” says Siegchrist about his crop, “and so will the hungry mouths.”

The late Elaine Keen Harrington of Middlesex was a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Vermont. A former editor for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus, she also owned a fiber arts business.
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