Volunteers and Donations Prove a Project Sustainable
PHOTOS BY MORGAN FULLER
This year marked the seventh growing season for From the Ground Up, in Butte County. Originally one garden on a neighborhood lot that had never quite taken off as a community garden, From the Ground Up now includes eleven satellite organic gardens in the county. The food grown on these sites is given free to anyone who wants it, particularly to at-risk populations through local shelters, food banks, and low-income housing units. And, in addition to farming, From the Ground Up’s volunteers teach about nutrition and living skills, especially those related to food. Remarkably, the project operates entirely by donation. They have asked for land to be donated and received it. Many over the years have given tools and supplies, even heavy equipment. And a cohort of hard-working volunteers has kept the project expanding.
From the Ground Up founder Jenny Lowrey began the farm in 2013. She had gone through an extended period of extremely poor health, during which she weighed over 300 pounds and had seven heart attacks, two strokes, and a battle with cancer. She said her doctor had all but given up on her. On disability from her job as an agricultural chemical executive, she nevertheless yearned to work.
“After eating fast food and processed food out of a box, I realized I had to change my life to keep living,” said Jenny. Her son, Jason Romer (also known locally as musician Hap Hathaway), threw out the idea of starting a garden and giving the food away. This idea resonated with Jenny on many levels. She gathered her friends, found a location, and so it began.
The main farm, known as Kentfield Garden, is on a lot owned by Chicoans Todd Hall and Molly Stokes. They live across the street and bought the land intending to change it from an eyesore to useful space. Their son was a horticulture student at Butte College who, along with the Horticulture Club, transformed the lot. “The original idea was a community garden, so we plumbed sections for individual beds, but that didn’t catch on,” said Todd. Instead, they decided to create an honor system garden for the community: neighbors would pick garden produce and make a donation. Proceeds were then given to the Torres Shelter. Todd said eventually they became too busy to really manage the property themselves and didn’t know how they could continue. At this point, entered Jenny Lowrey.
Jenny was living in the neighborhood, and when she saw the property, she knew it was exactly what she was looking for to launch the project her son had brainstormed. She knocked on Todd’s door, and he immediately and wholeheartedly agreed to her plan. She knew that Chico had many farms and nutrition programs, but this garden would fill a major gap by focusing on at-risk populations, including those who were disabled and living below the poverty line. She would essentially continue and expand the work Todd and Molly had begun.
Jenny and her volunteers got right to work, and after the first season, instead of donating money, they gave harvested vegetables to the Torres Shelter. Jenny recalled, “There were tears of joy in their eyes because someone cared enough to grow and give them this food. After that, I was hooked.”
According the 2018 U.S. Census, almost 20% of Butte County lives below the poverty line, and close to the same percentage experiences food insecurity. As defined by California Food Policy Advocate, to be “food insecure” is to have limited, uncertain, or inconsistent access to the quality and quantity of food necessary to live a healthy life. From the Ground Up Farms is actively addressing this population and has chosen to grow all its produce organically in order to provide the highest quality food. Jenny estimates that their gardens have impacted hundreds of families and fed thousands overall.
Once the Kentfield Garden was established, the group began building other community gardens around town and in Butte County. Volunteers identified locations with the most need, such as next to residential treatment facilities, shelters, and disabled housing. With permission, they build garden beds and immerse residents in the project literally from the ground up. Participants from the facilities learn about the entire process, building garden and irrigation systems, planting, tending, harvesting, and preparing what they have grown. In addition, workshops emphasize how healthy eating can help not just physically but also mentally and financially.
“I realized that food is medicine,” said Jenny, who is a living testament to how healthy eating can change lives. She lost 150 pounds and went from fifteen daily medications to just two. Moreover, “I found my way to happiness and health digging the garden. It’s therapy, with scientific evidence to support it,” Jenny avowed. “Some places charge up to $150 an hour for ‘garden therapy.’ We offer it for free.” She smiled. “There are so many lessons beyond gardening, like safe socialization, responsibility, team work, and how to nurture.”
The farm has become a kind of magnet for many in the community. There are a variety of community groups that help either on a regular basis or for specific projects. Tami Donnelson, one of the founding members, helps to coordinate the volunteers. “We have had Chico State clubs, Butte College groups, boy scouts and others,” she explained. Jenny added, “We are completely run by volunteers with no salaries and no paid employees. New volunteers are always welcome. We’ve learned we can do just about anything we put our minds to, because if we don’t know how, there is someone in the community who will step up and help.”
In October, a group of women from Butte College spent a day at Kentfield Garden removing pavers in a corner of the lot. Soon, a brand new teaching kitchen, funded by a grant from the local Power of 100 women group, will occupy this corner. Other volunteer projects are visible throughout the garden: artwork, benches built by individuals, a prominent gazebo—a recent Eagle Scout project—at the entrance that houses giveaway bins for produce. These projects underscore another fact sustaining From the Ground Up: “Every rake, shovel, trowel, and everything we buy and do is based off money given to us,” explained Jenny.
Kentfield Garden also is home to a very young group of farmers in the making, who have their own plot of land within the yard itself. The Kentfield Children’s Garden is planted and tended to by Butte County homeschoolers, who visit the garden for weekly projects and lessons. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Rachel, age six, was moving rocks in a miniature wheelbarrow to help shore up the side of a garden bed where fresh winter starts were being planted by another volunteer. When asked about her favorite lesson in the garden, Faith, age eleven, said, “We got to make our own tea with herbs from the garden, using a solar cooker.”
One of From the Ground Up’s larger satellite gardens is located at Lake Concow Campground. This garden, along with homes and businesses of some of From the Ground Up Farms’ founding members, was burned in the Camp Fire. The volunteers of From the Ground Up are very focused on rebuilding the garden as an essential element for the families waiting to return and resume living there. Recently donated heavy equipment, including a tractor and dump truck, will be used to restore the garden. In addition, North Valley Community Foundation granted the group money to buy a mobile sawmill. The mill will be used in Concow to convert fallen trees into usable planks to be utilized in rebuilding the community. The use of this mill will, of course, be free.
Jenny Lowrey has been told many times that her model is “unrealistic” and unsustainable. Doubters called From the Ground Up Farm “a shooting star” and said it wouldn’t last. Almost seven years later, the star still brightens up people’s lives. More satellite gardens are in the works. Notes from users left at the gardens provide ongoing motivation. One note, written in pink crayon on a scrap of paper, simply stated “thank-you, we were starving.” Kentfield Garden is thriving and, like all the From the Ground Up gardens, produces food year round. It has become the hub of the neighborhood. When Todd and Molly built the original infrastructure, with its giant table, pergola, and fire pit, they certainly hoped that all of it would be used. Their and Jenny’s vision, the work of volunteers, and community donations assure that it is. Take that, doubters.
From the Ground Up Gardens are pick-your-own with the option to leave a donation if you are able. People are always welcome to work in exchange for produce as well. “There are always weeds to pick!” according to Jenny. Kentfield Garden is located at 1125 Kentfield Road in Chico. The garden hosts workshops, regular music performances, and various club meetings and is always open as a place for people to gather or spend time. More information: fromthegroundupfarms.org.
Morgan Fuller is a commercial and wedding photographer based in Chico. She loves spending time with her family, travel, and planning her next meal. Her work can be found at morganchantelle.com.
Bonnie and Ken Chapman are partners in many of life’s great endeavors including marriage, raising two children, global travel adventures and writing for Edible Shasta-Butte. Both are avid trail runners and you can find them enjoying Upper Bidwell Park or wherever the trails take them.