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Church supports farmers co-op as act of stewardship

Three-year-old Gail Brandau enjoys a strawberry from her family's weekly box of produce from Avalon Acres farm cooperative in Hohenwald, Tenn. Members of Edgehill United Methodist Church in nearby Nashville gave initial support to the co-op that now has nearly 400 families as members. UMNS photos by Ronny Perry.

By Lilla Marigza
June 27, 2007 | HOHENWALD, Tenn. (UMNS)

A typical weekly farm share includes a variety of seasonal produce.

Edgehill United Methodist Church has always been involved in feeding ministries for the community. Now members of the Nashville congregation have found a way to feed themselves—and support community-based agriculture that keeps family farms in business.

Through a farm cooperative that began with 30 Edgehill families, Avalon Acres in Hohenwald now feeds nearly 400 families from at least a dozen churches and businesses.

The growth is a blessing to the eight full-time workers who run the farm, as well as for people who live miles away and can own shares in a working farm, in addition to reaping the rewards at harvest time.

Farm operator Tim Bodnar says families who buy into the program love knowing exactly where their food comes from.

"People are putting their food dollars to work locally, … improving the place where they live instead of some place off in California or Chile," he says.

Bodnar says demand is growing for community supported agriculture (CSA) programs as city-dwelling families seek to become more tied to the natural process of food production.

"I think people go to the store and everything is pre-prepared, TV dinners… and it comes in 'boil in a bag' pouches. I think there is a certain magic that occurs when you stay hooked to the cycle of the earth," he says.

Avalon Acres owner Jennifer Bodnar packs produce boxes for deliveries twice a week.

It is also a stewardship matter, helping families to eat biblically from God's natural creation. "Jesus never ate a Ho Ho," says Bodnar. "That stuff is not food anymore; it’s a chemistry experiment."

A simpler life

Just a few years earlier, Tim and Jennifer Bodnar gave up corporate jobs to search for a simpler life, hoping to find it through farming. Their initial efforts to organize a community-sponsored farm were unsuccessful but, at a low point, an amazing thing happened.

Members of Edgehill United Methodist Church, some 80 miles away in Nashville, heard a sermon on stewardship of the earth. "One of our church members, Barb Short, raised her hand and said, 'That does it for me. We need to be involved in community supported agriculture. I’m gonna make that happen.' And she did," remembers pastor Judy Hoffman.

Short contacted Avalon Acres and, within two weeks, boxes of tomatoes and green beans began arriving on Sunday mornings.

On a recent Sunday, the week's yield was a colorful mix of green beans, yellow squash, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries and a few vegetables that most people can't even recognize. Fortunately, an accompanying newsletter includes nutritional information on the produce and suggested recipes.

Families excitedly open their packages and dig into the strawberries straight from the carton. Moms like Courtney Johnson say they don’t have to worry about washing every bite first. "You feel like you know where it’s coming from. It doesn’t have a lot of chemicals on it, and you just feel like you’re getting it healthier … from the farm," she says.

Jeanie Rutland and her daughter pick up their vegetables at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville.

Belmont United Methodist member Jeanie Rutland, also in Nashville, says owning a stake in the farm has become a way to share family time with her children. She and her daughters shell peas or shuck corn together and recently made strawberry preserves for the first time. Her kids also have grown eager to eat their greens.

"We do a much better job at eating vegetables now because our goal is to eat everything the week that we get it or it goes bad," says Rutland.

A new awareness

Church members gain more than better eating habits. There’s a healthy awareness of how their actions as consumers affect mother earth and their farmer friends as well.

"We can tell how things are going for the farmers by looking at the yield that is within the box because, if it’s been a particularly good week, there are more things and, when it’s been tougher, there are fewer things," says Hoffman. "We share the difficulty and the blessings that the farmer goes through."

Stakeholders say they now notice when it hasn’t rained in a while and wonder how farmers are faring. Three years ago, that wasn't the case. "We are so out of touch with the fact that food comes in seasons," says Dorothy Gager, an Edgehill member and farm sponsor.

The co-op raises chickens, turkeys and sheep on 122 acres south of Nashville where most of the sponsoring families live. Additional produce is grown on 40 to 50 small neighboring farms owned by family farmers. The majority are Amish who farm the old-fashioned way—with no electricity or heavy equipment.

Partnering with farmers is an important element to the ministry. Edgehill members realize that their ongoing support will ensure that struggling farmers stay afloat in hard times. "It really hit me the first winter they did the CSA. Farmers said it was the first time they had ever had any income in the winter. That’s pretty amazing," says Gager.

Co-op owner Tim Bodnar says consumers are increasingly interested in becoming "better stewards of the earth."

The church-supported enterprise continues to have a positive impact on the community in Hohenwald, population 3,754.

In his horse and buggy, Andy Yoder delivers several boxes of his brother's homegrown, fresh-picked lettuce to Avalon Acres. Andy mostly supplies eggs, as many as his hens will provide. Usually that’s about 25 dozen a day. Living his whole life on a farm, Yoder has always eaten what the land provided. "I believe it’s a better food," he says.

Yoder says the success of Avalon Acres is a blessing to his family. The income is helping pay off medical bills, and he hopes future earnings will enable him to expand and grow produce as well.

The community-supported farm has grown into just what Tim Bodnar had hoped. Customers benefit from receiving healthy, quality food and farmers in one of the state’s poorest counties are finding a market for the fruits of their labor.

"It’s a very spiritual thing for me," says Bodnar. "I get up in the morning and it’s not just about paying my mortgage, it’s about paying everybody else’s mortgage too."

*Marigza is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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