With few students to help, UGArden tries to keep things growing

In the age of COVID-19, here’s what it takes to plant and harvest vegetables and fruits at UGArden that feed about 60 food-insecure families in Athens.

JoHannah Biang and her crew of about six volunteers arrive at the 10-acre farm south of downtown around 7:30 a.m., about an hour earlier than they would have before nearly the entire world went on lockdown. They put on masks and start sanitizing the moment they get out of their cars. First their hands, then the door handles to the farm trucks, then keys to each one, every steering wheel, gear shift lever and seat. Usually wearing gloves, they gather harvesting bins and tools, sanitized the night before, from a storage building and load them into the bed of the trucks along with bottles of a hydrogen peroxide solution. The peroxide solution is used to clean their tools throughout the day while they are in the fields of this organic farm, all working at least 12 feet apart.

In the hour it takes to do all of this prep, the sun is getting hot and high and a day’s work lies ahead.

“Everybody takes their temperature before they come to work,” said Biang. “Everything each of us does affects the other. We’re self-reporting to ourselves to keep each other safe.”

This is the farm’s 10th year. It’s something of a campus community garden where students are taught how to garden organically and sustainably. Typically, four full-time workers and a combination of about a dozen volunteer and paid student workers and up to 100 volunteers from the Athens area work there each week. By season, they plant kale, squash, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, blueberries, figs, a trove of herbs and other produce.

Because of health concerns, volunteers are barred from helping and, with the exception of four students granted special permission by the university to work at the farm, the well of student workers has dried up. Now Biang, farm manager, and David Berle, farm director and professor of agriculture, must make the farm go with a shoestring crew and a drastically scaled back selection of crops.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Anniversary celebrations had been planned throughout the growing and harvest seasons this year to mark its decade of operating. But those plans have been shelved.

For the last several years, much of the food grown on the farm goes to Campus Kitchen, a UGA program that supplies meals and fresh produce to 53 families in Athens struggling with food insecurity. Many of the families are grandparents raising grandchildren, or elderly people living alone, said Andie Bisceglia, who runs Campus Kitchen. Campus Kitchen gets regular donations from Trader Joe’s, such as milk, bread and eggs, but the fresh produce from UGArden resonates with families because the garden grows Southern staple corps that many of the clients grew up with and that are fixtures in meat-and-three restaurants: collards, corn, okra, field peas.

Student workers typically cook some of the vegetables, which are then packaged and frozen into meal portions. But the pandemic has upended everything. Now the garden is supplying not only the families served by Campus Kitchen but an additional five families who were living in a homeless shelter but who are now positive for COVID-19 and are under quarantine, Bisceglia said. Produce is also going to two other non-profits that work with immigrant families and those living with HIV/AIDS, as well as a program to help feed laid-off restaurant and food service workers.

The farm’s herb garden has also supplied chamomile, calendula, holy basil and other herbs to breweries such as Creature Comforts based in downtown Athens.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

“Right now we’re in-between seasons, but we’re harvesting 50 to 6o pounds of greens a week and we’ve got okra and squash coming up,” said Biang, “but I’ve scaled down what we’re growing.”

Much of that has to do with the available workforce, but there’s also the looming specter of state budget cuts. Each state agency, including the public university system, must submit proposals to the state this month to cut their budgets for the coming fiscal year by 14%. Berle and Biang worry their program, which Berle said has operational costs of $35,000 a year, could be gutted. The garden has an annual sale that wrapped up this month and netted about $5,500, Berle said. And breweries pay for the herbs they use. Still, a relatively small garden that feeds a handful of families might not be high on priorities. But for now, “our plan to is to keep functioning pretty much as we have,” Berle said.

That means for the foreseeable future, they’ll keep growing what they can. And they’ll keep up the protocols that keep them safe, but that means they must work harder and adjust. There’s no more going home for lunch because the more mobility workers have in a given day means a greater chance of exposure to the virus. At the end of each day, the morning sanitizing routine is repeated on all vehicles and equipment. Everyone remembers that they can’t wear the same clothes again the next day unless they’ve been washed and dried.

And when tomorrow comes, the routine begins again.

The UGArden at the University of Georgia feeds food insecure families in Athens, but that mission is being impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. If you'd like to donate to the program or learn more about the garden, visit  ugarden.uga.edu.