FEATURES


Nonprofit Growing

Educating, helping and healing communities
By J.F. Pirro


David and Linda Boyer were once big businesspeople in the growing and greenhouse industry. They're still in the business, but don't miss the days of big business.


David Boyer of The Growing Center, a horticultural therapy program center.
Photos courtesy of The Growing Center.

Linda even suggests that money can almost be a burden, and that while they should probably worry about their retirement, they don't. Everything they have, and want, is in the farm and their nonprofit, The Growing Center, a horticultural therapy program center in Frederick, Pa.

The Growing Center (www.growingcenter.org) offers annuals, hanging baskets, perennials, vegetable plants and potted arrangements, and all the plants are grown as a byproduct of horticultural therapy sessions.

As a grower, David no longer competes. All the produce is grown from donated seeds or plants. He does not grow what bugs chew on. "In that [donated] box, there might be 10 varieties of tomatoes, but that's all I've got," he says. "I don't ever say I'm going to grow this or that anymore, and whenever I used to do that, I always misjudged the market anyway. Now I just go with the flow."

He doesn't do price checks either. "I sell at low prices, and out the doors it all goes," he says. "But someone will still say, 'You know you can get $2.50 for that.' I say, 'It's $2.' I put certain prices on, and I stick with them. At the great big greenhouses they throw plants away. I say, 'Why not help horticultural therapy,' and plants come my way."

For the Boyers and other inspired nonprofit growers like them, the plants are their "green."

On the 12-acre farm there are three 20-by-100-foot wood-heated hoop houses, a dedicated 2-acre healing garden, and remaining acreage that's reserved for community vegetable growing and gardening. Participants vary from individuals to families, scouting groups and civic organizations, but all grow for free. Linda says, "What we now have we can share with everybody."

All operations are funded by donations at therapy programs, fundraising events and grants. The Boyers have also taken the show on the road in a donated van. David isn't a certified horticultural therapist, but he's a member of the American Horticultural Therapy Association, and he was the keynote speaker at the U.S. Botanic Garden when the facility was reopened following renovations.

Dozens of sponsors and benefactors make the center's world go around. In fact, what they (or community growers) plant depends on what delivery comes down the driveway next. Even during Hurricane Sandy a dozen cases of donated pots arrived.

The fact that the Boyers can even till vegetable plots is thanks to Honda, which donated a heavy-duty tiller. All plant material, soil and seed are donated, and a box containing 114 pairs of gardening gloves recently arrived at the farm. "It's how it works," Linda says. "It's humbling, touching and reassuring that so many people get what we do."

David, 65, was raised in the greenhouse business. He's been growing and selling plants since he was a teen. "I just always felt happy around plants and flowers," he says.

Now he provides that opportunity for thousands of others each year, long after his days as a commercial grower ended suddenly. In 1992, just before fall harvest, David was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In September of that year, he underwent a 12-hour surgery that saved his life. In the aftermath, he was plagued with residual side effects, mostly paralysis and balance issues, much like a stroke victim. Linda wanted David at home, though doctors kept him out of the greenhouse for fear of infection.

They lost their fall crop that year, and without it the bank was ready to force the farm into foreclosure. Then, five or six weeks later, when David was cleared to sit on the porch or in the yard, the Boyers figured it made no difference if he sat in the greenhouse in his wheelchair. Although everything around him was dead, he began healing.

As word spread of his misfortune, help began arriving - with wheelbarrows to help clean up the greenhouses at first. Others Linda calls "angels" showed up to cut and split firewood. Some, like their children's bus drivers, held fundraisers. Inspired, David progressed from his wheelchair to a walker, and then a cane. Despite his stubbornness, he finally accepted some help, which he says now allows him to give back. It led to the formation of the nonprofit, the essence of which is that they lessen the burden on society by helping the community.

Linda wrote 42 grant proposals the first year, and the farm received just six. The first was a $5,000 check from the Fourjay Foundation in Willow Grove, Pa., a sponsor since 1996. "One thing has led to another, and we've kept growing, though this has taken sacrifice in our personal lives," Linda says.

Now, different groups are always lined up for visits. The end result: Even at-risk, alternative-education youths who pull weeds for just 10 minutes step back and enjoy it. "What do you see?" David asks them. "They say, 'It's beautiful.' Then, a couple weeks later, their grandparents [who are raising them] call and say, 'What have you done to my granddaughter? I found her watering my garden and washing the dishes.' For the boys, they clean up their room for the first time. All I do is talk respect for one another. If you give first, others will give to you."


At The Growing Center, all the plants are grown as a byproduct of holticultural therapy sessions.

By January of 1993, the bank was still ready to foreclose. The Boyers had no crop insurance. They could not afford disability insurance. "We're in such a vulnerable, fragile business," Linda explains. "We always think about our plants - but not about ourselves - without ever answering the question: Physically, if you couldn't go into the greenhouse and work, who would do it?"

Another firehouse fundraiser and the $5,000 it collected saved the farm. These days, they have some breathing room. "At least we don't have the pace, the pressures of the industry, the deadline, worries and stress," Linda says.

She adds, "The agricultural business is not for the faint of heart. "There's physical labor. It's stressful, and nothing gets done unless you do it. It takes a strong person up front. We took a standard, for-profit business and turned it upside down. It has changed our lives."

"A new agitation"

Rob and Lucy Wood both came from the city (Baltimore), but were called to the country to live off the land. Initially, and realistically, they also knew they had to make a living on the land, but Rob says, "We also knew that we had a message: Connecting people to the earth was more important than production."


Nonprofit growing operations can help educate the next generation about agriculture.

Today, their Spoutwood Farm Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational farm in Glen Rock, Pa. The farm's 26 acres are nestled within the rolling landscape of York County, near the Maryland line and some 45 minutes north of Baltimore.

One of the couple's first moves was to grow herbs and flowers. Utilizing their artistic backgrounds, they made wreaths with what they had sown. Today, the greatest revenue source that helps to even the books is the farm's annual May Day Fairie Festival, which has attracted as many as 16,000 visitors in a single year.


Linda Boyer of The Growing Center, a horticultural therapy program center.
The overall goal in all aspects of Spoutwood's operation is to engage more people in growing their own food, thereby connecting them to the earth and its animals and plants. "We're not missionaries," says Rob, who may be understating his nonprofit's outreach, which includes heavy involvement in establishing York County's first Food Summit.

Spoutwood's CSA is its crown jewel, and a recent focus. Just 3 organic acres support 100 families. Begun in 1996, the CSA is a break-even operation. "We want to go beyond that," Rob says.

The Woods would like to expand, perhaps adding a winter crop, and generate more interest in and revenue from the land, but they're basically tapped out on space. The solution may lie in growing on land rented from neighboring farms, which feeds into their greater goals: more coordinated, shared ownership of the need to reinvent local food systems from the volunteer side. "We're on a unique path," Rob says. "Idealism is at the heart of all reformers, but there's realism too, so it's a fine line. There are other people out there who are just playing for keeps. We're the good work side, and we feel that it's time for a new agitation; we're not going to do it by just being polite to aggressive corporate interests."

Spoutwood, which also has a strong educational component, expanded its board from 12 to 15 members as of January 1. Its focus: Annual fundraising campaigns, or what Rob calls the "new model for nonprofits." "While our hand is out, we can't count on that, so we need to diversify our source of revenues," he says.


Nonprofit growing operations can bring communities together.

Leveraging it all for a cause

Sam Cantrell is working the farm where he was raised in Glenmoore, Pa. Each day he learns that he can't work hard enough, particularly in keeping Maysie's Farm Conservation Center - his nonprofit educational organization since 1999 - afloat. Basically, he's all but leveraging his retirement to make it work and adjusting what he offers, but not altering his beliefs.


On the 12-acre Growing Center farm, there are three 20-by-100-foot hoop houses, a dedicated 2-acre healing garden, and remaining acreage that's reserved for community vegetable growing and gardening.

"We're all about working toward a local, sustainable food system, which, it turns out, is mostly an issue of public education, educating consumers about the role you play in bringing change to the food system," he says. "I often say, 'If you eat food, you're involved in agriculture, and you share some of the responsibility for the direction in which our food system has gone.'"

He's shifting some of his focus. His once pioneering CSA had grown from 50 shares to 200 shares. However, largely due to the loss of intern housing that he had for 11 years, he collapsed the CSA in 2011 and reduced Maysie's 7 acres of organic vegetable beds to 2 acres. He still sells at farmers' markets, and some food goes to the Chester County Food Bank. A new venture is Maysie's FarmFest. The event features local musicians; local food vendors committed to using locally sourced, organic and GMO-free ingredients; children's activities; local artisans offering their sustainable products; and more.

Some of the center's more current educational initiatives include ongoing children's workshops ("Down to Earth Gardening" and "Cooking Camps"); work with special-needs students from Conestoga High School; hosting Friends' Central students five days a year and Kimberton Waldorf students for their weeklong "Agricultural Practicum"; and six weeks working with disadvantaged youth through the Triskeles Foundation.


Growers can help people connect to the earth.

Maysie's is also partnering with a new charter school that is being developed to meet the needs of learning-disadvantaged students (ADHD, Asperger's syndrome, etc.) in the Downingtown and West Chester school districts. Cantrell's wife, Annmarie, is involved in the educational programs, including cooking demonstrations and nutritional counseling.

"Diet plays such a major role in childhood health issues, and the best way to get kids to replace the toxic ingredients of the conventional child's diet with high-quality, nutrient-dense, unadulterated ingredients is to have them participate in the production and preparation of those food items," he says.

Since Hurricane Sandy destroyed some of Cantrell's barn, he'd like to find funds to rebuild and expand it as a multipurpose educational space. "For years we've been talking to farmers about orienting themselves to sustainable practice," he says. "Ecologically, it's hard enough, but economically is the hardest part."

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.