What started as a small garden on a 40-by-80 plot of land off Dutchman Creek in Elkin has grown to a two-acre field of rotating crops in Ronda, with the produce harvested used to provide fresh staples to the needy, shut-in and others in the community.
Each gift of fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers is accompanied by a note recognizing that the “produce was grown in the Fellowship Garden of Elkin First Baptist Church and Maple Springs United Methodist Church and given to you with the Love of Christ.”
While members of both churches help lead the Fellowship Garden project, other community members and churches are involved, said Chuck Neaves, recently retired district court judge and a member of Elkin Baptist Church. He has been one of the driving forces behind the garden and a member of Elkin First Baptist Church.
Susan Neaves, explained that the garden “traces its ‘roots’ to a few members of Elkin’s First Baptist Church, as they began growing vegetables in 2010 in a 40-by-80-foot plot in town, with the goal of helping provide food for those in need.”
The original garden was on land provided by Graham Johnson off Dutchman Creek, then the following year, Jack and Susan Partin offered a larger tract of land for the garden on property they owned off N.C. 268 in Ronda. The Partins are members of Maple Springs UMC.
The site in Ronda was formerly a vineyard, so members of the Baptist group and other volunteers spent time pulling up old grape vines, irrigation lines, posts and wiring used to support the vines. Some of the irrigation system remains in use to help water the Fellowship Garden.
Susan Neaves said that about 15 to 20 volunteers provide labor on a regular basis, with supplies purchased from funds either donated directly to the Fellowship Garden or acquired through First Baptist Church.
With two acres to clear and plow for growth each year, Chuck Neaves said Partin donated the services of Jerry Harris and a tractor to till and bush-hog when needed, and Mark Smith also has donated a 1947 Ford Ferguson tractor for the group’s use. “It helped a lot, but we’re still looking about buying another used one,” he said.
The crops grown include corn, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers, peppers, traditional sweet potatoes and Stokes Purple sweet potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, several types of greens, okra and more. Just recently, Susan Neaves said about four tons of sweet potatoes were harvested with the help of several Boy Scouts and their leaders from Troop 648.
Bee hives owned by Mike Weavil help keep the plants producing well, said Chuck Neaves.
“Our Fellowship Garden differs from other community gardens in that virtually all of the vegetables produced are given away to those in need in our community,” Susan Neaves said. “Our garden supplies fresh produce to several local agencies, including Tri-County Christian Crisis Ministry, The ARK homeless shelter, Grace Medical Clinic, Mountain Valley Hospice, Samaritan’s Kitchen of Wilkes, a soup kitchen in Wilkes, Dobson Food Pantry, Hope Ministry in North Wilkesboro and Maple Springs UMC’s monthly food pantry.
“Collectively, these agencies serve hundreds of needy families each month,” she said. “We also distribute produce to senior church members and individuals with special needs as we are made aware.”
Roberta Walker, a member of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, has been volunteering in the Fellowship Garden for about three years. She said an open invitation for volunteers in church by Paulette Gregory sparked her interest in the project.
“I grew up helping in the garden at my parents, they had three gardens,” Walker said. “When I got out there and saw how they sent the vegetables to The ARK, the schools and throughout the community, it sold me that it was really helping people, and they gave us things to take back to our church so we could give it to seniors and those who love fresh vegetables.”
While Chuck Neaves is quick to list the dozens of people who have had anywhere from small to large contributions to the project, Susan told him, “You are the driving force.”
She said, “No one shares Chuck’s enthusiasm,” as she pointed out he’s gone from judge to farmer.
Walker agreed, “Not to put anyone above the rest of the volunteers, but Chuck Neaves has been the spearhead behind the group. The heart he has, such a good heart, to want to make sure people are fed.”
“In addition to the obvious health benefits of providing fresh vegetables to those who might not otherwise be able to afford them, our garden has created a spirit of cooperation and friendship among a diverse group of various ages, church affiliations and ethnicities, all working together for a common goal,” said Susan. “We have tried to involved as many in our own congregation as possible, even those unable to physically work in the garden. Help has come in the form of monetary donations, snacks and drinks for workers, and senior ladies who have prepared and canned green beans for bereavement meals.”
Walker said the fellowship and the time in the garden are enjoyable. “We all work hand in hand together,” she said. “Everybody works together, and we have a good time.”
“Those of us who volunteer at our Fellowship Garden are passionate about what began with a few seeds and plants sown eight years ago, and how it has grown to provide so much for so many,” Susan Neaves said. “The work is sometimes hard but always rewarding. We are always receptive to new opportunities which would allow us to expand our efforts to feed the hungry in our community, both in body and spirit.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.