A unique gardening project in Alaska is one of the sites receiving grants through the Going to the Garden initiative of the Church of the Brethren Global Food Crisis Fund (GFCF) and Office of Public Witness. “I was just floored by what they are doing,” commented GFCF manager Jeff Boshart.
The Alaska effort is a personal mission of Bill and Penny Gay and an outreach project of their congregation at Pleasant Dale Church of the Brethren in Decatur, Ind.
The Gays’ work in “far north” gardening started in 2003 when Bill went on a Learning Tour to Arctic Village, Alaska, with New Community Project. “I’ve been back to Alaska each year since,” he said, and his wife Penny has become equally involved.
“We were led there to plant many more seeds than the planting of the seeds for the gardens,” Bill explained.
The work to help native Alaskan communities develop gardening has produced fresh vegetables and better nutrition in places where food supplies are limited–a crucially important aspect of the work. But the Gays’ work on gardening has extended from the physical into the educational, and the spiritual, and has included a sharing of the Christian gospel. Among the side benefits: the Gays have taught young people the basics of gardening. And they welcomed a new member into the community of faith, when one of the men who lives in Arctic Village was baptized.
This year the couple are excited about a new and even more challenging prospect: helping far north native Alaskan communities transition from gardening into farm production. “Now it’s time to really get to work,” Bill said in a recent telephone interview. “Now I know why we’re here. Now I know why God’s got us going back each year.”
More than planting seeds
The gardening work in Alaska was sparked by a conversation with a family in Arctic Village, who were experiencing intestinal complaints. Bill suggested that growing their own fresh vegetables could help, but he was told that gardening that far north is difficult if not impossible. “Let me try,” he told them.
“At first they laughed at us,” Bill remembered. “But by the second year, they weren’t.” The warnings and cautions about far north gardening did not pan out, as the Gays’s work began to have success.
“It wasn’t easy, it was not glamorous,” Bill said. “We would beat ourselves to the bone, living in a tent, but it worked.”
At first they went door to door offering to help families prepare a garden. They helped families plant their gardens, then turned over ownership of the gardens to the families to maintain. Many families found the work of gardening to be therapeutic, Bill said. It became a way to get rid of daily stress as well as a way to get fresh vegetables into their diet.
“We found it resonated more with kids,” Bill said. The children helped promote the gardens, the Gays found. “My parents have a garden, why don’t yours?” Bill heard the children saying to each other.
Although successful, the work is physically demanding. Bill goes to Alaska first, and Penny meets him there after the school year ends. By the time she arrives, he may have lost as many as 25 pounds, because of the sheer physical exertion he puts in. The labor to garden that far north requires more than the bending, stooping, and digging of gardening in southern climes–it also includes carrying water. And gardens in Alaska require different techniques such as the use of mounds and elevated beds, because perma frost is an issue.
By 2011, there were 25 to 30 gardens in Arctic Village, after five years of work. That year was the last the Gays worked in Arctic Village, having moved the effort to Circle at the invitation of a native Alaskan leader in that community.
From gardening to farm production
In Circle, the work to help people develop gardens is beginning to shift into the concept of farm production. Bill explained that the people in Circle started realizing that there were prospects for jobs and grant money in farm production, that are not there in community gardening.
A shift to farm production from developing gardens will take some time, perhaps several years, and will require more investment of money and resources from the native Alaskan community. But it is a very exciting prospect for the Gays.
However, Bill pointed out that the accessibility and affordability of gardening keeps it foremost. “You do not have to spend money, just a little hard work.”
At this point, the Gays are planning two more years of work in Circle, and then hoping for five more years of work in other Alaskan communities, “and see where we can run with this,” Bill said. “Now we have established ourselves, and this is our ninth year. They know we’re going to come back.”
‘I can’t believe I am part of it’
Bill’s excitement and commitment to gardening in Alaska came through loud and clear: “The benefits go on and on and on,” he said. “It’s just humbling to be in a position to be able to help so many people. This mission work has come to define us. I just can’t believe how my wife and I have come to be part of it.”
A project that started small “has progressed, and has inspired many people. It was worth it.”
Over the years they have been joined by church groups for service projects, and also have spent time working for Habitat for Humanity. They have attracted much media attention in Alaska, and even were approached by the Discovery Channel for a television show which they turned down because that kind of attention does not fit with the mission. “That is not the grand pay off we’re looking for,” he explained.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Bill simply said. “That’s what I know for sure.”
Going to the Garden grants
The Church of the Brethren’s Global Food Crisis Fund (GFCF) has provided two grants of $1,000 each, in consecutive years, to the Pleasant Dale Church for the gardening work in Circle, Alaska. There is conversation between the Gays and GFCF manager Jeff Boshart about a larger grant from the GFCF to support next steps.
The Going to the Garden grants have helped pay for the building of a greenhouse in Circle. Most of the sites receiving Going to the Garden grants are located at Church of the Brethren congregations or in their neighborhoods. However, the project in Alaska is thousands of miles from the nearest congregation. Despite the distance and geographical separation, the Gays consider the Alaska gardens an outreach project of their Indiana congregation.
For more about Going to the Garden see www.brethren.org/peace/going-to-the-garden.html .
For more about the Global Food Crisis Fund go to www.brethren.org/gfcf .
Find a Fairbanks “News Miner” article about Bill and Penny Gaye’s work titled “Newsflash: Gardens Can Grow in the Arctic” at www.newsminer.com/newsflash-gardens-can-grow-in-the-arctic/article_89c567d5-746b-5203-99b3-7471d8a278a8.html?mode=story