With his pale blond hair and broad, earnest smile, Kyle Gangell of Stockbridge, may at first seem like a typical 16-year-old-kid out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He’s not, though; he lives in the 21st century and has a particular vision —a vision that has translated into an ongoing commitment to make healthy, fresh produce available to all.
Since the age of 11, he has been involved with Gideon’s Garden, a community youth garden located at Taft Farms that was initiated by five young people in partnership with St. James Church. Making it sustainable on a long-term basis has been Gangell’s mission throughout his adolescence. He holds the title of “Youth Supervisor,” a title that belies his involvement and hard work.
Pennie Curry, general manager of Taft Farms, and a parishioner of Grace Church, (the result of a merger between St. James in Great Barrington and St. George in Lee) was involved in Gideon’s Garden since its inception in 2009. In partnership with Taft Farms, the church helped launch the project. The young people made it happen.
Intended for people of various economic and cultural backgrounds, it was spearheaded as a youth agricultural project on a one third-acre plot offered by Dan and Martha Tawczynski, owners of Taft Farms. Today, with its straight, tidy rows of roughly 20 thriving crops, it demonstrates how much what has now evolved into a 2-acre plot can offer.
“It serves the community not only by delivering locally grown produce but also giving young people an opportunity to learn respect for the land and for each other as they work side by side in the garden,” explains Curry. For sure, such a goal is inspiring and makes for a model to many.
According to Gangell: “We grow just about anything from kale, chard, green beans, and tomatoes to even peanuts, a new experiment this year.”When asked if their produce competes with its “parent,” Taft Farms, a 200-acre commercial farm on Division Street and Route 183, a hint of a smile crosses his tanned face. Curry chimes in with her still apparent Texas drawl: “Dan [Tawczynski] just says: ‘This garden is blessed.’”Clearly a fan, Curry adds: “Kyle’s got the farming down to an art.”
For him, this “art”involves hard work in the fields on an almost daily basis during summer months and after school hours the rest of the year when planning is necessary. His enthusiasm is contagious as he offers me tomatoes or when, upon taking a tour of the farmland, he bends down while pointing to a small, newly planted strawberry patch. Next to it is a recently donated $5,200 greenhouse.
“It gives us a longer growing season. We had tomatoes and lettuce back in June,”says Gangell. His plan is for more fruit crops in the future. Already, they’re growing flowers which they donate to seniors.
Gangell isn’t just out in the field pulling weeds. One of his supervisor jobs is to enlist, rally and organize people to plant seeds in early June and assist throughout the growing season. This year he, Curry and his assistant, Ethan Novick, age 35, brought in a record 56 people. More than one half were anywhere in age from 3 to 18.
Also involved is Antonio Francisco, the “Hispanic Adult Supervisor,” whose 10-year-old son, Diego, is a regular. “I like to work both on the land and with the animals we keep here at Taft’s,”he volunteers. Most are saved animals that include rabbits, an alpaca, goats, turtles, and even a pig named Penelope. Chickens and horses provide manure at Gideon’s.
As a community garden whose primary mission is more equitable access to healthy food, its produce, including eggs, is distributed to as many as six Berkshire non-profits. These range from people’s pantries in Lee, Great Barrington, and Becket to soup kitchens such as the Guthrie Center just down the road where, for more than 14 years, volunteers prepare free community meals on Wednesdays.
George Laye, director of the Guthrie Center, is quick to say: “Gideon’s Garden is the best thing. It’s such a pleasure partnering with them. They have a big heart; they care about everybody.”Aside from the fresh produce from Gideon’s Garden, the Center also receives food from area businesses such as Guido’s and nonprofits such as the Berkshire Co-Op and Kripalu.
“And we have volunteers who cook in our kitchen even on 110-degree days,”Laye adds.
Other recipients from Gideon’s includes WIC, a federal nutrition program for women, infants and young children, based in Great Barrington at CHP (Community Health Programs) where young families are taught how to prepare nutritious meals with the harvested crops. Camp programs such as BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education) have also been beneficiaries.
And then there’s the complicated question of distribution. How is the produce delivered? “I deliver with my own car,”explains Curry who adds: “On our wish list is a small pickup truck.”In addition, a few more needy families simply stop by for food. “People don’t know that there are folks living in tents here in the Berkshires,”states Curry with consternation. And she’s not referring to campers.
To make this all possible with a $7,000 yearly budget based on grants and individual donations, Taft’s, besides offering the location and soil, also contributes plants, expertise and help from some of their staff’s youth. Gangell points out that it’s the younger ones who clamor to till the soil, weed, water and harvest. “I just wish we had a greater diversity of volunteers —more kids my own age. I also wish we didn’t have the need for it. But we do.”
What’s on his horizon when he graduates from high school? He answers: “It’s too far off into the future to say. But the whole idea is to pass it onto the youth.”
To learn more: Gideon’s Garden; to donate, contact Pennie at Taft Farms, 413-528-1515.