For Brigid O’Connor, one of the hundreds of people who rent a community plot each year from the nonprofit Garden City Harvest in Missoula, gardening was more than just a way to grow veggies. It provided her with the solace she sought after enduring a personal tragedy and allowed her to put down roots in the community to which she was a new arrival.
She came to Missoula to be with her younger son after her eldest child took his own life.
“When my son died, time cracked,” she said. “As soon as I arrived, I signed up for a community garden plot because I needed to touch the earth. I needed to grow something. I needed to heal.”
O’Connor was on hand Tuesday as city officials and the nonprofit's entire leadership team held a news conference to celebrate the new River Road Farmstead, which includes a new office headquarters building and a community barn that will house a commercial kitchen and education space.
The new structures are the result of a $2.8 million fundraising campaign the nonprofit kicked off last summer, although it is still $500,000 short of its goal. The buildings will allow the organization to continue its mission — including teaching at-risk youth how to freeze and can vegetables — throughout the winter, while also allowing the office staff to move out of the cramped headquarters on Hickory Street.
"Twenty-one years ago, Garden City Harvest was created from very humble beginnings as a small farming and gardening nonprofit with two sites,” said GCH Executive Director Jean Zosel. “Here we are today with 20 sites on 20 acres throughout Missoula. We offer solutions to food insecurity issues. We offer programs that address hunger, isolation, obesity and more, all centered around the act of growing healthy food together.
"This office space and the barn that will serve as a community and education center will allow us to deepen our roots and expand our programs.”
Garden City Harvest rents almost 400 garden plots to community members each year, and its waiting list has 115 people.
“We empower them with the land, the water and the tools to grow food for their families,” Zosel explained. “Many of these folks struggle to make ends meet. Gardening brings hope and self-sufficiency. We employ at-risk teenagers at our farms. That helps them gain the skills, confidence and connections to become productive and independent adults."
But, she explained, the amount of time the teens can participate is limited to the short growing season.
"This farmstead, and the heated indoor space that comes with it, is a real game-changer for us," Zosel said. "It will allow us to keep these teens connected year-round, providing them with even more tools to navigate successfully in life.”
The River Road Farm also provides food for the Poverello Center homeless shelter and the Missoula Food Bank. Zosel said that in Missoula, 21 percent of adults and 28 percent of third-graders are considered obese, while 17 percent of adults are considered inactive. Giving people the skills and tools to grow their own vegetables could cut down on unhealthy eating habits and reduce the need for shipments of food from faraway places.
“Places don't thrive when bellies are empty, when food is a mystery, when we forget the importance of open spaces working together,” said Mayor John Engen. “Garden City Harvest is one of our community builders, and our investment in its work today will pay dividends for countless generations to come, as well as our own.”
Kim Reineking, the contractor who led construction of the new buildings, said both facilities are well-insulated and energy efficient. He also said the construction, which was a complex job, generated only one small pile of trash because his crew recycled almost everything.
Greg Price, who manages the River Road Farmstead, said it’s gratifying to see how the organization has flourished after some lean years in the past.
“We definitely owe the Missoula community a big thank-you for the success of our organization and this site in particular,” he said. “As groovy and as hip as we think Missoula is and always has been, there has actually been quite a transformation in the food culture over the last 20 years in Missoula.”
Price said that the organization needs to keep building on its success.
“We’ve done a lot so far and we have lot more that we’re going to do,” he said. “It’s like you’re winning a championship or something. It’s not that you’ve arrived and you can sit on your laurels. Now the expectations are actually higher and it’s time to get to work on even more food-related issues.”
Josh Slotnick, a University of Montana instructor and director of the GHC/Environmental Studies program at the PEAS Farm, said the organization is as much about social connections as it is about gardening.
“We connect people who otherwise wouldn’t cross paths,” he said. “We believe that it’s not so much about food, but it’s about what happens when we grow food together.”
Zosel joked that she was going to use a lot of puns in her speech, and she couldn’t help but make the connection between gardening and the success of the organization.
“With plants, the deeper the roots grow in the earth, the stronger and healthier they become,” she said. “And like plants, this farmstead deepens Garden City Harvests’ roots and will help make our community healthier, more vibrant and more connected place for everyone.”