Home Builder Plants Seeds of Help

12/14/2013 7:00 AM

A successful home builder, Bernie Fowler Jr., said he almost closed his doors in 2009 because of the downturn in the economy. He was delivering food to a food pantry when he ran into a tradesman he knew, and learned he was there for groceries to feed his family.

“That hurt my heart,” Fowler said, and Farming 4 Hunger, a 501c3 nonprofit, was born.

In its third year of operation, Farming 4 Hunger will plant 100 acres of produce in 2013. There are many volunteer opportunities at the 6,000-square-foot hay barn at Serenity Farms, which is used as a volunteer center and food hub where produce is packaged and loaded onto trucks for shipment to food pantries and food banks.

Fowler is still recruiting partners. AARP and Jeff Gordon’s Drive to End Hunger came in May to talk about food for seniors. Representatives from the University of Maryland will be involved in the educational component. Local hospitals and wellness centers will be doing nutrition classes at the farm.

Fowler said he started with the idea of inviting multiple produce growers to bring food to a central location. As his plans developed, it seemed like a better idea to have 20,000-30,000 visitors come annually to one central location. Serenity Farms, located on Maryland Route 231, was ideal. A 5K run/walk at the farm on May 11 raised money that will be plowed right back into growing produce for the hungry. He said he hoped it will inspire more volunteers.

“We need to show kids from kindergarten on up where food comes from and how to eat healthy. We are not just feeding people; we’re feeding souls and minds,” he said.

Although he didn’t intend to get into the logistics of food delivery, he observed how much time, gas and human energy was being wasted as well. For Maryland Food Bank to get credit for donated produce — tied to funding from Feed America — it has to be weighed and certified. Shipping donated produce to Baltimore and back to southern Maryland was not only wasteful of manpower and fuel resources, he said it was wasteful of highly-perishable produce. So Fowler set up a facility at the hay barn to certify the weight of donated produce. It can then be shipped directly to where it’s needed.

This year, the program is reaching out to other farmers for donations. If a local farmer has excess produce, food banks have agreed to purchase it at considerably below wholesale market rates through the facility so farmers will at least get some cash.

Senate Bill 586 and its companion bill in the House would create a task force to study a proposed Maryland tax write-off for farmers who are contributing to feed the hungry.

Six inmates from the Calvert County Detention Center worked and harvested Fowler’s 40-acre patch last year. He ended up mentoring several of them after they were released from prison. But when he contacted the detention center for help this year, the facility only gave him one inmate for 30 days — not nearly enough manpower.

Fowler said he wasn’t sure what he would do until he got a call from John Rowley with the Maryland Department of Public Safety, who had heard about his work from John May. Rowley agreed to supply anywhere from four to 40 inmates from the Maryland State Prison system to help with the work.

“To date, local businesses and churches have been our largest contributors. Churches want to do local missions; they have a line item in their budget for local outreach. They just need to know we are there. Churches alone could carry this product,” Fowler said.

Initially, he said he organized a meeting and invited 72 churches in Calvert County, but only two churches showed up. It’s taken a grass roots campaign where he has gone from church to church to speak, and it’s been a fruitful effort.

Ann Wilmer

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