By Melanie Petrucci, Contributing Writer
Grafton – Nestled in the bucolic town of North Grafton is a farm that produced 220,000 pounds of produce in 2016. Community Harvest Project (CHP) which operates at Brigham Hill Community Farm, 37 Wheeler Road, in North Grafton provides for many with food insecurities in Worcester County and beyond.
The project includes the Brigham Hill Community Farm as well as apple orchards at Prospect Hill Farm in Harvard. According to their website, “Community Harvest Project is a non-profit farm that engages volunteers to grow fresh fruits and vegetables to provide to those experiencing hunger. Through our volunteer farming programs, education initiatives, and community partnerships, we bring thousands of community members together each year to improve access to healthy foods for individuals and families in need across Worcester County.”
CHP’s Farm Coordinator Annie Stegink plays an important role in this mission. Farming is Annie’s passion.
“Every spring we get these boxes of seeds and I think it’s one of the coolest things to see this small stack of seeds knowing that it’s going to turn into about 200,000 pounds of produce by the end of the season,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing!”
A native of Michigan, Stegink’s first love is farming. She studied civil and environmental engineering in college. After graduating she went to Brazil for a year to volunteer on farming and engineering projects with the Mennonite Central Committee. Living with a host family of farmers reinforced her love of agricultural.
“Everybody eats; it connects people,” she noted.
After another volunteer stint in Haiti, she settled in Massachusetts and found out about CHP through the “grapevine” and has been with the farm for three years.
“I want to help people and I know there a lot of food insecurity issues,” Stegink said. “I’m happy knowing that I am working toward a solution…The goal is to work so that we [CHP] wouldn’t need to exist anymore.”
Stegink works closely with volunteer team leaders who work with the volunteers as they carry out their tasks.
“We have a really good program that allows us to provide a positive experience for our volunteers,” she said, adding that that people of all ages and abilities are welcome to volunteer.
Stegink oversees all stages of farming from planting the seeds in the spring in the greenhouses and digging holes for transplanting the seedlings to the fields to weeding and washing the produce at harvest time.
“We have a small staff and about nine interns this year,” she explained. “We rely heavily on volunteers. On a daily basis, we have large groups who are scheduled and smaller groups of individuals and families who drop in. Volunteers show up at 9 a.m. and work until noon.”
School, church, senior citizen and corporate groups as well as Girl and Boy Scouts have volunteered.
When asked about the crops grown at CHP, Stegink noted, “we try to focus on the most nutritious crops and what’s familiar to people and what they will use so food doesn’t go to waste.”
This year CHP is producing about 30 different crops on about 12 acres of the farm, allowing some land to rest for the season. Cabbage, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchini, squash, herbs, blueberries and okra are some of the crops grown.
Once harvested, produce is designated for their many partner organizations. One of their biggest is the Worcester County Food Bank who will pick up the produce to take back to their warehouse to then distribute to their 128 partner agencies which include rehabilitation facilities, shelters, and other food pantries.
Stegink is involved with many facets of the organization, including discerning the need of partner agencies, sorting the produce and preparing deliveries. She also serves as a bridge between the farming and working with the volunteers. She is very hands.
“I love it,” she said. “I like to be involved and I love working with the volunteers.”
The upcoming fall harvest is a busy time for the CHP. Be on the lookout for their 5K Race and Harvest Festival in November. People interested in volunteering with the CHP can visit their website: http://www.community-harvest.org. Financial donations are also welcome.