Growing pains: Community garden faces possible closure as funding changes

Apr. 24—About nine years ago, a new garden sprouted up in Meadville thanks to a collaboration between Meadville Area Recreation Complex (MARC), Crawford Central School District, Meadville Medical Center, Crawford County Career and Technical Center, Allegheny College, the city of Meadville, and Crawford County commissioners.

As funding dried up, the garden survived with bouts of support, but now the garden faces the existential question gardeners have dreaded: Is this garden still viable? A handful of passionate locals who wish to see the garden continue have formed a committee to breathe new life into the abundant green space at the MARC.

"There were these really dreamy couple of years where every Thursday night, a bunch of people were in the garden, and it was that twilight hour of the summer where everything looks golden under the sun setting, and there are pollinators everywhere. ... It's just a very peaceful space, and I want people to experience that," committee member Taylor Hinton said.

Hinton was hired in 2015 to teach Meadville Area Middle School students about agriculture using the garden. Allegheny College paid for the position using grant funding. After the grant ended in 2018, Hinton stuck around because she became invested in the success of what she sees as a valuable community resource.

The way that resource is used, however, may need to evolve to stay alive.

Back to its roots

The MARC Community Garden had a fruitful beginning. Funding enabled the construction of the garden on a corner of the MARC property on Thurston Road, which now includes an area for workshops and learning, 35 individual 4-by-8-foot raised garden beds, a shared gardening space, a hoop house, raspberry bushes, apple trees, an herb bed, a dehydrator and more.

In its heyday, there was a paid garden coordinator and lots of support through the college, according to Barb Newcamp, who rented a bed since the garden's start in 2015. Now, she's one of the main drivers in the garden's steering committee along with her husband, George Stabile.

A couple of years into the garden's beginning, Newcamp said their family became more heavily involved, and from there, the interest took off.

Stabile and Newcamp didn't have green thumbs, so to speak, when they first rented beds in the garden, but they were able to learn thanks to the leadership and learning experiences the garden provided.

When the grant ended in 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm shortly after. Stabile and Newcamp said they found themselves in an era where people had a newfound respect for the mental clarity and physical health benefits that the great outdoors and gardens provide.

As the pandemic shutdown subsided, people returned to work and had to strike a balance with the lifestyles they temporarily had. At the same time, the garden's budget continued to dwindle and volunteers were needed more than ever.

Hinton said the garden tried to ask people who couldn't pay the rental fee to volunteer in the shared space in the garden, but it was difficult to find people who would commit to even an hour each week.

As of last year, the garden has implemented a sliding pay scale that allows garden members to donate what they can rather than pay a flat rate to rent a bed. This has made the garden more accessible and equitable.

It speaks to the core of the committee's belief that the garden can truly help the community live better lives.

The mission is on hold, though, as there's no garden coordinator this year to oversee volunteers.

"We were just like, 'This is not working.' So, this is our stop-gap year," Hinton said.

This year, raised beds are still available to rent, but the shared space will have cover crops. Cover crops are plants made to cover the soil and protect it from erosion and pests while maintaining the fertility, quality and biodiversity it needs to continue gardening.

And the committee is back to the drawing board to see what — and if — a sustainable solution exists.

Turning over a new leaf

The MARC garden has grown to be rooted in education and community. Last year, food from the shared space in the garden was donated to a food pantry. In earlier years, garden members had potlucks together under the summer's setting sun.

The garden had workshops up until last year on everything from small-garden growing to best soil practices, pressed cider and beekeeping. In earlier years, Hinton had a hand in running summer programming for children that she notes as wildly successful, and she takes her students to tour the ground and pick herbs.

This summer, Allegheny College is stepping up to supply a researcher who will help determine a new model for the garden based on industry research and steering committee input.

"One of our goals is to change the model. The previous models without the large support of grant money left us with a real dependence on volunteerism," Newcamp noted.

Proactively, the committee already considered different models that focus on ways to drive revenue and use the shared space. One model focuses on involving stakeholders, including the Market House.

"There definitely is talk about the possibility of having the Market House much more involved," Newcamp said. "To what capacity, that hasn't been formulated."

Aaron Rekich, executive director of the MARC, thinks getting people with various expertise involved will only strengthen revitalization efforts.

"What they're doing now is very important. Gardeners want to garden and business people want to run businesses. When you put them together, great things can happen," Rekich said.

Another model involves farming.

"It would be a nice opportunity for someone who is interested in farming but doesn't have the farm yet and would want to experience it," Newcamp said. "There's enough to do there that they could get a taste of the maintenance a functioning garden would require."

This model is somewhat of a farming incubator — people can try their hands at farming in a day and age where start-up and maintenance costs may be too high for farmers to begin or continue farming.

"It's just a really magical spot," Hinton said, explaining that it may be a viable place for farmers to turn a profit. "Not only is it just really beautiful, there's been a ton of labor put into it. ... When you farm land, you need about six years to get good soil, and we've been farming there since 2014. It's invested in."

Hinton is a firm believer that where there are people, there should be a gardening space, but she said it may not be in the way they have been doing it.

"I'm not sure there is a model where it's purely a community garden and we're going to make money in the way we need to," she said. "They're at odds — the needs of a community garden and making money. Which is why I think the dream we kind of have that we're hoping kind of comes out of the summer research is that this garden could be farmed by a farmer for profit."

Newcamp also said it could be a hybrid model, such as renting out the raised beds but using the shared space as an urban farming experience for visitors.

Cultivating community

Upon researching local gardens last summer, Allegheny student Camoren Lesher came to a conclusion.

"Gardens are places where people come together," Lesher said. He is on the committee as well and has a more holistic view of the garden's place in the community.

He said the best-kept gardens are those most supported by their communities. He pointed to the Fifth Ward and Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program (CHAPS) gardens.

"Both of them are so integrated within the community they are a part of that it's difficult to separate the people from the garden. I think that the MARC garden has the ability to be that as well," Lesher said. "We have so many people who keep coming back every single year, and they really love the mission and the kind of community itself that the garden really fosters."

As someone who has found community and created relationships with various people he might never have spoken to, Lesher credits gardens as a way to bring people together in a safe environment.

His contribution to the group lies in his ability to make connections. Focused on community relations, he's witnessed how in-person connections can be beneficial.

When funding falls short, Lesher believes those involved in the garden can act as a resource to ensure the garden's needs are met, even if it's as a middle-man, connecting those who may have a solution or expertise to lend.

"I think that for me, the sort of community structure and the support of having a community that's completely involved in the entirety of the project is so much more important than having sustained funding," Lesher said. "Funding is never guaranteed. If you have something for five years, you're always worried about what's going to happen in year six. Building the structures where the people involved are able to get the resources that you need is a really great contribution that I've noticed the college does a lot of for the community."

Hinton pointed to Lesher as someone who brings renewed perspectives to the table and said it's her goal to remain open-minded this year.

"We have people coming in with new ideas and energy, and that's so great," she said.

The committee will be holding an orientation on Saturday at 11 a.m. at the garden, weather permitting. The event is meant to introduce stakeholders and members of the public to the garden space. Committee members will answer questions about provided supplies and garden regulations. At noon, the committee invites participants to plant cover crops and flowers in the shared beds.

There will be weekly workdays, and applications are open for those interested in renting a bed or lending a hand.

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Chloe Forbes can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at