VERONA — Project GROWS is in a time of transition as the nonprofit farm is looking to greatly expand the amount of produce it can store and deliver to local schools and farmers markets while also saying goodbye to a longtime leader.
In 2012, the nonprofit broke ground on 10 acres off Augusta County’s Berry Farm Road. In that first year, Project GROWS — Growing Responsibly & Organically with Sustainability — grew 3,000 pounds of vegetables on a half-acre plot and reached 85 children through its outreach programs.
Both numbers have since increased dramatically: The education-based farm, which leases the land from the county for a nominal fee, now grows more than 12,000 pounds of fresh produce each year, and so far in 2019 about 5,900 youth have visited the farm or taken part in summer camps, classes or other programs.
Project GROWS provided more than 1,100 pounds of food to Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County schools last year in the form of direct sales, Farm to School Tastings and donations. That number is expected to grow this year, although the farm is beginning to track the food it provides in terms of servings because not all produce, such as lettuce, weighs very much.
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This year, 445 volunteers have donated 2,300 hours of their time to help the farm’s eight paid staff to grow all those carrots, cabbages, radishes, peppers, onions, tomatoes and other veggies making their way into school cafeterias and family kitchens.
But staff and volunteers are looking to do more. They are raising $150,000 toward an estimated $290,000 pole barn, which will replace an antiquated cooler donated to the farm when it first began. The fundraising campaign has been pretty successful, but is still about $37,000 short of the goal.
Plans are to cover the rest of the cost through grants similar to the one Project GROWS received last year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for $250,000 to expand education programs throughout Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County.
More than just a barn, the new facility will provide space for safely storing and preparing produce and keeping equipment out of the weather, as well as for a community meeting room, offices and bathrooms.
Courtney Cranor, who on Monday began her first day as the nonprofit’s interim executive director, said the planned 36-foot-by-80-foot pole barn will allow the nonprofit to double programming by providing indoor classroom space.
“It’s time for our infrastructure to catch up,” said Cranor, who is taking over for Jenna Clarke Piersol.
Piersol had been with Project GROWS since 2013 and took over as director when Ryan Blosser, the farm’s first, left in 2015 to become owner and operator of Dancing Star Farm in Churchville.
Cranor is no stranger to the organization, having served on the board of directors the last four years, most recently as president of the 10-member panel that oversees Project GROWS’ $250,000 annual budget. Previously, Cranor had been assistant director of Waynesboro’s Economic and Tourism office for nearly four years, a position she left earlier this year.
While serving as interim director, Cranor said, she will take a leave of absence from the Project GROWS board.
Cranor, asked Monday about whether she has an interest in taking on the director’s job permanently, joked it was bit early to consider that on her first day in the position.
“We needed someone to steer the ship,” she said. “The growing season is coming to an end and school is starting.”
As interim director, Cranor will seek to continue the momentum created by her predecessors in fulfilling the primary mission of providing education about and access to healthy food to children and families in the three localities the farm serves.
Data provided by the Project GROWS shows the efforts to connect kids to the food they eat are paying off. According to surveys, 79% of kids now say they like trying new vegetables, which is backed up by comments from parents.
“We get constant feedback. Parents want to know how we got their kids to like vegetables,” Cranor said.
Piersol, in one of her last official acts as director, updated the Augusta County Board of Supervisors on the farm’s operation during the board’s Aug. 14 meeting.
She reminded the board that the catalyst for Project GROWS had been a 2010 community health assessment conducted by Augusta Health. That assessment found that 40 percent of the county’s children were obese and alarming rates of heart disease and diabetes had been reported among the area’s population, she said.
“They wanted to look at a long-term solution,” Piersol said of the effort to establish the farm and teaching kids healthy eating habits at an early age. The county, she added, has been “a huge partner,” allowing the nonprofit to lease the farm for a $1 annual payment.
Speaking of the farm’s plans for the new building, Piersol told supervisors that while Project GROWS was not seeking any funding from the county, the nonprofit would seek an extension beyond the current five-year lease on the farm property to something more long term, 25 or 30 years.
“We want to invest in this infrastructure . ... We’ve really enjoyed this partnership,” she said.
More information about Project GROWS can be found at projectgrows.org or calling 324-3416.