GREENFIELD – The first day Ethan Elsbury looked down at his lunch tray and recognized the green beans he’d grown, both planted and plucked, he beamed.
There they were — tasty green proof his community garden, lovingly tended for hours beneath a hot summer sun, could serve up produce for students who might never otherwise have the chance to appreciate freshly farmed food.
The Greenfield-Central High School junior sat down in the cafeteria that day and savored the taste of success, lightly salted.
It was the result of an effort dating back months.
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The 16-year-old said he always knew he wanted to leave a mark on his high school, to start something that would be carried on years after he left the school’s halls.
It was a goal that took him to the soil, to a patch of earth behind the high school that, before his ideas took root, had little significance to the campus.
Ethan eyed the plot of land and decided to give it a purpose: he mulled the idea of a community garden, a hands-on agricultural experience that would also equip the school’s cafeteria with fresh food for his fellow students.
Pounds of fresh produce, he reasoned, could go toward school lunches.
Ethan, president of the school’s FFA club, pitched the idea to school leaders — who were supportive — last school year. He spent the next couple months planning for his first planting season.
For a true community garden, he needed buy-in from those off the school’s campus — and he set out to get it.
Before long, he’d sent 55 letters out to community businesses and organizations, asking for donations to purchase supplies. And he drummed up plenty of support; 27 donors gave $3,500 toward his project.
He got to work prepping the garden last spring, turning the earth to free it of rocks and weeds, and planted over the summer. Now that he’s harvested the veggies, his hard work is showing up on lunch trays.
And he’s ready to share what he’s learned. Ethan is meeting with students at other schools in hopes the community garden concept will spread throughout the county, that other students will broach the idea with leaders of their own districts.
Ethan, who comes from a farming family and says he’s passionate about agriculture, was sitting at home one day when the idea of a community garden dawned on him. He knew from the start he would give the food to his school. The garden would serve as an opportunity to teach his classmates about fresh produce, the difference in taste and texture when something goes straight from the ground to the table, he thought.
And, as it turned out, he had the connections to make it happen.
His mother, Molly, is friends with Linda Weirich, food service director for Greenfield-Central schools, and arranged an interview for her son to propose his idea.
Weirich loved the notion from the start, she said. The school system has been working to serve more local produce at school, and here was a student, offering to take the lead to make it happen, she said. She told Ethan if he were successful, the cafeteria would use anything he was able to harvest. Whatever he reaped would make its way onto the plates, she promised.
In early June, Ethan and his family planted 22 rows of produce comprising 11 different types of vegetables, including spinach, onions, potatoes and corn.
In the weeks that followed, they spent hundreds of hours tending to the garden, coaxing the crops from the soil, Ethan said.
It’s tedious work. Altogether, they’ve put in about 270 hours, working in the evenings and on Saturday mornings to pull weeds and water and harvest their crops.
The garden was more work than he ever imagined. There were successes — so many tomatoes — teaching moments and disappointments, too, he said.
His spinach, for one, didn’t survive heavy rains throughout the summer. Ethan wasn’t able to harvest any of it.
Despite that setback, he’s proud of the overall outcome.
That pride is measured in 105 ears of corn, 400 tomatoes, 240 peppers, 13 baskets of lettuce, 19 pounds of green beans and more.
“I didn’t think it would be this successful,” Ethan said.
That first day his green beans showed up on his lunch tray, he knew all of his hard work had been worth it.
Molly Ellsbury remembers that day.
Her son came home, enthusiastically shouting he’d eaten his own green beans for lunch, she said. She and her husband, Gary, couldn’t be prouder of Ethan.
From day one, Ethan has been dedicated to making the garden all it’s become, Gary Elsbury said.
“He has worked his tail off,” he said.
Weirich said staff members have been pleased with the bounty so far. The produce Ethan has supplied is fresher than anything the district can buy from its distributors, they admit.
And while it’s just the start, Weirich sees potential in the project. So far, the produce has been served only at the high school; in the future, Weirich hopes the garden yields enough food to pass along to other schools.
The project is helping teach students the importance of gardens and farming, a message that resonates with Hancock County families, she said.
“We are a farm community,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to show (community gardens) really can work.”
Greenfield-Central High School junior Ethan Elsbury planted a community garden to provide fresh produce to the high school cafeteria.
Here’s a look at what he’s harvested:
105 ears of corn
13 baskets of lettuce
19 pounds of green beans