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Natural Awakenings South Jersey

Making an Impact: A small farm with a big mission

Sep 03, 2015 04:05PM ● By Kate Morgan

Harry and Valerie Behrens don’t have any real farming experience. Nevertheless, their property produces a huge yield of fresh fruits and vegetables, all of which ends up on dinner tables around their hometown of Buena. This year, they produced about $30,000 in tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, corn, peppers and other veggies in just seven weeks. And then they gave it all away.

The Behrens run Impact Harvest, a community farm and nonprofit organization they founded seven years ago. They oversee the farming of about 10 acres of land, both in Buena and Hammonton, and the weekly distribution of its yields to about 200 families—for free.

“We sold our house and gave away almost everything we owned to go on a mission trip to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina,” says Valerie, 39. “After that, we came back to Buena, and it was quickly apparent that people needed our help here, too. One day, we saw an elderly woman walking past our house carrying groceries. The nearest grocery store is more than five miles away. Harry went and offered her a ride home. A few months later, we saw her again. This time, when he gave her a ride, she welcomed him into her home.

“She had no heat, no running water. She was living on a fixed income, and only received about $40 per month for groceries. I started to stop by her home and take her to the store when she needed food. I noticed she wasn’t buying any fruits or vegetables.”

Valerie and Harry decided they’d start a garden in their backyard, to feed both their family and their new friend. When they asked a farmer friend for advice, he offered to donate some extra plants.

“Well, he showed up with about 800 heads of lettuce, ready to be planted,” Valerie laughs. “That first year we grew so many vegetables. It was obvious our family would never eat that much, so we were determined to give it away.”

For the first two years, the couple filled their pickup truck with produce and drove out to impoverished areas of Vineland and Millville, where they’d simply hand out the vegetables.

“Now, things have become a little more organized,” Valerie says. “We have a direct link to the families we serve, and they receive regular weekly produce delivery during the season. There are about 150 families that get a bag of produce every Monday, and more who show up for first-come, first-serve distribution on Thursdays. In all, we’re feeding about 200 families a week.”

Valerie says Impact Harvest meets the needs of a community that might not be able to get the help they need elsewhere.

“In Cumberland County, 17 percent of people are food insecure,” she says. “That means they get about one meal a day, and generally that doesn’t include any fruits or vegetables. People who really need to stretch a dollar are more likely to buy processed foods, because they’re cheaper and have a longer shelf life. A lot of the people we work with are single moms, or elderly people on a fixed income. Most people we serve are not on welfare. They’re just on the cusp of where the government thinks they can make it on their own, but they can’t—not in a healthy way.”

The operation has grown too big for the couple to handle on their own—even with the help of their two sons, ages 14 and 9. They rely on the help of dedicated volunteers; co-workers, members of the community and often, people Impact Harvest have served.

“About half of our volunteers are children,” Valerie says. “And many of them are members of families we’ve served. We find that most of the people who receive help don’t want it for free. They want to earn it. Most come out here and help, even after they’ve gotten to a more secure place in their lives. Many come several times a week. The whole goal of what we do is to love our neighbors, and we want people to be inspired to share in that goal.”

For more information including donating to and volunteering for Impact Harvest, call 856-690-9397 or visit impactharvest.org.

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