NORTH LIMA, Ohio — Members of Common Ground Church Community in North Lima, Ohio, have the opportunity to begin their Sunday mornings a bit differently than most churchgoers — by watering and weeding in the church’s adjoining greenhouses and gardens.
Common Ground began in 2006 and, as a newly formed church, needed a place to call its own. Members decided to purchase Mellinger’s Garden Center, which had gone out of business earlier that year, and its 31 acres.
Although members of the church and pastor Steve Fortenberry considered tearing down the greenhouses to make room for church parking and activities, they quickly formed a new plan.
“We asked ourselves, ‘How can we use what we have to bless the community?’” said Fortenberry.
After researching and hearing about programs focused on helping at-risk children, adults with special needs and communities with hunger issues — all through gardening, members at Common Ground knew the greenhouses served a purpose.
They began Goodness Grows, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the community through small-scale sustainable agriculture. Although the program is only three years old, Common Ground members and supporters have lofty, worthwhile goals for the coming years.
Using the greenhouses to grow food for local food shelters seemed like an obvious but narrow-focused idea, said Fortenberry.
“We realized that in addition to intensively growing food here, we could also use our location as an educational and vocational training facility,” he said.
Fortenberry said the urban residents of Youngstown, Ohio, have tremendous opportunities to grow their own food. Goodness Grows is being used as a model urban farm.
By working with the Rescue Mission of Mahoning Valley, the Common Ground community can implement its proven methods from the North Lima location to urban areas.
Fortenberry said this partnership allows both Common Ground and the Rescue Mission to achieve the same goals — create jobs, establish a local food source and provide a way to enhance a sense of community.
To pass along the most up-to-date information to other communities, the Goodness Grows program is collaborating with Joe Kovach of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio.
“Joe has been researching the best ways of producing high value on small plots in environmentally responsible ways,” Fortenberry said.
‘Fresh Stops.’ As plots in the Youngstown area begin to produce food, the Goodness Grows program also has plans for the distribution and sale of the products. Fresh Stops are set up as CSAs, or community supported agriculture, in parking lots of libraries or hospitals.
Presently, the program has five Fresh Stops established. Goodness Grows is also purchasing part of their supply from farmers and other gardens located within 75 miles of the Fresh Stop to provide enough food for the communities.
A major leader in the fresh stops aspect of Goodness Grows is Maurice Small, who has 25 years of urban agricultural experience. Small is a director of Cleveland City Fresh, a program of the New Agrarian Center in Oberlin, Ohio.
The Goodness Grows program has been able to implement many of the same ideas and goals of Cleveland City Fresh, thanks to Small’s leadership.
Because these programs are being developed in the most urban areas of cities, Goodness Grows and its supporters recognize the chance to reach out to at-risk youth.
“This will be our second year working with Flying High in Youngstown,” Fortenberry said. The nonprofit organization aims to develop the potential of at-risk or disadvantaged youth through leadership development and civic engagement activities.
Fortenberry and Small said that programs such as Goodness Grows help these youth to discover their interest and talent in agriculture or food production, thereby encouraging them to pursue further education and a related career.
In addition to providing a learning environment for urban youth, Goodness Grows continues to be an educational resource for local youth and college students.
“Members of our own congregation are active here — we even have a children’s garden, where the youth help in planting, weeding and gardening,” said Meagan Zeune, program director of Goodness Grows.
Last summer, three college students interned with the program, helping to design and implement the gardening program focused toward urban youth.
This summer, Roger King, a local high school student, is learning about intensive gardening and helping conduct research.
“I’m discovering the most efficient and effective methods for growing produce,” King said. “I’m really learning a lot.”
Because so many different people of diverse backgrounds are involved with the project, Goodness Grows creates a unique cross-cultural experience.
“It’s really a way of bridge building to people from all walks of life,” Fortenberry said. “We’re able to combine our cultural traditions in a natural, relaxed setting.”
Although Goodness Grows is mainly producing vegetables right now, Fortenberry and Zeune have big plans for the facilities.
“We have started researching pastured poultry and are considering raising chickens,” Zeune said.
She added that aquaculture is another potential avenue, as both she and Fortenberry have seen sustainable
Small is hopeful that as the Common Ground location evolves and as the program grows, revenue will begin coming into the area through tourism.
“I truly believe there is potential to create a ‘Green Belt’ in Mahoning County and the surrounding areas,” he said.
“I think people will want to get off the highway and come see what’s going on and learn about how they can get involved.”