Good Earth Project

Packets of seeds are sent each year from New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut and other spots around the country to a tiny place on the map called Deer Lodge, in rural Appalachia.  Director Ella Smith and other volunteers joyfully open each package, setting aside the seeds for a special weekend in April.  That's when they carry on a tradition started in 1972, when the faith-based group called the Morgan-Scott Project for Christian Concerns started the Good Earth Garden. Smith says, "This year we've had a lot more support than we've had in the past actually, both financially and with seed donations."

As the distribution time approaches, deeply discounted and donated plant materials roll in from some businesses.  East Tennessee churches not only collect seeds, but send people to help sort them.  Some volunteers must count seeds from bulk bags into tiny plastic bags, labeled with a magic marker.  The result is bin after bin of seeds, plants and garden fertilizer ready to give away.
Volunteer Minnie Huling
labels bags for seeds.

Volunteers Phyllis Clowers
and Lori Brock take applications
in the Morgan-Scott office
Lori Brock (no relation) and Phyllis Clowers give of their time in the Morgan-Scott Project office, answering phones and filling out application forms. "I just have always felt like I ought to leave the world better than how I found it," says Lori when I ask how she stays motivated to help.  By distribution day, everyone meeting income guidelines will have a selection of gardening goods awaiting them.

I met Connie at the Morgan-Scott Thrift Store, where she had brought one of her grandsons along for shopping.  She said this will be her third year to get growing help from the Good Earth program.  "Fresh garden stuff means a lot," she comments.  As an experienced gardener, Connie plans to feed her extended family and even give away some of the food she grows this season.

Connie's family plans on gardening again this year,
their third year for receiving free seeds and plants.

Connie's is one of 400 families who'll find the encouragement to grow some of their own food this year.  The group intends to give each family seeds for green beans, sweet corn, lettuce, radishes, okra, squash and potatoes.  The families will take home cabbage and tomato plants, plus enough bagged fertilizer to work into the garden soil. Donated fabric thrift store bags have been saved to help carry home the seeds.  A little bit of land to plant a garden is one of the few things even the poorest residents of this area still have.  

Smith says about 4 in 10 families in her two-county area now fall below the poverty line.  She's concerned that one of the last remaining manufacturing plants in the area may be starting layoffs.  Most of the factory jobs are long gone, with employment coming from a local prison and a few other government jobs. Most residents have never seen the riches that came from the area's natural resources, even though entire forests, coal deposits, oil and gas have already been taken. Although there are some scenic hardwood forests and farmland nearby, you can also see clear-cut forests that have been replanted in pine monoculture. This area is home to contrasting luxury homes and rundown mobile homes, lush green and bare earth.

Tears well up in Smith's eyes as she tries to explain to me the challenges of breaking poverty's cruel cycle. She explains that although the seasons bring projects like garden assistance, people rely on the Morgan-Scott Project every day for urgent needs such as utility bills, applying for food stamps, and getting help with home repairs.    The group has served as an incubator for other local programs such as the Habitat for Humanity chapter and a new homeless shelter. Smith is proud that the nonprofit can also help a few motivated individuals improve their own lot in life by attending college.  A few students get tuition assistance, while others get help with transportation.
Director Ella Smith shows a
box of onion sets that will be
given away.

Smith sees the Good Earth Garden as a tool for promoting self-reliance in these hard times.  She grew up in some hard times herself, in the same area.  "I came from a family of 18.  Without a garden, we would have never made it, " she says.  The nonjudgmental attitude that she displays toward helping others makes it easy to understand that she also said "yes" when a local jailer asked for seeds so that inmates could plant a vegetable garden.

If you'd like to learn more about the Morgan-Scott Project and how you can help at any time of year, please visit their website.

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