Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sisters harvest for the hungry

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

Three years ago, there was just a half dozen lavender plants.
Now the Belton farm produces a variety of crops, sometimes more than a thousand pounds' worth.
The farming started as a hobby that two sisters - Melanie Morrow of Temple and Donna Stoa of Nassau Bay - could share.
'At the time we lived two states away,' Mrs. Stoa said. 'I was close to Houston, and Melanie was in New Mexico.'
And the routine was to meet at home base, the house of their parents, Don and Estelle Fisher of Belton. So there wasn't much opportunity for quality sister time.
'I wanted something we could do together like a project or a hobby that would give each of us an excuse to get together,' Mrs. Stoa said. 'Farming, why not? The land was there, and the barn was there. It could be put to use.'
When the sisters' garden project launched in 2006, the Fisher's five-acre farm land wasn't being used.
'The parents had donkeys and horses on it when we were younger,' said Mrs. Morrow, a member of First United Methodist Church in Temple. 'But those are long gone.'
The two novice gardeners opted to try their hands at lavender.
'There was no particular reason,' Mrs. Morrow said. 'We thought it sounded like fun.'
And it was successful, sort of.
'We got some plants working,' Mrs. Morrow said. 'But not well enough to grow them over the two acres we were working. There was a fungus that would grow on them, and it was too expensive to keep the plants treated.'
So they moved their sights to produce farming. 'First there was a little herb garden,' Mrs. Stoa said. 'And then we started on the tomatoes, potatoes and onions.'
Learning the trade as they went, the sisters wanted to grow what they knew they would eat. With their first harvests, they were able to provide 'a good deal of food' for their immediate families and dozens of other relatives and friends.
'The crops were manageable then,' Mrs. Morrow said, trying to keep from laughing. But the knowing stare from Mrs. Stoa thwarted her efforts, and she burst into giggles.
The joke is that the two sisters found a surprise in their garden this spring, a 700-pound harvest of onions.
'That's more than 1,800 onions,' Mrs. Stoa said. 'What do you do with that many onions?'
The bounty was by no means expected, even though the sisters did all the work themselves, from shoveling to planting to tending and harvesting.
'We knew there'd be more than we had last year,' Mrs. Morrow said. 'But we didn't have a clue it would be that much.'
'Must have sounded like a good idea at the time,' Mrs. Stoa said as she winked.
It didn't take long for the onions to fill the barn and storage shed.
'But that was barely half of them,' Mrs. Morrow said. 'And since I'm the one who lives here, they started coming into my house. In my clothes closets, hall closets and pantry. Then we had to stack them on the window sill and all the tables. Any where you could stack something, there were some onions.'
It seems that the sisters were in one onion of a predicament.
'Then it was like God took over. He took control,' Mrs. Morrow said. 'It went from us not knowing what to having a great idea.'
Then the two decided to sell half and give away half.
'Nobody in this country should be hungry,' Ms. Stoa said.
Her sister nodded.
'We could help a lot of people with what started out as a hobby,' Mrs. Morrow said. 'And that was wonderful.'
A farmer's market in Clear Lake bought a little less than half of the sisters' onions.
'That let us earn back what it cost us to do all the farming,' Mrs. Morrow said. 'And the rest of the onions went to the Austin Area Food Bank.'
The Austin food bank distributes goods to families in need across 20 counties in Central Texas.
'That was real important,' Mrs. Morrow said. 'We wanted to be able to help the folks around here.'
The onion load was picked up at the end of april, and a few weeks later, the sisters harvested 500 pounds of potatoes, and most of that went to the Helping Hands Food Pantry in Belton - a donation that director Mike Bergman said was most welcome.
'Any kind of help like that is wonderful,' Bergman said. 'The fact that people are sensitive to the needs of the area and are doing something about it is what matters. It takes time, work and generosity, but they do it and that's what helps meet the needs of our clients.'
Work, indeed - Bergman's not kidding.
To keep their crops in good shape, the sisters devote hours of time and plenty of physical exertion.
Mrs. Morrow tends to the garden every morning from about 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. in the heat and until about noon in the cooler months.
'Melanie's the real backbone of the operation,' Mrs. Stoa said. 'We definitely couldn't pull this off if it wasn't for her.'
Mrs. Stoa comes to help a week to two weeks at a time when 'things are really busy.'
'When it's time to plant, hoe or harvest, I'm up here, and we generally work all day,' Mrs. Stoa said. 'And we get as much done as time will allow.'
Mrs. Stoa's also the cook. She cans and jars surplus food for the extended family, so that own pantries won't go empty.
If you think that the sisters weren't at work these last few weeks because of the extreme heat, you're wrong.
Both have been tending to a half dozen rows of tomatoes.
'They have to be watered every day,' Mrs. Morrow said.
Mrs. Stoa's been in town to help with the the staking of the tomatoes. She's also been planting watermelons and making spaghetti sauce by the gallon.
To do their work these last weeks, they've had to adjust their wardrobe. To protect themselves from the sun, they wear flannel shirts, aprons, gloves and straw hats.
'And a layer of 30 to 70 proof sunscreen goes on before any of that,' Mrs. Stoa said
But it's all worth the effort.
'You get such a good feeling,' Mrs. Morrow said. 'That you've been able to help someone who was hungry. But, of course, it isn't me, it's God working through me.'
Next year, the sister know their crops will be bountiful. More experienced farmers now, they expect 900 pounds of onions and about 700 pounds of potatoes - in addition to some cantaloupe, green beans, sweet corn, okra, broccoli and lettuce.
And their promise is to give more than half of the harvest to area food banks.

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