Friday, January 22, 2021
The Giving Farm Feeds Seniors in More Ways Than One
Mardi Shepard uses a serrated Japanese knife with a slight curve that gives her an extra edge to dig in the dirt.
Friday, August 14, 2020


A sandhill crane stretches its wings and utters a low-pitched rolling percussive sound as Mardi Shepard embraces the dawn light at Kelok Illahee—Dick and Melinda Springs’ farm situated along a tributary of Silver Creek.

A dun-colored Norwegian Fjord, believed to originate from the oldest horse in the world, looks up, shakes its roached mane, then goes back to grazing.

Within minutes Shepard is joined by Melinda Springs and Peggy Grove and the three walk through a collection of barns, greeting an emu who acts as the morning Welcome Wagon.

“We’ve got so much here we sometimes wish we had 30 people—but not during COVID,” said Melinda Springs in the purple vest. Joining her are Peggy Grove, Dick Springs and Mardi Shepard.

“Look how big the cabbage has grown since I last looked at them!” exclaimed Peggy.

In another time, all three of these women would have been busy elsewhere. Mardi and Peggy would have been traveling and working on behalf of various nonprofits around the Wood River Valley. And Melinda and her husband Dick Springs would have been spending part of the summer at their cabin on an island in British Columbia.

This farm has become the focus of their attention during the COVID pandemic.

When the COVID pandemic hit, the Springs realized immediately that they wouldn’t be allowed to travel to British Columbia.

Melinda Springs tightens up the pulleys as the tomato plants grow.

“We decided we had to do something so we became farmers!” said Melinda.

The Springs’ enthusiasm quickly spread to Mardi and Peggy. And on April Fool’s Day, while the ground was yet frozen, they ambled out onto a corner of the Springs’ farm that was strewn with discarded rocks. They tore down old fences, hauled away the old cars and campers that had come there to die and began removing the rocks.

Mardi learned to operate the tractor, moving haystacks and an old willow fence. And Dick brought in truckloads of topsoil.

“We saw this field of thistles and we started pulling. It was all we wanted to do all of a sudden,” recounted Mardi.

The work is not as intense now as it was when the four were planting and transplanting. “Now, we’re just weeding and waiting,” said Mardi Shepard.

“It’s overwhelming what we did out here. We worked eight hours a day from April 1 through June 30,” said Melinda.

The Springs had had the property for 25 years and had grown hogs for butchering and chickens and emus for eggs during the eight years they owned the Wood River Sustainability Center in Hailey. But they always bought the produce for the Center from other local farmers, rather than cultivating their own.

This new venture has given the four a safe place—“a family unit” mostly off-limits to visitors who might unwittingly be carrying the coronavirus. And, once they realized the enormous volumes of organic food they were growing, they decided to donate it to The Senior Connection, which saw the demand for meals-to-go skyrocket as Blaine County was ordered to shelter in place.

“Seniors raising food for seniors,” said Melinda. “We call it ‘The Giving Garden.’ We give the food to the seniors. But this has also given to us something to do during COVID.”

One dark green egg from this emu can make an omelet for six.

“It’s been life changing. I’ve never worked harder in my life,” said Mardi. “I’m a project gal who loves to see anything big all the way to the finish line. In many ways, this has saved us, as it gave us a project. It gave us something physical and mental to do, forced us to be disciplined every day to do what needed to be done.”

Dick started hundreds upon hundreds of vegetables from seed—cauliflower, broccoli, leeks, green cabbage, eggplant, summer and winter squash, green beans, rutabagas and more—in a couple small outbuildings on the farm. Melinda and Mardi busied themselves rotating the crops inside and out as the weather transitioned into spring, then early summer.

Peggy earned the nickname “the transplant queen” as she ensured each of those seedlings, plus 52 raspberry bushes, found a proper home in numerous rows and raised beds they’d built on the once-unused portion of the farm.

And Melinda and Mardi laid claim to weeding afterwards.

“Every day this is our life,” said Mardi, who leaves her home in Hailey each morning at 6:30 a.m., headed for an eight- to nine-hour stint at the ranch. “Just us. No little garden fairies.”

Mardi stopped to point out a row of potatoes. The four had helped themselves to some of the potatoes local farmers gave away in May. Then they’d cut the potatoes into pieces and planted them after they sprouted.

“We couldn’t believe they grew!” said Mardi, as she pointed out the bee balm and other flowers they’d planted for pollinators.

“To come out and see it these plants so huge—it’s just thrilling,” said Peggy. “I garden at home but I’ve always grown flowers. So, watching vegetables take shape is such a surprise. I love it when my peonies bloom. But when these plants bloom and grow into something we can eat and give to the Senior Connection—wow!”

A couple weeks ago the group took Napa cabbages bigger than soccer balls to The Senior Connection where Chef Brian Ahern turned them into coleslaw. They followed that up with coolers full of collards, which Ahern cooked with bacon, garlic and lemon, giving the valley’s seniors a taste of Southern cooking.

"It truly is a labor of love--you can taste the labor of love," said Teresa Beahen Lipman, director at The Senior Connection. "We had a spinach salad with vinaigrette, feta cheese and red onions, thanks to them, and one of our guests said you can really taste the difference. The farm itself is gorgeous, very meticulous, well organized--from scratch and from seed. When I toured it, things were just start to sprout. Now they're in full bloom and we see it come through our doors everyday."

The Senior Connection, in turn, has given them food waste, which they have fed to a compost pile that also includes manure from the farm animals.

“Next year that will be gold—rich fertilizer to keep the circle going,” said Mardi.

Dick, in turn, salvaged wood and pipes from construction projects to build a hoop house for keeping peppers and cucumbers warm during cold weather.

“In afternoon it’s so hot in here it’s like a sauna,” said Melinda.

Melinda, meanwhile, has been experimenting with newsprint to keep weeds down in the greenhouse.

“We cut and cut and cut pages out, then soaked the newsprint and covered it with straw,” she said. “So far, no weeds.”

Four months into the garden, the four are still teaching one another about what they’re growing. Mardi, for instance, explains that amaranth seeds can be used like quinoa. And Melinda points out a plant that American families used to grow for a celery flavor before celery was widely available in grocery stores.

“You can use the seeds for pickling,” she said.

The pandemic garden has fulfilled a lifelong desire of Dick, who gardened alongside his father as a boy.

“I love the renewal of life,” he said. “I love taking seeds and nurturing their lives. And I love being able to provide food for the community.

“I’m told the average grocery store has 49,000 different items which, on average, travel 1,300 miles to get there,” he added. “So, you can see the impact if everyone committed to grow or eat 10 percent of their food locally. This is a difficult environment in which to grow food. It’s a short season, a wind-in-the-desert environment. So, if we can do this in this environment, people can certainly do this in other environments.”








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