A Catholic trio creates Our Common Home Farms to help those in need while teaching agricultural sustainability
On a six-acre farm near Olympia, more than crops are being cultivated in the fertile soil of the Nisqually Valley.
Food justice, care for the environment, service learning, dignity of labor, Benedictine principles of community and hospitality — all are taking root as sure as the peppers and lettuce.
“We’re trying to create excitement around food,” said Jeff Crane, a co-manager of Our Common Home Farms, a project that partners three Catholic neighbors in Lacey — St. Martin’s University (where Crane is dean of arts and sciences), Pope John Paul II High School and Sacred Heart Parish.
With a name inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, Our Common Home Farms focuses on growing nutrient-rich food for those in need as well as sustainable agriculture and climate change resilience.
Operating at four sites, including the Sacred Heart Parish Community Garden, the project donated nearly 6,000 pounds of produce in 2018, only its second year of operation. This year’s goal is more than 12,000 pounds.
The harvest goes to organizations including Sacred Heart’s Emergency Outreach Food Pantry, St. Leo’s Food Connection in Tacoma and The Community Kitchen (a program of Catholic Community Services of Western Washington) in downtown Olympia.
The farming project involves high school kids, college students, middle-aged people, the elder generation and parents and children working in the learning garden, which is managed by volunteers from St. Michael Parish in Olympia.
Although there are plenty of hours spent planting, tending, harvesting and donating crops, having direct contact with those in need can complete the circle for students and adults who are volunteering their time.
“When there’s someone who doesn’t have enough food to eat, it’s hard to comprehend,” said Sam Fox, a Sacred Heart parishioner and a project co-manager, who works as an assistant professor of biology at St. Martin’s. “The closest I can get to understanding their challenges is when I hand them food and see how thankful they are. It’s amazing.”
Jan Pigman, left, explains to St. Martin’s University student Samantha England how to tell when corn is ready to harvest. Photo: Janis Olson
Shared faith, farming values
The main farming site for Our Common Home Farms is at Pigman’s Produce Patch near Olympia. Owners Jan and Dean Pigman, who are in their mid-70s, are leasing most of their six acres to the farming project this year.
“That’s been a very comfortable relationship, since the JPII high school and St. Martin’s have the same Christian values that we do,” said Jan Pigman, explaining that she and Dean are Lutherans. The farm, she said, doesn’t belong to them, “it belongs to God.”
The Pigmans remain very involved in the farm’s overall operations — they plow the ground, water the crops and serve as mentors. “Jan and Dean’s generosity is what makes this possible,” said Stephen Holland, a project co-manager who teaches English and history at JPII. As the high school’s community service coordinator, he arranges for students to volunteer at the farm.
“I first got dragged out there with a working party” before Christmas break her sophomore year, JPII senior Cecilia Ramos said with a laugh. “I got introduced to the land and stuff. It was really awesome.”
Ramos has cleaned greenhouses, dug up potatoes, weeded, prepped the soil and planted. “The faith component is mainly to serve the hungry, like a corporal work of mercy,” she explained.
The Pigmans “love the fact that these kids are coming out,” Holland said. “They’re always ready to teach and to show.”
The Pigmans are committed to helping the project succeed, hoping that its leaders find a balance between donating produce and selling enough of the harvest to cover production costs.
Jan Pigman said she also hopes this Catholic effort inspires other churches to start similar gardens, where “they can teach people to appreciate food and that food takes an effort to produce it, and they can help people in need.”
Our Common Home Farms is managed by a team of four, including Julia Chavez, Stephen Holland and Sam Fox. Chavez and Fox are professors at St. Martin’s University; Holland teaches at Pope John Paul II High School. Fox also oversees the garden at his parish, Sacred Heart in Lacey. Photo: Janis Olson
Grounded in Catholic social teaching
When large groups arrive to volunteer at Pigman’s, it’s an opportunity for the co-managers to explain the values guiding the project — “what our mission is, Catholic social teaching, Benedictine values [and] how we have a responsibility to be good stewards of God’s creation,” Holland said.
His Jesuit high school and college education “infused” him with a sense of justice, Holland said, especially around food issues. “When we buy that produce from that company that is exploiting workers, we’re participating in that,” he said. “We need to be willing to spend more for food.”
Fox grew up in a large Catholic family with parents who taught by example — taking in foster children, working with the homeless, delivering gifts to those in need at Christmas. “We [kids] were involved in many ways early on,” Fox said. “I’d never heard of social justice. We were just helping out.” He tries to give his five kids a similar example by involving them in the farm and parish garden.
Crane, involved in community gardens since he was a graduate student, said the transition in his thinking about social justice issues happened at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. As an associate dean, he helped establish four community gardens in poor neighborhoods; tied to Catholic social teaching, the gardens provided food while educating families about nutrition and healthy produce.
St. Martin's University students Jeremiah Pico, left, Ashley Pena, Jan Francisco and Sophia Lin gather freshly harvested squash at Pigman's Produce Patch, one of four sites that make up Our Common Home Farms. Photo: Janis Olson
Sustaining the Benedictine legacy
Shortly after arriving at St. Martin’s three years ago, Crane began working to involve the university in community gardening. Our Common Home Farms exists within the school’s infrastructure, so all hiring, legal work, purchases and donations are done through the school, Crane explained.
The project began moving toward a business model last year, Crane said, with an eye toward creating a structure that pays for itself and can be replicated by others. Revenue comes from a variety of sources, including sales of community-supported agriculture shares (buyers receive produce each week during the season), donations and selling produce to the vendor that provides meals on St. Martin’s campus.
“We like that,” Crane said of the vendor relationship, “because that gets back to the Benedictines — they’re supposed to be self-sustaining, independent and [living] lives of prayer and work. We’re trying to sustain that tradition and that legacy through this program.”
In addition to Pigman’s and the Sacred Heart Parish garden, the farming project has started “food forests,” which include fruit and nut trees, at two Olympia farms: Parsons Family Farm, where there is also a kitchen garden; and the O’Neill farm, where there are plans for a permaculture educational and research site.
Talks are under way to start two more community gardens, as well as a food forest at a Lacey city park, Crane said. And he envisions integrating the farm more deeply into the university’s curriculum. Students are already connected to the farm, whether it’s helping start and plant seedlings or volunteering in conjunction with reading various works from the Benedictine tradition.
Volunteering at Pigman’s is an opportunity for students to set aside technology, slow down and find the quiet, “so that they feel there is a way, even in our modern world, to try to get that sense of balance,” said Julia Chavez, an associate professor of English who is a project co-manager and a St. Michael’s parishioner. “It’s been a really great way of deepening what we’re studying in class.”
Carly James and Robert Currall, grads of Pope John Paul II High School, load the day’s harvest into a van headed for St. Leo’s Food Connection in Tacoma. In 2018, Our Common Home Farms donated more than 6,000 pounds of produce to organizations that feed the hungry. Photo: Janis Olson
You can taste the love
Although the garden at Sacred Heart Parish is much smaller than the farm, the efforts of dedicated parish volunteers and students from nearby JPII resulted in donating 600 pounds of produce in 2018. This year’s goal is 1,000 pounds, Fox said.
The garden mostly benefits the parish food pantry, located just across the parking lot, but volunteers have occasionally served freshly harvested produce at The Community Kitchen. (The beets and green beans were a hit — the Brussels sprouts, not so much, Fox said.)
Those experiences have helped the volunteers connect the dots between growing/ harvesting the food and understanding the gratitude with which it’s received, Fox said. “I think going to the kitchen, they really can appreciate it much better.”
And the Community Kitchen staff appreciates the produce donated from the farm and garden. It’s fresher and more diverse than what is usually available for the 143,000 meals served there each year, mainly to homeless people, said Peter Epperson of Catholic Community Services, the kitchen’s community involvement coordinator.
“When you think about the work and the energy and the passion that Stephen and Jeff and Sam and everybody else bring to the task, you can literally taste the love,” Epperson added.
That level of care may be why Our Common Home Farms has become “something more than just farming,” Fox said. “There’s a community feel to it.”
Learn more about the farm
Donate: stmartin.edu (search “Our Common Home Farms”)
Video: pbs.org (search “Our Common Home Farms”)
Northwest Catholic - September 2019