Wednesday, August 17, 2011

sharing the surplus

reprinted with permission from the Valley News. not to be reproduced or distributed.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

   Enfield -- With home gardening growing in popularity, sooner or later most burgeoning green thumbs face a dispiriting quandary:
   What do I do with this bevy of beets? This glut of garlic? This proliferation of peppers?
   The answer usually begins by offering surplus produce to family members, friends and coworkers. But it seems that every time you step out into the garden, there's more. You try surreptitiously giving away bunches of kale to people at the bus stop, or pawning it off on the unsuspecting receptionist at the dentist's office. But it just won't stop growing. Next comes a frantic Internet search on how to preserve the summer's bounty. Can one freeze squash? How many jars of pesto can a single household conceivably consume? Is there any  room left in the freezer for a carton of ice cream?
   Then comes the dreaded moment: tossing your hard-earned, home-grown food into the compost pile.
   "I hate throwing stuff away," moaned Bob Cavalieri, of Enfield, echoing every successful gardener's nightmare. "But every year I have a surplus and I didn't know what to do with it all.
   "One year, I had 78 butternut squash," he said. "I was eating two squash pies a week and giving away as many as I could, but that's just too many."
   Cavalieri might have found a solution. Three weeks ago, he started the Upper Valley Home Gardeners page on Facebook to connect backyard growers in the region and provide a resource for sharing, swapping or selling extra vegetables. So far, nearly 100 people have joined, and while there's a lot of room for growth, Cavalieri says the response is encouraging.
   "I'm really excited about it," he said, standing outside his garden in Enfield yesterday. "It's kind of taking off. It's a lot of fun and it's a good community service kind of thing."
   Cavalieri envisions an online venue where backyard gardeners like himself -- not commercial growers or farmers market vendors -- can chat about what they have lots of, and what they'd like more of. A post might say something like, "I've got a ton of cucumbers this year. Will trade for carrots or tomatoes, or sell two for a dollar."
   The idea, of course, is nothing new. People have been sharing produce for centuries. But today, a gardener in Norwich might not be aware of her fellow enthusiasts in Cornish, or an Upper Valley transplant from another state might not know who to share his greens with. Setting up a booth at a farmers' market or a farm stand on the side of the road takes time, commitment and financial investment -- something few backyard hobbyists are interested in.
   "I just looked for an outlet, something easy to do," Cavalieri said, noting that he's been trying to figure out for years how gardeners could effectively share their bounty. He considered selling at the Enfield farmers market, but didn't want to pay the fee. He's also posted on the Enfield community listserv, but that limits his outreach efforts to Enfield residents.
   When he used Facebook last year to market his private Grafton Pond campground, though, Cavalieri realized the social network would be an ideal way to connect gardeners across the Upper Valley.
   "I did it out of necessity," he said. "I think it's kind of a new thing with the internet age. It was kind of inevitable."
   Across the Northeast and the U.S., the interest in backyard gardening is soaring as food prices rise and consumers worry about the safety and quality of supermarket fruits and vegetables. The National Gardening Association in Burlington reported that in 2011, consumers spent nearly $3 billion on growing their own backyard food, a 20 percent increase over consumer gardening spending before the economic downturn in 2008.
   Though it seems like a lot of money, that $3 billion still represents a major savings in monthly food bills for most families that take up growing a portion of their own food. Cavalieri, a former bio-tech lab worker who's been gardening in the Upper Valley for 17 years, said the satisfaction and financial incentive of gardening is "wicked."
   "I like filling the freezer," he said. "Never having to buy any store-bought (tomato) sauce is a good feeling."
   The Upper Valley Home Gardeners' network isn't just about sharing food. Paul Hunt, of Bradford, is an avid collector of lilies, daffodils and irises who has never met Bob Cavalieri. But when he saw a link to Upper Valley Home Gardeners on Facebook, he didn't hesitate to join.
   "For me it will serve twofold," Hunt said. "It may be a source of flowers that I don't have, that I perhaps don't even know about that someone is offering up for trade or as surplus. It's also a way for me to prune my collection, if you will. Like so many of us, I have more varieties and more plants than I really need."
   Hunt gave away a purple day lily this week to another Bradford resident, Diane Chamberlain, whom he connected with via the Facebook page.
   "This was an opportunity to free up some space," Hunt commented, noting that one person's weed is another's treasure. "It can only help all of us who do flower and vegetable and fruit gardening," he added. "We can share what we know and we can share our surplus. I think it will be wonderful."
   Cavalieri hopes people will post questions about gardening pests or share helpful knowledge. He also hopes the new service will encourage people to expand their gardens and try new plants. He, for instance, is looking forward to sampling some bok choy for the first time later this week, when a new Facebook friend brings some over to swap.
   He's looking for takers for his beets, too. Beet greens are some of his favorite veggies to freeze, but he's not such a big fan of the tubers that grow beneath them. "I can eat them once," he said. "But to eat them over and over again ... that's terrible!"

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