One sweltering hot summer day, a resident of Oak Grove stopped by Comet Grove, the town’s community garden, to learn about how the garden was progressing and how food would be distributed. As the conversation wound down, we began to discuss our personal lives, and the topic of my major at Auburn University began being discussed. “You must be in agriculture to be so willing to spend time out here, right?” the woman asked. I smirked, “Actually, I’m a public administration major”. She proceeded to ask how working at Comet Grove fit into my course of study and the College of Liberal Arts in general because to her, there was not an explicit connection.
Although I am not in any agricultural program, working at Comet Grove over the past month has provided me with a great summer experience that I can one day recount to uninterested grandchildren and their friends. It has also given me a great understanding into how communities form, work, and prosper. As I stated in my last reflection, Oak Grove, Alabama is not a thriving metropolis. Its population, according to 2009 Census estimates, was 460. It’s situated along US Highway 280 – locally called “the four-lane” – and if you do not pay close attention you may not even notice you were there. However, inside this tiny town that is both rural and suburban in appearance, there are many people who work together to ensure that every resident has their needs met. Ergo, Comet Grove was born.
Each morning, I walk outside and start the daily tasks that lay ahead – turning on the irrigation system, checking for signs of damage from voracious insects and crows, harvesting the handful of vegetables that have ripened through the night, and preparing for an always changing number of ready and willing volunteers to show up. Often during the middle of this ritual the first volunteers show up, and the day begins. In the beginning of June, the day began by cutting bamboo for bean poles, sowing new seeds, or by simply sitting down and enjoying a cup of coffee. As the month has progressed (and the beans were finally staked), this turned to killing weeds, finding new seeds to plant (to ensure we don’t get bored) and new vegetables to pick, or simply sitting down and enjoying a cup of coffee. As you may have noticed, as the daily tasks may change, the idea of sitting down with a neighbor to share coffee and stories remains constant. In this I find the idea of Oak Grove’s sense of community prospering.
Afternoons are reserved for taking breaks from the garden, although it’s really the heat that we are hiding from. This break from the garden has afforded me the opportunity to go out into the community to meet residents, spread the word about Comet Grove, and solicit for potential volunteers. Many residents within Oak Grove and the outlying communities are fond to the idea of a community garden that can meet the needs of those who go without fresh vegetables. Churches have been a great wealth of knowledge and contacts, and each one whose preacher or secretary I have talked to have been receptive to spreading the word within their congregations. Businesses situated within Oak Grove town limits have been nearly as kind, although the need to make a profit has left me cut short when explaining the garden and internship to several shops and businesses, and understandably so. One night the Sylacauga Kiwanis Club offered me the opportunity to speak at their weekly meeting, which followed with a brief tour of Comet Grove and fellowship at ‘The Barn’. Members were keen on the purpose of the garden, and showed a strong interest in how and why it existed. Reception to the garden, its purpose, and even the internship has been exceptional throughout the area, although unfortunately this has not translated into additional volunteers.
The number of people who come out and expend their time and energy into making Comet Grove thrive has remained relatively constant (and low). The same can be said about ‘garden meetings’, which occur each Thursday at 6:00 PM inside ‘The Barn’. One bright spot has been the inclusion of several youth who have come out only for a day, and contacts made in the past weeks will hopefully bring about additional visits from youth groups and their churches. Additionally, finding civic organizations throughout the region has become one of my main goals in order to find potential volunteers and sustain the growth and progress that the garden has experienced since it began as an idea nearly one year ago. Given the strong presence of civic organizations, including Kiwanis, youth groups, and senior clubs, around Oak Grove and southern Talladega County, it will be interesting to see how the area responds to civic agriculture as Comet Grove continues to grow. My hope is that as the garden begins to fill a gap in the community and people see the tangible results, engagement of the community will rise and participation will increase for both weekly garden meetings and daily garden upkeep, and that with that growth, people will see why a public administration major spent his summer at Comet Grove.