By Marlee Moore
Shirley Hunt, left, is one of hundreds of visitors who frequent the Echo Community Garden. When Hunt had out-of-town guests earlier this year, Echo Men’s Club member Warren McLendon, right, loaded produce for Hunt and her granddaughter, Malaina.
The Echo Men’s Club is all in at the Community Garden, a U-pick on halves abounding with sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes and more off Highway 27 in Dale County.
The garden is a 7-acre cornucopia where pickers take part of their bounty; the rest is delivered to needy families.
“We provide fresh vegetables for members of our community,” said farmer Bill Ferguson, whose poultry farm is near the garden. “Used to, everyone had gardens. Today, people bring their kids or grandkids here to learn how to pick. They may have never been to a garden.”
Ferguson and other farmers are local Men’s Club members. Their hearts for service and easy access to equipment planted seeds for the Echo Community Garden in 2019.
From 7-10 a.m. and 5:30-7 p.m. daily, Men’s Club members such as Dan Grantham and Lamar Newman direct visitors to pick rows of free, perfectly ripe produce.
“We’ve never sold a penny out of here,” Grantham said. “Even watermelons that could bring $5 a piece, we give those away.”
Volunteers routinely fill SUVs with crates of okra, peas, corn, watermelon and more to distribute to disabled, sick and shut-in community members. They also donate produce to the Echo United Methodist Church (UMC) monthly food giveaway.
“If anyone knows of someone who can’t come to the garden, we take it to them,” Newman said.
Echo is a 15-minute drive from Abbeville, Headland, Midland City and Ozark, but the garden draws visitors from greater distances — like Clio in Barbour County, Coffee Springs in Geneva County and the Florida Panhandle.
In late May, the garden’s bounty helped local Shirley Hunt feed out-of-town guests. When Hunt arrived at the garden for pickup, club member Warren McLendon loaded her van with a crate of just-picked produce, shielding Hunt from a misting rain.
Hunt thanked the men for their generosity, time and help meeting people’s physical needs.
“They’ve been a blessing to our community,” she said. “Vegetables are expensive, and these men look after the seniors and those in need. I don’t think they’ll turn anyone away.”
Brandon Moore helped found the Echo Men’s Club last year. He said their goal isn’t to turn a profit but to serve God while serving others.
“We didn’t do this to make ourselves look good. We did this to help people and glorify God,” he said.
Moore called the garden a living testament to God’s grace and bounty. The garden went 42 days without rain in 2019. While some plants drooped from lack of moisture, the fruit kept making.
“This garden produced because God made it produce,” Moore said.
During the drought, visitors picked more than 6,000 ears of corn in just two days. Planting doubled this year, and pickers multiplied.
“We want to grow more and more,” Grantham said.
Newman added, “And give more and more.”
The men said it’s a worthwhile investment of time and dollars. Grantham estimates the garden costs $3,000 annually. The club foots the bill for seed, irrigation infrastructure and fertilizer, with help from fundraisers.
Donations roll in, too, such as sweet corn seed from Del Monte growers who know Echo UMC Pastor Alan Meyer. This spring, several community members donated tomato transplants grown from last year’s crop.
The garden teems with produce nearly year-round, with fall crops following summer’s bounty.
Ferguson and other farmers are familiar with producing food on a large scale. They said the impact of meeting local needs through a community garden is limitless and satisfying.
“I believe every farming community should have something like this,” Ferguson said. “Yes, it takes work, but with 10-15 people working together, you can accomplish a lot. I know there are other farmers just like us that wouldn’t mind doing the work.”
The Echo Community Garden is located at coordinates 31.4861731, -85.4500022.
Visit the Echo UMC Happenings Facebook page to learn more.