Harvesting harmony

MU Extension helps a small southwestern Missouri town grow fresh food — and relationships.

Jan. 10, 2022

For the citizens of Noel, Missouri, transforming a rocky hillside into a community garden grew more than vegetables. It cultivated connections.

The southwestern Missouri town, with a population of 1,800, is home to a meatpacking plant, which draws immigrants from 17 nations — including Mexico, Laos and countries in Africa and Central and South America. Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education (RAISE), a group that helps newcomers navigate the complexities of life in America and rural Missouri, recently teamed with University of Missouri Extension to orchestrate the garden project, which builds camaraderie and provides nutritious food.

“Even if you don’t speak the same language, when you’re standing there planting next to somebody, you realize, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together,’” said RAISE health director Jennifer Rocheleau.

In two years, the garden has yielded herbs, blackberries, squash, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Volunteers have also harvested potatoes, onions, beans, cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkins and eggplant. They have planted several fruit trees and built raised beds for root vegetables. There are plans to use the garden to test new fruits and vegetables common in other cuisines, such as bitter melons, to see if some of them might find a commercial market locally.

MU Extension nutrition specialist Eden Stewart has worked with volunteers to develop recipes that blend cultures and cuisines, such as using okra with potatoes and introducing North African flavors to traditional American fare. Stewart experiments with incorporating common local vegetables like tomatoes and radishes into other cuisines. She also provides information about food preparation and preservation. “When you get a lot of food ripening and ready to harvest all at once, it’s hard to eat it all at once,” she said. “What can you do to stretch out its use and help eliminate waste?”

This fall, RAISE invited all of Noel to an event at the garden to share the bounty of a second successful harvest.

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