Ruth Hawley finds fertile ground to help others

hawley (Download Image) Ruth Hawley, second from right, and students from Amador High school in Pleasanton prepare beds for the winter -- weeding, removing straw mulch and squash plants and loosening the soil in preparation for winter planting.

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of articles about Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory employees who volunteer for various non-profit agencies. This is just a sampling.

Ruth Hawley began to volunteer for Fertile Groundworks "because growing organic food to feed hungry people in our local community is meaningful."

Fertile Groundworks was founded in 2010 to plant unused acreage with the idea of supplying fresh organic produce to Open Heart Kitchen and other local non-profits feeding people in the Tri-Valley. The garden plot adjoining the Asbury United Methodist Church on East Avenue is called the Garden of Grace and serves to test production capacity for various crops selected for their nutritional value, ease of growth and usefulness to Open Heart Kitchen’s menu.

But Hawley, a process engineer in NIF’s Optics Processing Facility, also had a personal reason for getting involved; the loss of her father in 2010. "I wanted to honor my dad’s memory. He was a big gardener."

The organization’s "think globally, act locally" philosophy, which relies on educational outreach and emphasizes agricultural sustainability, also appealed to her.

Hawley says Fertile Groundworks is not just about growing food to fill a community need, but about "raising food awareness and making the best of our natural resources as well as teaching organic gardening."

"To teach and empower people and communities to increase their health, well-being and self-reliance by growing food for themselves and others organically and sustainably," says the succinct mission statement on the organization’s website.

The idea appears to have taken root and Fertile Groundworks has expanded to include additional garden space. Local schools including Junction Avenue, Altamont Creek, Smith, Del Valle and Livermore High School have small gardens or greenhouses. "We work with the schools to teach kids about plants, gardening and healthy food," Hawley says.

The very nature of the all-volunteer organization is collaborative, she says, noting that organizations include Alameda County Master Gardeners, Renee’s Garden Seeds and Republic services as well as Open Heart Kitchen and, of course, individual donors.

To raise awareness, support and funds, Fertile Groundworks holds workshops and special events such as tomato tastings. One of the main fundraising activities for 2015 will be a wine tasting and food event at Rios Lovell Winery on July 22.

In the course of her volunteer work planting, weeding and installing irrigation systems, Hawley says "I’ve learned a lot about gardening, such as when to plant. That, I didn’t know."

One of the people she has learned from is master gardener Bruce Campbell, a driving force behind Fertile Groundworks’ Garden of Grace. He trains and guides the volunteers who make it possible to grow about 12,000 pounds of produce every year for Open Heart Kitchen and local shelters.

"I think more about what I can grow and when to grow it; I look at growing winter vegetables – broccoli, onions and kale," Hawley says. "And I’ve discovered new foods such as turnips and kale. We grow varieties of produce you just don’t see in supermarkets."

The core group of volunteers remains relatively small and additional help is needed for Fertile Ground to continue to grow and thrive, she says. "No gardening experience is required, just a desire to learn and help."

Hawley says the organization demonstrates that small gardens can have a big impact on the community, noting that the garden of Grace has about 16,000 square feet, or 0.4 acres, of planting space. "You can produce a lot in a small area. I’m amazed at how much you can grow in a 40-foot row."