I have a lifetime of culinary experience but rarely had anything to do with growing the food I prepared. Besides the ubiquitous herb gardens most kitchens have, I only had a brief experience with my hands ‘in the dirt’. As part of my efforts to help people with food insecurity, and to promote having better quality foods made in everyone’s homes, it felt right that I expand my available skills and start growing vegetables to offer my clients a more direct path from the ground to their table.

In November, I reached out to the WSU Master Gardener program director and explained my nonprofit and what I’m trying to accomplish; they were very happy to have me apply and join the program. The WSU Master Gardener program was actually the first such internship program in the country. It started as a way for the college to use its research and scientific tools to teach members of the community how to grow things better. It took off, and now there are Master Gardener programs in each state and even other countries. As luck would have it, the year I’m starting is the 50th anniversary of the program’s existence, so I’m looking forward to the big event later in the year. I’ll talk about it more in detail when I get trained, but they also have a diagnostic lab where anyone can bring in pictures or samples of a plant that’s not doing well and get actual scientific results that can even get sent across the state for in-depth testing all free of charge! They teach kids, work with the youths at the juvenile detention center, and so much more.

Even before my first class, I was connected with a pair of amazing women who were starting the Master Gardener program this year, too. Thankfully for me, they were both very welcoming and way more skilled in the gardening arts than I am. They have a passion for flowers, gardens, and chickens.

When my first batch of chickens started losing their head feathers, I spent forever online trying to figure out if they were stressed, being pecked by other birds, or had a mite infestation. After an exhaustive search, I sent a desperate text and picture to one of the two women and almost immediately got a response back that everything was just fine, and those were just new feathers! When I mentioned being interested in greenhouses, I was invited over to see the construction of one they had made from reclaimed glass, an idea that resonates with my habit to want to give objects second lives. These are only two of the dozens of Master Gardener interns who live in our community doing really cool stuff.

Two classes in, I was able to connect with a Master Gardener who works with the build-a-bed feed-a-family program. He came to the duplex I’m renting and helped me map out my yard for the maximum food yield so I can start getting my seeds ready. By next month, I will have a list of what I’m growing and a layout of where everything is planted in the yard. I’ll have constructed raised beds using pallets and will start properly constructing my first compost pile, along with using my chicken's fertilizer — I’ve been saving it up to its maximum effect. I’ll also have started my first plants from seed using grow lights in the basement. Thankfully, I have a friend who is really into microgreens that I can get some tips from.

I am privileged and lucky to be able to exist these last two years building a connection with the community through food. I had money saved to start a business already, so I was able to stretch that savings through the pandemic while navigating the nearly impossible waters of starting my own nonprofit without already being rich. My partner, my family, the connections to my neighborhood, and the support of amazing members of our community allowed me to fully invest myself in my nonprofit work and the Master Gardener program. Our goals synergize so well with learning, doing, and sharing our knowledge and skills with anyone who needs it.

I came into the program with very little knowledge of agriculture and zero experience with gardening or composting. Throughout this year as a Master Gardener in training, I’m going to learn as much as I can to grow good food for the tables of good people, and I’m going to be doing it on a budget, so hopefully my experience can help those who might be interested in growing food for themselves. I can’t wait to learn all the things I wish I had learned ten years ago. I hope some of you reading might have some wisdom about the things I’m learning throughout the year and reach out to give me advice. Making connections with the community is the key, so I hope to hear from anyone that has anything to say!

Email me at Rjmcniv@gmail.com. I will also be posting updates on my Instagram page, @food4everyonetc, if you’d like to follow me there. I have a cute Golden Doodle puppy and five chickens who love humans, so there’s some of them there, too.