Arkansas Gardeners Form Nonprofit to Own Property

by Associated Press  on Sunday, May. 6, 2018 2:07 pm   2 min read

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FORT SMITH — On a Saturday morning, Isaac Witt taught a class everything they wanted to know about growing blackberries.

"You plant blackberries in the spring," he said.

The classes, which range from blackberries and strawberries to beekeeping and trees of Arkansas, are one facet of the Learning Fields at Chaffee Crossing.

Susan Randolph has been a master gardener for 18 years and was named the 2016 Master Gardener of the Year in the state. The Master Gardeners is a program through the University of Arkansas. The River Valley Master Gardener sector formed a nonprofit so the gardeners could own property — the Learning Fields at Chaffee Crossing. Randolph is president of the nonprofit.

The Learning Fields encompass several fruits and vegetables as well as herbs and roses. About 60 to 70 master gardeners work at the Learning Fields, and free and paid classes are offered regularly, the Southwest Times Record reported.

"We get a lot of people that maybe their grandparents grew their own food but their parents didn't so they never learned how to garden so they come out here with their children to learn how to garden and preserve their own food," Randolph said.

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority, which oversees development at Chaffee Crossing in east Fort Smith and Barling, signed the land for the Learning Fields over to the nonprofit in 2008. The next step for the Learning Fields is to raise enough money to afford a kitchen, Randolph said. A kitchen would allow the master gardeners to go a step further and teach people how to properly can the food they have learned to grow.

Randolph began the master gardeners program after working as a registered nurse in the emergency room at Sparks Hospital. Being a nurse and raising children came with its fair share of stress and she found it difficult to make time for other activities. But she decided it was time to look around because she only gets one life, so she took up gardening.

She eventually became the first master gardener in the River Valley to be named Master Gardener of the Year.

"I was pleased for me, but it was a big deal for the River Valley because we had never had anybody recognized by the state before," Randolph said.

Right now, Randolph is working on a fig trial, a years-long project. She testing different kinds of figs to learn what figs can be grown here.

Witt, who teaches several of the classes, has been a master gardener for 13 years.

"After you're retired, you don't want to just sit down and not be involved," he said.

For Witt, it's about gardening, but it's also about being involved with the people at the Learning Fields.

"The people that are working on that," he said of the vegetable garden, "some are experienced gardeners and some of them are not experienced gardeners. The experienced gardeners tend to help coach the less experienced. It's a learning process."

Witt was a high school teacher and football coach for nine years.

"I got out of teaching and I think there's just a part of me that enjoys doing that — helping people grasp what the subject is," he said.

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