Inspiration + Innovation = Farming 4 Hunger
Meet the other Bernie Fowler
Five years ago, you knew Bernie Fowler Jr. as the son of a famous father and, maybe, a Southern Maryland building contractor. Today, the Patuxent River champion’s son is recognized as the leader of Farming 4 Hunger. His inspiration, innovation and success have fought hunger with over two million pounds of fresh food for two years. This year, Farming 4 Hunger is well on its way to topping a million pounds of fresh vegetables — primarily corn, potatoes and green beans.
Man Meets Mission
From his famous father, young Bernie learned the values of family, faith and community. He also learned he didn’t want to follow his father, the Calvert County commissioner and state senator, into politics. Instead he spent 10 years in law enforcement and 20 years as a contactor. During that time he supported his community the way many of us do, by writing checks to charities and attending the occasional fundraising event.
With the great recession, Bernie’s contracting business contracted, and he made a discovery.
“While visiting a Maryland Food Drop, I recognized familiar individuals with their families getting food. Several did contract work on houses my company built. Many of them told me the food helped keep the lights on and the mortgage paid, even if for only a couple months,” Fowler says.
In that discovery, he found his mission: feeding the hungry.
Instead of relying on donated funds to buy food or producers to donate, Fowler envisioned a farming operation dedicated to producing fresh, nutritious food. In 2012 he formed Farming 4 Hunger as a non-profit.
Backed with donations, Fowler leased an under-utilized 100 acres from Serenity Farm just over the Patuxent River in Benedict, hiring the owners as his farm managers. Then he rallied volunteer support from local church and civic groups, schools and businesses to supply much of the labor to run the enterprise.
Reaping the Harvest
On a hot, sticky day in mid-July, operations were in full swing. Three acres of corn blown over in a thunderstorm had to be handpicked. The Calvert High School football team went to work, harvesting 15,000 pounds. As a tractor pulled a wagon through the field, the kids followed, ripping the ears from stiff green plants and tossing them 20 to 30 feet to the top of the stack in the wagon. The tosses never missed. Energy surged, but they kept it focused on the job. The team was learning about another kind of teamwork.
“We’re doing this to support families in need of food, to end hunger” Calvert High School 10th grader Dominic Pasch told Bay Weekly.
Ever hands-on, Fowler walked a row, reaching down for missed ears to toss onto the wagon.
After the corn was harvested, the kids gathered in the shade of a farm building for lunch — donated, of course.
At another table, another group of day workers ate after digging 20,000 pounds of potatoes and sorting and packaging 5,000 pounds of green beans. These hands are convicts on work release from the Southern Maryland Pre-release Center in Charlotte Hall, about 20 minutes from the farm. This arraignment, approved by the Department of Corrections, is another of Fowler’s innovations. In this win-win partnership, the farm gets labor. The release-workers learn new skills and get help transitioning to life after incarceration.
“Forgiveness starts when we release our own enemies; people deserve a second chance,” says Fowler, a man of faith and dedication.
As boys and men eat, Teon Plater, who came to the farm in 2012 on work release, shared his story. Drinking and drugs lead to a fight that put one man in a coma and sent Plater to prison for six and a half years. The work put him on the road back to productive society. He wants to get into physical therapy and become a personal trainer. Fowler helped him get a start with a job at a local gym. Plater still volunteers at least 10 hours a week on the farm.
The release-workers seem to focus on the post-prison part of Plater’s story. The kids prefer the beginning. Some are fascinated; others seem bored as he talks about where he went wrong. Many of these boys sweating in the shade won’t run into trouble as deep as Plater’s. Some will. Will that day of community service and a lecture from an ex-con save any of them? Bernie Fowler Jr. believes it will, and his conviction is contagious.
As the farm united unusual groups in work for shared goals, Fowler saw another opportunity: mentoring and life-coaching on the farm. He hoped to influence both those who had made mistakes and those who still had time to avoid trouble. With volunteers from all walks of life coming to work on the farm, there is no shortage of mentors and learners.
Lenetrice Hall, one of the five released workers listening to Teon’s story, is finishing a 12-and-a-half-year sentence for first-degree murder. He calls his work on the farm “an important step toward getting back into the community.”
Would he stay on as a farm worker?
“In a second.”
Farm to Table
After the farm hands eat, tons of corn, beans and potatoes go on the road to feed more hungry people.
Traditionally, donated food is sent to warehouses, sometimes as far from Southern Maryland as Baltimore. Distance and delay almost guarantee the food will be less than fresh, and spoilage will increase. Farming 4 Hunger reaches its points of need and delivery more directly.
This year, the organization added a 2007 GMC refrigerated box truck with funds from the Southern Maryland Agricultural Commission. The truck is loaded in the early morning by the release-workers, then makes its rounds. Fowler is usually in the driver’s seat, accompanied by volunteers and release-workers to unload.
The truck transports vegetables from the farm — plus other donated produce — directly to distribution centers in Southern Maryland, primarily to churches and food drops in the parking lots of Calvert and Patuxent high schools. On a typical day, 6,000 pounds of food are going to a mobile drop at Patuxent High for Solomons United Methodist Church.
“We have had 16 churches so far helping with harvesting this season and 51 churches have signed up to assist with mobile produce drops in the tri-county [Calvert, St. Mary’s, Charles] area,” says Fowler, proud of the community support he has been able to muster. These churches provide 128 mobile drop sites at the end of the supply chain.
Back at Serenity Farm, a new meeting area is getting a concrete floor. Chaney Enterprises donated 32 yards of concrete, worth $3,500; Precision Contracting, owned by Roland Plater, donated the labor. Volunteering on the farm, Roland for the first time met his relative Teon.
The next group of volunteers is due on Saturday. It’s the youth group from Emmanuel Church, one of about 25 church and other civic groups that volunteer on the farm.
For Bernie, it’s a typical 12-hour day.
“He is driven,” says Rose Torboli, secretary and treasurer of Farming 4 Hunger. “It’s a spiritual thing for him, a culmination of his experiences during the downturn when he saw so many people in need.”
With this year’s harvest drawing to a close, Fowler looks forward. This fall, unused greenhouses will be converted for hydroponic growing. The first crops are expected in November, and the vegetables will be sold to local institutions like schools and hospitals. The institutions get a reliable year-round source of fresh, local produce, and the farm gets the funds to supplement donations to rent the land, buy seed, pay farm managers and distribute the food.
“I want Farming 4 Hunger to be a place where community roots continue to grow, with all walks of life serving each other,” Fowler says. “I hope it becomes an example for others to be able to replicate in their home towns.”
Faith and Food
Some things you do on faith. Fowler may never have proof that his mentoring program has kept people out of jail.
Farming is a different story. Its results can be measured in people and pounds. In 2013, over 2,500 people volunteered to help on the farm, with a peak of 562 people on one day. In its first year of operation, Farming 4 Hunger produced 400,000 pounds of food for the hungry. In 2013, 1.6 million pounds.
“We’re still harvesting,” Fowler says. “We have exceeded one million pounds this year for a total of over three million pounds in our first three years.”
That’s a lot of corn, potatoes and beans.