On a hazy, humid July Friday morning, a group of gardeners worked diligently, harvesting goods to transport to weekend market. Not a single grumble was uttered about the slightly uncomfortable working conditions that summer morning, at least not any audible ones. Zinnias were cut and grouped together for transport; fragrant herbs and ripe vegetables were added to the lot.
But there’s no solid rule that says a strong work ethic can’t include a little small talk.
“I just got back from ROMP in Owensboro. I like Alison Krauss.”
Ginna Greer enthusiastically mentioned her weekend trip to the annual bluegrass music festival and gave an overview of her busy agenda for the week ahead—a shift at a local restaurant, Bible study, Camp Happy Days, more gardening. Some of her fellow gardeners shared similar schedules as they fussed over the flowers they were cutting, many excitedly discussing Camp Happy Days and Saturday’s Community Farmers Market.
They are all participants in Top Crops, a nonprofit gardening group for special needs adults founded by Ginna’s parents, Bill and Carol Greer. Ginna had a stroke as an infant and has some visual, cognitive and muscle-related disabilities associated with that.
“Through most of school we had very inclusive, highly social setups for her,” Carol Greer explained. “Through elementary she was in the typical classroom … when we got to high school the gap got a little large.”
Fortunately, Greenwood High School offers a peer buddy program, which Carol said helped close that gap somewhat.
“That just was a phenomenal program at Greenwood High School and made us realize the importance of that social piece,” Carol said. “As we neared graduation from high school we realized that huge social piece was going to go away because all those kids were going to go on to college and careers or marriage or whatever phase they moved on to next, so we began trying to think about what did we want her after-school years to look like. The garden was sort of born out of that, as sort of another opportunity for her to be around other people, to learn new skills.”
Working with Western Kentucky University’s College Heights Foundation and the agriculture department, the nonprofit was given a little over half an acre fronting Nashville Road on WKU’s farm. WKU’s support of the program is something the Top Crops founders are truly grateful for, particularly as amateur gardeners.
“We jumped in,” Carol laughs. “We did participate in a master gardening class to try to get just a little knowledge. Luckily we’re part of a wonderful community at Community Farmers Market and Western’s ag farm. … Some classes came in and irrigated … They’ve mowed, they bring compost, they offer advice. They’re very, very generous, and they love having the Bowling Green community out on the farm. It’s a wonderful place for us to be.”
The connection to WKU not only helps Top Crops logistically, it provides an enriching social component among the gardeners and students.
“We have WKU Best Buddies come out, and they come work with us on occasion. We have an intern through the Honors College at Western. We work with the $100 solution class at Western. … The connection to Western has been pretty key because most of our guys are … 30 and under, and they really identify with Western students, and that’s what they consider their peers. That connection has proved pretty critical to our guys feeling connected, and they just love that part of it.”
That Friday at the farm, Stephany Oaks sidled up beside a basket of zinnias, and before depositing her harvest, snapped a selfie from behind the loose bouquet in her hand.
Only a month into being a Top Crops gardener, Stephany proclaimed, “I love it! My favorite part is being out in the sun! More vitamin D,” she shrugged matter-of-factly.
“She moved here a year ago,” Stephany’s mother, Doris Oaks, said, “so this is really good to help her get to know some people in the community. Before she moved here she was active with a community garden in Union County, so it’s kind of played into her strengths and interests.”
Stephany is quite the gardening hobbyist. At home, “I have a bunch of plants in front. I have two squash, three onions, green peppers—hot one—and cucumbers. I also eat it too. And I also make homemade kombucha,” she stated proudly.
John Michael Huffman took a quick break from his harvest time to explain how Top Crops is important to him.
“When I was really little, I helped my pawpaw. My favorite part is to pick tomatoes and then spinach. I pick everything,” he said with a contagious grin.
On a bustling Saturday at Community Farmers Market on Nashville Road, the Top Crops crew manned their station, the first smiling faces encountered through the front doors. Ginna and John Michael exchanged Friday morning’s harvest for money, and John Michael even doled out a few bonus hugs and fist bumps.
“Herbs are kind of our niche at market,” Carol said. “We try to offer a bigger variety. We try to bring something to market that not everybody has.”
Top Crops hit the five-year mark in July. Reflecting on the program, Carol marvels at how it has touched not only the gardeners but the founders and the community.
“The people that we’ve met at Western’s ag farm, the people that we’ve met—both the farmers and the people who come to buy their groceries there at the market—we have found a circle of individuals that we really didn’t know before that have become good friends through this whole process. Just the whole idea of connecting with food to people in our city, I just feel like, yes, we’ve helped Ginna broaden her horizons and some others, but it’s also broadened ours immensely. … The focus was not for us, but we’ve benefited greatly as well. It’s been a great experience for all of us.”