It started out as a Saturday morning hobby. Jim Dasher, owner of 100 acres in Worthington Valley outside Glyndon, would spend a few hours each weekend growing vegetables on a small plot behind his home.
He figured he would give whatever food he could cultivate to area soup kitchens and emergency food banks. He knew it wouldn't be much, but it would be something.
Over time, his friends started coming to help. Then word spread and more helpers would come. The plot became acres, and in 1993 a nonprofit agency built around growing fruits and vegetables for shelters and soup kitchens in the Baltimore region was born.
"It just evolved," Dasher says. "It wasn't meant to be this big."
Last year, Dasher says, Garden Harvest, as the farming operation is called, donated 350,000 pounds of organic kale, turnips, watermelons, tomatoes, eggplants and more to 62 local agencies.
Nearly all the work on the farm is done by community volunteers. It would be too costly to do it otherwise. Garden Harvest had more than 5,000 volunteers last year. Of course, Dasher says, he wishes more would come during the hottest days of the summer, when much of the harvesting has to be done.
"Labor is the biggest cost in farming, and the labor here is 95 percent volunteers," he says. "That significantly cuts the cost of the operation."
School groups come. So do Boy Scout troops. Hundreds of volunteers from local Jewish organizations came out on a Sunday last month as part of their Mitzvah Day community service project.
"It's a great opportunity for students to join the community effort to feed the hungry," says Lynn R. McKain, a spokeswoman for McDonogh School in Owings Mills. McDonogh sent 250 eighth- and ninth-graders to Garden Harvest on their April Community Outreach Day.
"It's a place where we can send a large group and everyone can have something important to do," she says.
This time of year, the bulk of the work involves preparing the fields for planting, tomatoes mostly. A section of a field is covered with cardboard, then wood chips. The cardboard keeps down the weeds. A piece of machinery comes through later to chop and mix it all together before the seedlings are planted.
Soon it will be time to pick the peaches and Asian pears.
Dasher says he became hooked on the idea of growing food for others more than a decade ago after a visit to activist Bea Gaddy's emergency food center on Collington Avenue in Baltimore.
He delivered bags of produce one day. "Everyone looked so down, and when I put the food down, everyone just lifted up," Dasher recalls. "That's what motivated me to keep going."
Sister Eleanor Noll runs the Beans and Bread soup kitchen in Fells Point. She receives piles of produce every few weeks during the harvest season to serve the 300 to 400 people who come in daily for a hot lunch. Her clients really appreciate it - even when she introduces them to vegetables they've never eaten before, such as squash.
Most days, she says, "we have canned vegetables - there's no comparison. The stuff we get is absolutely wonderful because we never get fresh vegetables usually."
The only trouble she and others say they have is getting to the produce. The agencies must pick up the produce at the Baltimore County farm, which is not always easy. Still, Noll says, "We really appreciate it."
The Capital Area Food Bank in Washington gets a few thousand pounds a year when the logistics can be worked out: "We go out of the way for the food, definitely," says Mike Gillespie, the agency's food resources director.
When the Dashers - Jim and his wife, Edie - first moved to Worthington Valley, they leased most of the tillable acres to a commercial farmer. Little by little, they took land back to expand Garden Harvest. Back then, Jim Dasher didn't know anything about farming.
"I used to tease him and call him a gentleman farmer," says Gloria H. Luster, a master gardener and advocate for the hungry who helped the Dashers get started.
Now, what was originally meant to be their retirement home - Dasher was in the construction business and owned a few art galleries in Timonium and Pennsylvania - is a hub of activity, with workers traipsing in and out, dragging in dirt from the fields.
Out back, with the help of interns being paid with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and from private foundations, an office is being built - and a building with extra bathrooms for the volunteers.
"I've been in this long enough to know what works," says Luster, who teaches people in Baltimore how to grow their own food and is the founder of the Baltimore Area Gleaning Network, which gathers food from farmers' fields that would otherwise go to waste and gives it to the needy. "Many people don't realize that hunger exists and it's getting worse. ... Everyone wants to throw money at a problem and think it solves it. It doesn't."
The Dashers have gone far beyond that, she says: "You have to make things happen, and that's what Jim and Edie have done."
Jim Dasher and Luster say Garden Harvest is the only farming operation they know of that donates all of its produce to the hungry. He says he has had calls and visits over the years from groups interested in duplicating his success.
"You wonder why it hasn't been in place in other communities," says Edward Brigham, a Glen Arm attorney who is on the board of Garden Harvest.
Says volunteer Raymond Derck, a Parkville bee farmer: "I wish people would think about getting places like this all over."