Seton Hill potato project helps sisters, students and the hungry
Darren Achtzehn is a soft spoken gentle giant and self-described “farm boy,” whose huge hands bear the evidence of hard work in the garden. One of his jobs as food service director for Seton Hill University in Greensburg is caring for the huge 80 by 256 foot garden, used for the school’s dining hall.
Each year the garden has grown, but there’s no more room to expand because the cross country team uses a adjoining area for competitions. He was the perfect person to team with Sister Barbara Ann Smelko for an innovative planting project that grew food for students, nuns and the food bank, all without a budget.
“He was looking for more property and we were looking for someone with a tractor,” says Smelko, who is coordinator of vocation ministry and outreach for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill.
Smelko had an epiphany while attending a retreat. She is always looking for ways to bring the community together and wondered, “How can we get our current students to understand their history and where they have come from?”
Originally the area occupied by the university and convent was the Jenning’s Farm, which was purchased by the order in the 1800s. Since then, there’s been a long history of growing vegetables and other things here over the years. There is a painting done by a nun that shows the sisters shelling peas from the early part of the 1900s.
“I always wanted to do potatoes,” Achtzehn says, “because they can be a bumper crop for us, but we just don’t have the space.”
The idea was to split the harvest evenly between the dining hall at the university, the kitchen for the sisters and the Westmoreland Community Food Bank. They received good advice for planting from Achtzehn’s farming friends and even got a donation of hundreds of pounds of seed potatoes from Michael LaMantia, of LaMantia Produce in Blairsville.
“That was a grateful gift from God,” Achtzehn says.
Achtzehn tilled the planting area, and came back three other times with his tractor working the soil to perfection for the planting of ‘Kennebec’ and ‘Potomac Red’ seed potatoes. Both varieties were suggested by the farmers as well known and reliable producers. Next is a process called chitting where the potatoes for planting are cut into pieces with at least two eyes on each. A group of 20 nuns sat around a circular table chitting hundreds of pounds of potatoes.
The 60 foot by 300 foot potato plot was planted by volunteers including students, nuns and members of the community. It’s located between the convent and the university. As an experienced grower, Achtzehn knew it would be best to plant 50 foot rows instead of planting all the way down the length of the space.
“People will get discouraged,” he says of planting long rows. “You’re planting the same amount of potatoes, just a little differently.”
Achtzehn and Smelko were amazed at the turnout for planting day.
“Farming makes smiles, no matter how many people you saw in this garden, you secretly see a smile,” Achtzehn says.
Even though the work was backbreaking, the volunteers thanked the pair for letting them be part of the project. “We thought it would take five or six hours,” he says. “In an hour and 45 minutes, we had 600 pounds of seed potatoes in the ground.”
Every day, Smelko would visit the potato field searching for signs of life and after two weeks she was overjoyed to see newly sprouted green leafy growth. “Once the greens started, it was like a magnet, you had to go down and see what was happening,” she says
Achtzehn was back on the tractor to hill the rows twice in as many months, and as the foliage faded, the two gathered volunteers again for the harvest.
“The women’s softball team on a our first pick was probably the largest group that came,” he says. There were many more athletic teams who picked along with a plethora of other helpers.
“You can’t imagine how wonderful it was,” Smelko says. “The kids were like, ‘Look at this one, mine is bigger than yours.’ The energy that was coming out of these students and the sisters as well was amazing.”
They harvested more than 870 pounds of potatoes in all over a few weeks. They were used in the dining hall for soup and potato salad, and the sisters used them in various ways. Achtzehn tracked down some nice burlap bags to fill with 5 pounds of potatoes for the food bank. Each one came with a little wooden label that was inscribed by the nuns and others with inspirational messages.
Achtzehn and Smelko have already begun planning for next season to grow onions in a new adjoining field, maybe some pumpkins too. The potato field will be planted with a cover crop of clover and allowed to rest until the clover is turned back into the soil as a green manure. Hopefully there will be four fields to plant eventually.
The two also are designing a wildflower garden to draw visitors to the area. Two walking paths will be created with the hundreds of stones unearthed in the tilling process. They also want to plant milkweed to help pollinators, are discussing the addition of a honeybee hive and have installed a bat box as a way to control insects.
“That’s where we start to bring a balance of nature back to a piece of ground that we were just cutting grass on,” Smelko says. “And now it is really gathering community; it’s really got an excitement around the whole process. It was so life giving for everybody. There was this internal joy of being one with nature.”
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodygardens.com.