- Associated Press - Sunday, June 1, 2014

MARYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - While the congregation at Cedar Point Church in Maryville grows in its faith, members are starting a new community outreach that has them growing green, leafy veggies and lush tomatoes on an acre of land behind the church.

Lead pastor Kurt Steinbach and his church have spent the last few weeks preparing the ground and installing a hydroponic system just outside the church’s back door. The tomatoes, lettuce, kale, spinach, eggplant, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and beans will all be grown without any dirt. Hydroponics uses water, nutrients added to the water and a system of pots stacked vertically to make optimal use of the space. Instead of dirt, the root systems of the plants will have aged coconut fibers in which to establish themselves. That means no weeds to worry over and no red clay.

The word hydroponics comes from two Greek words, “hydro” meaning water and “ponics” meaning labor. The concept of soilless gardening or hydroponics has been around for thousands of years. The hanging Gardens of Babylon and The Floating Gardens of China are two of the earliest examples. Scientists started experimenting with soilless gardening about 1950. Since then other countries, such as Holland, Germany, and Australia have used hydroponics for crop production.

Steinbach said he was first introduced to hydroponics about two years ago while in Florida. Fast-forward to this year and conversations here about ways Cedar Point could reach out to its community. Steinbach brought up the idea of the garden.

It clicked with members, who have helped get the garden established. Cedar Point even sent four of its members to Florida to be trained on the system. Others have also helped with installation.

The plot of land has been leveled, a well has been dug as a source of water and the system is in operation. The plants were added just this week.

It is being set up as a cooperative, Steinbach explained. They are calling it Harvest Farms Co-op. Cedar Point members were invited to join and now it’s being opened up for others in the community to sign on. The cost is $60 per year.

As a member of the cooperative, each person will receive member discounts, participate in co-op activities like canning classes and community service projects and be part of the food basket program. Other programs and discounts will be available as the farm expands.

“We felt like the Lord was leading us to do this as a way to create a sense of community,” Steinbach explained. “It will provide a source for food but also be a gathering place - a village, a place to come together and interact.”

Members of the co-op will be able to purchase the vegetables at very reasonable prices. But Steinbach and his congregation also want to help the single parents and widows in the community so they will be giving away 20 percent of the harvest to them. Food prices are continuing to go higher and higher, the pastor explained. This giveaway will allow these families and widows to be able to eat healthy even though they are on tight budgets.

In addition to the vegetables, the pastor said Cedar Point is looking at other ways to help single parent families. Steinbach said his church will use the pond on the property to teach children how to fish. Those who receive the vegetables at no cost will be invited to give back by helping with the canning classes or other activities.

There are several advantages to choosing a hydroponic system of growing. It is a great conservation growing technique, Steinbach said. Because the pots for growing the plants are stacked vertically, you can grow twice the amount of vegetables in about one-third of the space. Cedar Point is also using well water from a well they dug right on their property. And the computerized system sends the water out to the plants with a system that uses 95 percent of the water, eliminating any waste.

“The food also tastes good because you are adding nutrients to them,” Steinbach said. “We are also not using pesticides.”

The whole experience has brought so many Cedar Point members together. On any given work day, there might be 30 of them on site, helping get the plants installed. They now want that sense of community to expand beyond their borders.

It will be a few weeks before harvest time, but food grown hydroponically generally takes less time to mature. Steinbach said the goal at this time is to have about 300 co-op families this first year. Next year, there is additional space where the garden can be expanded to twice its size.

If they chose to, this group could sell all it grows at the farmers market or to other markets who want the hydroponic products. But growing and then selling isn’t the main goal of the cooperative, Steinbach said. This is a program where members come together to purchase the food at great prices and also give it away to those who need it. It’s also about growing it right here instead of buying something shipped from far away, the pastor said.

There is much optimism right now. The hydroponic system is computer operated. The plants are in shade houses and receive the right amount of sun and warmth. Misters give the right amount of water and nutrients. Screens will keep out the birds. Bumblebees will be brought in to help with pollination.

“It’s like the perfect setting,” Steinbach said.

Soon, there will be 20 to 30 pounds of tomatoes hanging from each of the vines. Hot peppers and sweet ones will be ready for picking. Everything you need for a summer salad or vegetable casserole will be bursting forth.

“I do feel like this is a vision from God,” Steinbach said. “I brought it up and didn’t know how they would react. It involves some really unique things. It’s not your average church meeting.”

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