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Olivia community garden project aims to promote better health in Renville County

Peanuts are maturing in the community garden in Olivia. Sweet potatoes and peanuts are among the surprising variety of plants being raised in the garden created by nonprofit organization United Acres. (Tom Cherveny / Tribune )1 / 5
Lyle Lundstrum, manager of the community garden in Olivia, selects an heirloom squash. Lyle and Pam Lundstrum have been producing local vegetables at their rural Lake Lillian farm for over three decades and manage the garden launched by nonprofit United Acres. (Tom Cherveny / Tribune) 2 / 5
Pam Lundstrum, from left, and helpers Will Hanson and Leif Hausken pick potatoes Aug. 26 in the community garden launched by nonprofit organization United Acres on United FCS property in Olivia. (Tom Cherveny / Tribune)3 / 5
Lyle and Pam Lundstrum have brought their expertise as local food producers to the community garden in Olivia. They are managing the garden and helped launch it this year when nonprofit organization United Acres converted over an acre of land on United FCS’ new office site in Olivia into a community garden. (Tom Cherveny / Tribune)4 / 5
Pam and Lyle Lundstrum have planted a variety of heirloom plants in the community garden they manage in Olivia. These are a Russian tomato variety; different in appearance, but sweet and flavorful. (Tom Cherveny / Tribune)5 / 5

OLIVIA—A national measure of vital health factors ranked Renville County 85th of Minnesota's 87 counties.

"And while the obesity rate in most of the counties is declining, in Renville County it is increasing,'' said Pat Halbe, vice president of financial services for United FCS in Olivia.

He has a plan for turning things the right way. With support from United FCS and other partners, Halbe created a nonprofit organization called United Acres. It has converted over an acre of land on United FCS' new office site into a community garden. It is producing a bumper crop of fresh, local goods in just its first season.

This one is unlike many of the community gardens which open up land for people to do their own gardening. United Acres has a full-time manager, part-time work force and its own mission. Its goals are to educate residents about the benefits of healthy foods and develop a sustainable, economic model to improve the access of Renville County residents to them.

"So we see this as a good fit for the overall health of the county,'' Halbe said.

"I really believe in it. There should be one of these in every town,'' said Lyle Lundstrum, its manager. The husband and wife team of Lyle and Pam Lundstrum have been producing local vegetables at their rural Lake Lillian farm for over three decades.

Halbe convinced them to focus their efforts instead on the land where United FCS opened its new offices in June.

"Like cement,'' said Lundstrum of his initial assessment of what was then a weed-covered site. The man hired to break the ground last fall told Lundstrum he was afraid of tipping his tractor.

Now it's producing a plethora of vegetables as only the Lundstrums with their years of experience could make possible. Many of the vegetables are heirlooms that they have cultivated through the years in their own garden. They have also planted 30 fruit trees.

In the shadow of Olivia's water tower with the big ear of corn logo, they are raising everything from beets and beans to zucchini, herbs and some surprises like peanuts and sweet potatoes.

They've colored it all with dahlias, gladiolus, and other flowers to attract bees. Five native bees have been busy feeding on the nectar.

"Once you get bees to your garden it is productive,'' said Lundstrum of the pollinator's important role.

And productive it is, turning out more fresh vegetables than anyone was prepared to take.

"The last thing we wanted to do is overpromise and underproduce,'' said Halbe of the garden's big start.

About 20 percent or more of the produce is delivered to the RC Hospitals and Clinics, where it is served the very same day in the Healthy Way Cafe and to patients.

A portion is also provided to a local church, which distributes the fresh goods to elderly people in their homes. The remainder is being distributed through local food shelves.

United Acres is also looking at putting up a food stand at the site.

Longer term, Halbe said the goal is to connect the garden with a number of markets—from other nearby hospitals and schools to area grocers. The next step in this process is to acquire a walk-in cooler to preserve a share of the produce for the months ahead.

Halbe said United FCS was supportive of the proposal to make available its land for the garden, which could someday grow to a full three aces.

Critical support also came from the legacy made possible by the late Mary Page, who had long been an advocate for Olivia and Renville County. An endowment provided by Page to the University of Minnesota Extension allowed the Regional Development Sustainable Partnership to provide assistance with the start-up of United Acres. A graduate student helped with the legal requirements of creating a nonprofit as well as lined up grant funds to help see this effort through its first three years.

While the goal of promoting healthy nutrition and lifestyles is a big motivation, Halbe sees lots of other benefits from the garden. It provides an opportunity for young people to learn more about agriculture. And, it can help the county further develop its own agricultural economy by producing vegetables otherwise transported here from great distances.

Halbe said people tell him they enjoy looking at the colorful, neatly tended garden in the midst of the community's commercial strip along U.S. Highway 212. Yet the comment he hears most often is how much people enjoy the fresh foods. "It's as fresh as it gets,'' he said.

The county's health ranking is part of a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. It considers factors including high school graduation rates, obesity, smoking, unemployment, access to healthy foods and the quality of air and water, income, and teen births in nearly every county in America.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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