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Janesville gardeners provide fresh produce to Mercy Hospital

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GINA R. HEINE
May 28, 2010
— The produce sprouting from the ground on Merle and Shirley Storck’s farmette is destined to feed hundreds of local hospital patients and employees.

Row after row, the couple walked through their garden pointing to the varieties of vegetables they’ve planted—and what they have yet to plant.


At harvest time, the fruits and veggies are delivered to Mercy Hospital to feed visitors and employees in the cafeteria, patients and Meals on Wheels recipients.


The Storcks bought the hobby farm fives years ago because they like to garden, and Merle, a retired homebuilder and GM worker, wanted a place to tinker.


They’ve torn down buildings on the farm a few miles east of Janesville and turned alfalfa fields into 6.5 acres of produce to be eaten locally.


“That’s what keeps us off the streets,” jokes Merle, 77.


Merle and Shirley, 72, do all the work themselves and are in the process of planting 2,500 seedlings in the rolling hillside along Highway 14 on the west side of Emerald Grove.


Each week they make two deliveries of whatever is in season to Mercy Hospital, which uses the fresh fruits and vegetables in its Café Merci, patient meals and Meals on Wheels, said Mike Sheehy, director of food and nutrition at Café Merci.


One of the neatest aspects, Sheehy said, is being able to walk around the farm.


“We know what they’re doing, how they’re doing it. We know whose hands are on the crops,” he said. “Other (produce) could be coming from all over the United States or Mexico, being touched by who knows how many hands and who knows how many days (since) it’s been harvested.”


How it works

This is the third season the Storcks are providing fresh produce to Mercy.


It started when Mercy approached vendors at the Janesville Farmers Market to see if anyone would be interested in supplying the hospital with fresh produce. The Storcks were the only ones to come forward with the ability to grow all types of produce, Sheehy said.


Merle calls Sue Lewellin, food service manager, on Mondays and Thursdays to give the “crop report,” so she can decide how much she needs of each item. Lately, they’ve been receiving asparagus, green onions, radishes and rhubarb.


Deliveries are made on Tuesdays and Fridays.


The arrangement is a great example of buying local, and Sheehy said Mercy will look into finding a farmer to supply its hospital in Harvard, Ill.


“This money is now being kept in the community rather than a vendor based out of state,” Sheehy said.


Merle and Shirley live in Janesville, but spend much of their time at their farm, dubbed Pine Knoll Acres. Trixter, their rat terrier, helps by catching mice.


At least 80 percent of their garden is harvested for Mercy’s use, they estimated. During the peak harvest, that can mean 40 pounds of tomatoes twice a week, they said.


Lewellin features the items in the cafeteria as they’re picked. Almost every day, at least one item from Pine Knoll is available at the hospital. Many are used in the salad bar or for salads prepared for patients.


Mercy serves 600 to 800 meals a day in the café, along with 350 to 400 patient meals and 100 Meals on Wheels, Sheehy estimated.


The Storcks start planning the garden in December with seed planting in winter in the small greenhouse at their home. The couple arrange with Sheehy and Lewellin what will be on the menu.


Their garden offers a seemingly endless list of produce including broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, green beans, snap peas, cabbage, radishes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, Brussels sprouts, peppers, onions, asparagus, rhubarb, melons, raspberries and a small orchard with apple, plum, cherry and pear trees.


Planting of each veggie is done over several weeks to stretch the harvesting. The first row of broccoli, for example, was planted April 20, with subsequent rows planted during each of the following weeks.


The garden is planted in five sections to allow the couple to drive between each, and rows are spaced farther apart.


“We ain’t got youth no more,” Merle said with a smile.


Shirley points to the John Deere tractor the couple recently bought to aid in the gardening, and a planting auger used for the first time this year also helped.


“We get comments from visitors and staff how they like the idea that not only is the produce very, very fresh, they also reinforce the fact that the money is being kept locally,” Sheehy said. “They feel like they’re winning also being able to frequent a business here in the community when before they couldn’t.”



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