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Mary Solera leads a team of happy volunteers in the community garden at Parmelee Farm, growing fresh produce to given away free at the fifth annual Shared Harvest market this summer. (Photo by Susan Talpey/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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Every Monday and Thursday morning from April to October, Mary Solera and her dedicated team of volunteer gardeners roll up to Parmelee Farm in Killingworth, armed with their buckets of tools and Mary’s work plan of the day. Down in the Shared Harvest community garden, they plant and weed until the weather finally warms and the produce is ripe for harvest.
In the summer, Thursdays are market days, and the merry team fills the market tables with beautiful, fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers–and then they give it all away.
“Most people are surprised by what we’re able to do here at Shared Harvest—and that we give everything away for free,” says Mary. “Some people have this idea that Shared Harvest is just for the poor, but that’s not what it is. It’s fresh, convenient produce for all people.”
The mission statement of Shared Harvest is simple: Create a community volunteer-maintained garden to educate visitors on the benefits of fresh food choices with the goal of providing free, seasonal produce for members of the community.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that if you put delicious fresh fruit and vegetables on a table, townspeople will happily stop by and take it home.
“We meet all kinds of folks—some come every week and some stop by when they need to; some people pick up food for their neighbor if they can’t make it to the market,” Mary says. “We have older folks and people who bring their kids and have a teaching moment about fresh food. Everyone is welcome and there’s always enough for us to share around.”
Growing a Community
On gardening days, visitors to Parmelee Farm often remark that they can hear the laughter of the Shared Harvest team from the parking lot, Mary says.
“We have a core team of nine volunteers, and it’s a wonderful community here. All the ladies show up to volunteer and give back to the community,” she says. “Without Shared Harvest, our paths may not have crossed and these are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
Asked why they show up twice a week in all weather, Mary’s answer is simple.
“Who doesn’t love to play in the dirt?” she says. “We all learn something new every year and we all bring something to the table. It’s a moving feast.”
Every year, the Shared Harvest market opens when the tables can be filled with produce.
“Mother Nature is either a friend or a tough opponent. This year, we started late due to a storm, but we’ve got the warm weather crops in now and we’re hoping to have the market open in the second week of July,” Mary says.
For the first four years, the Shared Harvest market was open in the afternoons for people to stop by on their way home from work. A survey of patrons revealed that townspeople preferred a lunchtime visit, so last year the market operated from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and will continue with these hours this summer.
“Gardeners who have plots here at Parmelee Farm often donate their leftover produce or people will drop off food from their own gardens. We’ve had eggs donated and last year, a woman donated the most gorgeous dahlias,” says Mary.
“People love the staples: lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, eggplant, carrots, cucumbers, radishes, turnips; and people just love garlic. Last year we got a bunch of folks to try kale, which was exciting, and this year we’re trying okra,” she says. “We also share recipes and we’re happy to give little tours of our garden for people who want to see where the food is grown.”
The produce left on the table at the end of the market is donated to the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen and food pantry program in Middletown.
There is also donation tin on the table if people are so inclined, Mary says, and last year, the proceeds purchased a new irrigation system.
“All the volunteers and their husbands were out there for an eight-hour day digging trenches, laying pipes, and hooking it all together. The irrigation system has made a big difference,” she says. “Every week, we put out a tin and people can put in some change or a few dollars if they choose, and all the money goes right back into the garden.
The Seed of a Great Idea
When Parmelee Farm opened its gardens to the community, Mary rented a plot upfront, later moving to the back to enjoy more sunshine. Inspired by a visit to the Common Good community garden in Old Saybrook, Mary formulated a plan of the empty plots surrounding her garden.
“I very strongly believe that no one should go hungry and that here we had a great opportunity to help people in our community. There are local people who, for whatever reason, find it difficult to make ends meet and, if we can provide them fresh produce, which can be expensive in the supermarket, it helps them get by,” she says.
“I called a bunch of people from the Parmelee Committee, Evergreen Garden Club, and Killingworth Social Services and we talked about the reality of pulling it off,” she says.” Basically, I said ‘I’m willing to do it, just give us a chance’—and they said yes.”
In 2014, the soil was turned on the 5,000-square foot Shared Harvest plot and Mary assembled a handful of volunteers to make her garden plan a reality. Preparing for their fifth season, the team is still growing strong.
“Parmelee Farm is a little slice of heaven and it’s made my life pretty great!” she says.
And it’s a busy life at that. Mary was on the board of directors of the Killingworth Library from 2012 to 2015 and still enjoys volunteering at the library every Friday, as well as serving as the current Democratic registrar of voters.
“I love the library and I enjoy seeing people that I haven’t seen in years. The library is really the community center in Killingworth. It’s not just a place for lending books, it’s about the socialization,” she says. “Volunteering adds a really nice layer to your life. The volunteer community is so friendly, so welcoming.”
When Mary’s not at Parmelee farm, she can be found in her own garden. She has been a member of the Evergreen Garden Club for seven years including co-chairing its annual plant sale. In 2015, she certified as a master gardener.
“I’m always in the dirt—all week long!” she says. “If you have a patch of dirt, you can garden. If you are willing to learn a little bit, you can garden. It’s about that moment you see that little plant come out of the ground. It’s about life.”
Growing up in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Mary graduated from the University of Bridgeport and worked as a social worker for 35 years, moving into an administrator role with the Department of Children and Families in Connecticut.
“I worked with abused and neglected children, and in adoption and foster care. It was an important job, a challenging job, and at times, a very depressing job. But I’ve met people with resilience like you wouldn’t believe and hearts as big as all outdoors,” she adds.
Mary and her family settled in Killingworth because it was central for commuting to work and a great place to raise her daughters, Kathleen and Christine. It was a practical decision that grew to be one of the heart.
“I’ve lived in Killingworth for 33 years, but I’ve met more people since I retired than in all the years before. It gave me the time and the opportunity to get more involved in town,” she says.
“I love everything about this community. Killingworth is so comfortable,” she says. “It’s like a nice, big, warm sweater.”
The Shared Harvest market table is open on Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., starting in July at the Parmelee Farm, 465 Route 81, Killingworth. Produce and flowers are free with donations welcome and all proceeds benefiting the project. For opening day or more information, follow Shared Harvest Garden at Parmelee Farm on Facebook.
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