When Marty Williams looked at his research fields and saw all the vegetables that went to waste, he thought there was no reason they couldn't be used by someone who needed them.
Williams is an ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, and his research involves improving vegetable crop production. He and his co-workers grow various vegetables every summer in their research plots along South First Street.
"We have all this space. We have a lot of things we have to throw away," Williams said. "Why couldn't we donate this to some local charity that might be able to use it?"
When he requested to do so, about a year and a half ago, local USDA folks were enthusiastic. But as the request went up the chain of command, Williams got back his answer: No.
Williams made the same request to the University of Illinois, where he has a faculty appointment, and he received the same answer.
"I was really discouraged," he said. "I thought, 'I can't believe it. This doesn't make sense.'"
Then, several months later, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the "People's Garden" initiative. It encouraged USDA employees to plant gardens and work with community organizations to provide food to them from the gardens.
"It's exactly along the lines of what we wanted to do here," Williams said.
He admits the announcement got under his skin. "I was a little bit perturbed we had just been told we couldn't do this," Williams said.
But now that he had not just permission, but the encouragement of the head of his agency, Williams planned the "Three Sisters Garden," so named because he's growing variations of the three main agricultural crops of Native Americans: maize, beans and squash.
His garden also has green beans, edamame, sweet corn and pumpkins.
He noted UI researchers have made most of the significant improvements in sweet corn.
"We've got some really high-quality sweet corn growing in the garden," he said.
Williams and his co-workers planted the crops on extra land surrounding his research plots. (The USDA nixed the idea of donating the vegetables grown for the research studies.) They already had the planters and other equipment in the field. They just needed a little extra seed and a little extra time.
About two dozen people, USDA and UI employees, have volunteered to help tend the garden, harvest the vegetables or deliver the produce. About a half dozen volunteers were in the field Friday, looking as though they didn't mind spending an hour hoeing rows of edamame, despite the 90-degree temperature and high humidity.
"It's really great to be doing something that's meaningful and to have some fun doing it," said Ellen West, who works with the UI's crop sciences department. "Getting outside is fun. Working in the field is fun."
The first of the vegetables – green beans – will be ready in mid-July. Williams is hoping the food will go to food banks and soup kitchens in the community that could use some fresh produce.
The requirements of the People's Gardens are that they must benefit the community, be collaborative and incorporate sustainable practices.
Williams said the research field includes cover crops that benefit pollinators and reduce runoff. Much of the vegetable crops are grown without pesticides, and some are hand-weeded.
He also noted that edamame, a type of soybean, is highly nutritious and provides all the essential amino acids.
Williams said the plan was to get the garden going this year and see how much interest there is in its harvest, then possibly expand it next year. He's pleased to get locally grown vegetables into the community, and he's surprised at the amount of interest there has been from other USDA scientists and staff.
"That's the spirit of the initiative, getting people involved in food production and where it's coming from," Williams said.