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Between a church, day care center, a retirement home and a large grocery store, Sola Gratia grows 125 varieties of more than 50 different crops — all following organic methods.

Sola Gratia Farm is at 2200 S. Philo Road in Urbana, a ministry of St. Matthew Lutheran Church.

Farm Director Traci Barkley said people are still surprised to find it there even after seven years of providing food, often for the poor, as well as shareholders in the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) membership program.

Barkley points to grim statistics from Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks: In East Central Illinois, 1 in 7 individuals struggles with hunger and 1 in 5 children doesn't know where their next meal will come from.

Sola Gratia pairs with the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and other local hunger abatement programs to distribute fresh, local food — a total of more than 8 tons last year — that low-income people might not otherwise afford.

St. Matthew Lutheran Church and Faith in Place, a statewide environmental nonprofit, started the farm in 2012.

It had not been locally centered before then.

"Starting the farm came out of a conversation with Brian Sauder of Faith in Place, who was using office space in the church for a while," St. Matthew Pastor Robert Rasmus said.

"They were critical partners with us when we started the farm in 2012. The church had been using the land to grow crops and sell to contribute to global hunger programs, but we realized that the incidence of food insecurity in our county was high, so we decided to do something a little closer to home."

To feed more, the farm had to grow. Sola Gratia rents about 5 acres to the north, and uses 3 acres by Riggs Brewery on High Cross Road in Urbana.

Partnership is the strength of Sola Gratia.

"When I was working for Prairie Rivers Network, we partnered on several environmental policy initiatives with Faith in Place who in turn had partnered with St. Matthew Lutheran Church to start Sola Gratia Farm," Barkley said.

There's also Community Supported Agriculture, which has worked with shareholders for several years.

Members receive fresh, seasonal vegetables from the CSA. Produce is distributed each week at the farm during the growing season.

One type of work to benefit society can lead to another.

"Farming runs in my family," Barkley added.

"I started my career as an aquatic ecologist because I loved the physical fieldwork, being connected with nature and working to protect and conserve our waterways. But after 20 years of working on clean water policy, I was further and further from the 'field' and was ready to get back to it."

She's proud to have shifted from working on clean water to clean food.

John Williams, the farm manager, also started in another field — photojournalism — but now has plenty of ag experience. (Fun fact: his favorite vegetable is okra.)

His motto for volunteers is "Keeping the fun in farming!"

Volunteer Matt Wallig calls Sola Gratia an opportunity to "walk the walk" of faith doing something that has an impact on the community that the farm has. Plus, "growing vegetables and raising flowers has been a lifelong hobby of mine."

"I would have to say in the spring, planting in the greenhouse is the most fun; in the summer, I would say harvesting or wash-pack, although washing and sanitizing crates outside the shed is somehow 'zen' and refreshing on a hot summer's day," Wallig added.

Gay Holman was raised on a farm, her family eating what they grew.

"I volunteer 15 to 20 hours a week (during the season), like seeding, watching the plants emerge, doing what I can to help the farm. Who knew I would like collards and Swiss chard!" Holman said.

Barkley noted that much of Sola Gratia's original four acres is getting a bit of rest and recreation right now, with vetch and other cover crops returning nutrients to the soil.

Cover crops also protect the soil from erosion, winter wind and driving rain.

They crowd out many of the weeds, Williams said, until it's time to plant food crops.

The farm has a quickly filling greenhouse, a "high tunnel" that can be adjusted for temperature and other conditions. In a row, there's a storage building, a greenhouse and the high tunnel.

Williams has been in the east field. It's time to cover up potato pieces, eyes pointing up, that have popped out of the soil. Barkley helps him.

Without volunteers, they couldn't do it.

"I started in the wash-pack area, quickly falling in love with the other folks who so tenderly washed, weighed and counted the produce. It can be dirty and tedious, but it's hard to describe the level of caring and commitment we have to the farm and to each other," Karen Gottlieb said. "I run the Friday Mobile Market in Urbana, in cooperation with Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department."

Coming next week: Plant sale

Sola Gratia's biggest fundraiser, its Spring Plant Sale, in on time for spring garden planting and Mother's Day.

The sale is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 10-19 at the farm, 2200 South Philo Road, U.

There is a large variety of organically grown veggies, herbs and heirlooms, plus locally sourced flowers including hanging baskets, potted, perennials and bedding.

Cash, checks and credit cards are accepted.

Reporter

Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is pwood@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).