Grammy award-winning country music artist, Zac Brown, had a dream – a vision for an uplifting, adventurous, camping experience, in a beautiful setting, for children of all abilities. According to Zac Brown, “As a former camp counselor and camper, I know how a positive camp experience can transform a child’s life.” Here in Fayetteville, he and wife, Shelly, have seen their dream become a reality at Camp Southern Ground.
During six weeks in the summer, the camp is dedicated to hosting children for week-long camping adventures. This inclusive camp serves children, ages 7 – 17, and brings together typically-developing children with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD, dyslexia and social and emotional issues. Other weeks of the year, Camp Southern Ground partners with Chris Kyle Frog Foundation and Boot Campaign to provide a place of respite for military families. When not in use by campers or military families, the state-of-the-art facilities, including the innovative, other-worldly, Space Crab Treehouse, can be rented by groups and corporations to host events, retreats and meetings.
As part of the camp experience, Zac Brown is committed to providing fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables for campers’ meals, and educating children about where food comes from and how to make smart and healthy choices. To meet this goal, Zac decided to dedicate about 14 acres of the 480 acre site as an organic farm to grow the produce needed by the camp chef. The camp is the ultimate farm-to-table and back-to-farm experience. Not only does the farm provide fruits, vegetables and herbs for camp recipes, but what is left over after a meal is then composted and used in the garden! Excess harvested produce, not needed by the campers, is donated to Midwest Food Bank.
Serendipitous connections led to the staffing of the organic farm. Zac Brown’s passion to feed campers fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables led him to local, organic farmer, Larry Dove. Larry’s property, Two Doves Farm, sits adjacent to the camp. Larry was ignited by Zac’s passion and began planning with Zac’s team to create the organic farm. He is the volunteer Farm Manager and works long hours at the camp while still tending to his own organic farm.
Organic Garden Specialist, Jenny Stuart, moved to Peachtree City from Connecticut nine years ago and was introduced to the Peachtree City Farmer’s Market and the Peachtree City Community Garden by her real estate agent, Tricia Stearns, the founder of the market and community garden. Soon Jenny had a plot at the community garden where she met Larry Dove. According to Larry, “I saw Jenny at the garden all the time. She was meticulous and attentive to detail and her plot always looked great.” When Larry began volunteering as the Farm manager at Camp Southern Ground, he brought Jenny with him as his first staff member. Jenny is the Organic Garden Specialist and is in charge of the demonstration garden. Brad Nersesian, who Larry met at the Peachtree City Farmer’s Market, joined the staff and works in irrigation, planting and harvesting. Agnes Scott College student, Carol Thomas, serves as an intern this summer. Jenny calls Carol the “Queen of Harvesting!”
On a hot, summer day in June when I visited the farm and met with Larry and Jenny, a group of 58 campers were finishing up an exciting week of adventure. To acquaint them with the organic farm, campers were led on a scavenger hunt in the demonstration garden. Campers also got to get their hands dirty, harvest produce and help prepare some of a meal. Near the garden is a large shade pavilion which includes a kitchen. The campers harvested berries to make berry-flavored lemonade, potatoes to make fries and carrots for baked chips. Campers have also helped prepare blueberry crumble dessert and pizza. Many of the campers (as well as some of the parents) were amazed that carrots are a root crop and grow underground. Some campers actually gasped when Jenny turned over a shovel full of dirt to uncover loads of potatoes ready for harvest.
This summer marks the first year of summer camp at Camp Southern Ground, and Larry and his staff have been experimenting with what to grow, how much to grow, the needs of the camp kitchen staff, and what the kids especially like to eat. “We have over-planted this year,” admits Larry. Over 400 pounds of excess harvest were donated to Midwest Food Bank that week. The farm is producing such seasonal fare as cucumbers, zucchini, squash, corn, beans, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra, onions, garlic, broccoli, cabbage, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries and herbs. The goal is to get kids away from processed food and excessive sugar while at camp and open their eyes to fresh, healthy eating. The campers keep a journal of their camping experience, including their thoughts on the garden.
Larry and Jenny encourage families to get their kids involved in gardening. “If they grow it, they will eat it,” says Larry. If you want to start your own small vegetable garden at home, here are a few tips from Larry and Jenny…
- Build Up the Soil. Georgia’s heat and humidity can destroy soil, so work in soil amendments including compost. An easy way to start growing vegetables is by gardening in a raised bed. You just add your amended soil to the bed and can plant easily without digging through compacted clay.
- Check with the Fayette County Extension Office for information on what plants grow best in Georgia and for a planting calendar.
- Get your kids involved. Let them have their own plot or a few containers to grow vegetables and berries.
- If you don’t have space at home, consider leasing a plot at the Peachtree City Community Garden. You will have the benefit of learning from other gardeners.
For more information on Camp Southern Ground, go to: campsouthernground.org.