Farmacy Garden: A Collaborative Effort to Foster Food Security

On a cold and snowy Earth Day, Thursday, April 22nd, Willing Hands and the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center public health team rang in their third annual Farmacy Garden season. Despite the frigid temperature, a group of six volunteers attended. Guided by staff, the volunteers laid down rows of wood chips to delineate the vegetable beds.

Willing Hands Garden Manager, Mikey Van Siclen, radiates deep empathy and respect for the land. He stresses that soil may provide endless nutrients for us if we care for it properly. This entails a regenerative, soil-focused approach to growing fruits and vegetables.

“By building and maintaining healthy soil, managing water wisely, and increasing biodiversity, we work to enhance the overall health and production of this plot,” said Van Siclen. He added that the Willing Hands soil-focused practice enriches and preserves the subsoil network necessary to plant growth.

Alternatively, according to Van Siclen, industrial agricultural methods involve annual tillage, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides – lethal to soil fertility. While these traditional farming practices may yield swift and successful growth in the short term, they inflict negative consequences to the land and ultimately, to people in the long run. With increasingly less fertile soil available in the world, there are fewer plots of land to farm and grow healthy food .

 “The traditional view is that soil is [just] dirt – an inert medium in which plants grow,” said Van Siclen. He adds that soil degradation not only depletes the soil’s nutrients but also ruins the biology critical to future plant growth. The result is that additional synthetic fertilizers are needed each year: a vicious cycle that further damages the land.

Heather Wolfe educates those interested in learning more at the unusually cold spring day’s event.
Heather Wolfe educates those interested in learning more at the unusually cold spring day’s event.

Willing Hands however firmly believes in the sustainable, regenerative, soil-focused methods they use to treat and care for the soil. They utilize natural fertilization, applying “compost and organic materials to feed soil biology,” to increase soil health and care for the ecosystem beneath the soils’ surface. Willing Hands adheres to low-disturbance methods, such as broadforking – a labor-intensive gardening method that loosens and aerates the soil in preparation for planting – versus tilling, which is faster but harms the roots, earthworms, and the microbial life in the subsoil. Broadforking allows the microscopic organisms that exist beneath the soil surface to live and thrive undisturbed.

“We are working to optimize soil conditions to increase soil fertility, as well as capture and store carbon in the ground,” said Van Siclen.

In other words, by making a sustainable investment in the land, they aim to produce large quantities of fresh, nutritious, organic produce that will reach more people in need.

Much as indigenous peoples lived in harmony with the land, not just from it, Willing Hands are committed to preserving the soil’s long-term health so that it will continue to provide food for future generations.

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Through the Farmacy Garden, the public health team at DHMC is also working to increase awareness around food insecurity and decrease the stigma that surrounds this pervasive issue.

“Food insecurity – a lack of consistent access to adequate, nutritious foods – is impacting one out of six community members in our region since the pandemic started,” said public health advocate with DHMC, Chelsey R. Canavan.

Consistent with the beliefs of the Greek physician, Hippocrates, DHMC staff view food as medicine. Canavan and her team believe that diet and nutrition are vital, yet often overlooked parts of patient care. Planting this vegetable garden is a part of DHMC’s vision towards prevention, treatment, and recovery of severe health problems including, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Through the support of DHMC, Willing Hands, and volunteers, the Farmacy Garden will produce a veggie-lovers dream: an all-organic bounty of kale, collard greens, carrots, beets, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, onions, broccoli, and garlic. All of the produce will go directly to those suffering from food insecurity by way of the Willing Hands distribution system. Their network distributes to food pantries, partnering grocery stores, COOPs, and over 60 non-profit organizations in the Upper Valley region.

“Our goal here is to grow the most prolific, nutrient-dense crops possible – we want to maximize yields so that we can increase the amount we give back to the community,” said Van Siclen. With bright smiles, willing hands, and rows of seeds in the ground, this gardening crew is not only cultivating the soil, but also a greater sense of care, support, and connection to the community at large. n

These gardens could not flourish, progress, or exist without the help of so many dedicated volunteers from the Upper Valley community. If you would like to volunteer at the Farmacy Garden or other Willing Hands locations, please sign up in advance on the website: