Corn, tomatoes from state agricultural station filling the larder at city's Gemma Moran food pantry
Griswold - Like the apple tree in the children's story "The Giving Tree," the tomato plants and sweet corn growing at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station's research farm are giving more than once - as part of an agricultural production study and as food for the region's neediest residents.
Researchers at the farm, where a range of agricultural and horticultural subjects, forestry, invasive plants and insects are studied, are seeking ways farmers can produce more but smaller ears of corn and studying pests that plague tomato plants.
Once the corn is measured and weighed and the tomatoes have been checked, the science part is done. On Thursday, 13 volunteers who work in Pfizer's Groton Solid Dose unit helped the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut pick tomatoes and corn earmarked for the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center in New London.
"It feels good to do something that helps the community," volunteer Joe Couture said. "We all have struggles and bills to pay, but at least there is food in the fridge. There are some people who don't even have that."
As for the science, researchers are seeking ways to increase the number of ears of sweet corn produced per acre while at the same time, shrinking the size of the ears.
Robert Durgy, the farm manager, said farmers are complaining that the ears of corn they are growing are so big they cannot fit 60 ears into the green bags that are sold to retailers wholesale. A bag with fewer ears makes less profit for the farmer.
Durgy used to deliver the produce to the food center himself, but this year, the volunteers are doing the picking.
"After the data collection is done, we want to see that the corn is going to good use, and this is our opportunity to give back," he said.
Before the volunteers waded into the 40-by-120-foot corn field of 5-to-6-foot stalks, Durgy gave a brief lesson on how to pick the tasty Montauk variety.
He said the most edible corn is large and has dried brown "silk" on top. Each strand of silk corresponds to a kernel of corn. Durgy said the best way to remove the ear from the stalk is to grab it at its base, bend, snap and twist it.
A short walk away in another field, a few volunteers picked San Marzano tomatoes, although most were still green. The field is being used to study nematode pest control.
Volunteer Mario Rubio was on his hands and knees as he searched for the elusive red tomato.
"Our lives are so busy that it's hard to take a Saturday off and volunteer," Rubio said. "It's great to have an employer that will give you a day off to give back to the community."
After a couple of hours, volunteers had 16 boxes of corn - about 1,000 ears - and four buckets of tomatoes, plus some cucumbers and squash.
Alice Soscia, leadership giving director at United Way, said the food center feeds 20,000 people in New London County each month.
Some of the produce picked at the research farm was distributed Thursday through the mobile food pantry at Norwich Free Academy. More will be available when the mobile pantry visits Jewett City and Groton next week.
Maureen LeBlanc, volunteer specialist at United Way, said the idea of the mobile pantry is to make its users feel as if they are visiting a farmers market.
"We are bringing food from farm to table ... and reaching people who otherwise wouldn't have access to a food pantry," LeBlanc said.