When Doug and Sheila Bray bought their property along the Ohio River in Melbourne two years ago, they planned to use the house on the 40 acres in Northern Kentucky as a place to relax in the summer, enjoy themselves and get some well-deserved rest.
As things turned out for the two, they are enjoying themselves – but the part about rest may have to wait.
A large area of their land seemed to beg to be made more useful. The field was flat and fertile but had some challenges to overcome before it could be cultivated. It had a number of trees, a run-down old house and barn, and part of it had a wetland area that probably couldn’t be cultivated at all.
But for the Brays, they were always of a mind-set to make things better, a big reason they had such a good and long-lasting business in the past. They began to talk to each other about a better use of the “big old hayfield,” as Sheila called it. Those early conversations became serious and would lead to the couple’s gift to others less fortunate.
The land and their dream became a project of kindness, and the couple decided to call it “The Giving Fields.” Today, people know The Giving Fields is a place where vegetables are grown, then shipped to the Freestore Foodbank, an agency in the area that delivers food to people experiencing difficult financial times.
And though it is just getting started, The Giving Fields is already providing a huge harvest of fresh vegetables such as broccoli, kale, onions, tomatoes, peppers and the like to send to Freestore locations in Campbell and Kenton counties. It provides healthy, nutritional food to those in need.
The Brays are doing things the right way and for the benefit of others. Both Doug and Sheila emphasize that they want to provide both fresh and safe vegetable produce.
The Brays see their operation as a fitting way they can give back to the community after being richly blessed in their business career.
For Doug, who grew up on a farm near the small town of Grants Lick, it also is a way to honor his mother, who passed away many years ago. “She was always taking food to people who were sick and visiting people in nursing homes,” he said.
His father was a driver for the family trucking company when Doug was a child. Like Doug’s mother, he had a caring heart, carrying surplus vegetables around in his truck, often giving them away to friends and relatives. The family company treated its employees like family, and that has been a shining example for Doug.
Doug and Sheila began talking about their vegetable project to people in the community in December 2010. “Doug had a big meeting with community leaders and told them what we wanted to do here. We had about 35 (attendees),” Sheila said. “The second meeting, we had twice that many show up, including church leaders.” Church leaders were important because they committed to recruit volunteers to work at The Giving Fields.
The couple took trips to North Carolina and Florida to observe other projects, along with a local trip to nearby Boone County where St. Timothy Church was also doing a similar vegetable project.
Whenever Doug spoke to community groups about starting the program, he told them they expected to use smart ways of growing their crops and to do it in a way that will keep The Giving Fields going successfully for many years. To make that happen, the Brays found wise advice, and it quickly began to pay off. The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension office provided valuable information. They donated flowers to attract pollination, and showed them how to use “raised beds” and a special irrigation system to spread organic fertilizer onto the crops.
“Within 20 minutes, we can fertilize and water 30 rows,” said Doug. They are also learning better ways to control bugs and other pests, and a plastic covering is used to hold down weeds and keep moisture from escaping. Doing this helps cut the amount of labor needed and creates less mud. “As long as we don’t have lightning, we can have harvesting any time here,” he said.
As he shows with The Giving Fields, Doug knows how to run a business and use all the resources he can to make it be a success. The most important resources are likely the volunteers that Sheila and he bring to the project. Sheila talked about the variety of the citizens who come on the harvesting nights of Sunday and Wednesday.
“There is an 83-year-old woman who comes faithfully all the time,” she said. “There are parents who bring their teenagers to have a good learning experience. We also had a group come from the local boys’ club. We have all ages (come) to volunteer and it has worked out well.”
The skilled work and materials donated to start and keep the project going show confidence in the Brays’ leadership. Much of the work for two parking lots on the property was handled by the trucking company owned by Doug’s twin brother, Dallas, and younger brother Roger.
Others helped them clean up the rubble of the old house and barn along with the grown up fence line. A new fence was built to keep four-wheelers away. A small but powerful solar panel given by a local company stands near the growing area, supplying energy to charge the electric fences that keep out animal predators. Doug’s uncle, Ken Flairty, did much of the ground plowing, and Tony Burns, a neighbor, has been a jack-of-all-trades for The Giving Fields, including installing the fence and building a stand for the five beehives and the bees that pollinate the plants.
“The real heroes are all the volunteers,” Doug said, modestly.
It is true that volunteer support is important in making the project work well. However, without the care and leadership of Doug and Sheila, it likely would not have happened. The two believed in The Giving Fields idea and did the careful preparation necessary for it to work. David Koester, University of Kentucky farming expert, said, “They have done everything from fund-raising to clearing brush and tying tomatoes.”
Regarding their hopes for the future of The Giving Fields, the couple wants the project to belong, in a huge way, to everybody in the area.
“It would make me real happy to see this expanding out as far as it would go, and that we would (eventually) have the community running this garden and taking ownership,” Shelia said.
But for now, the Brays will need to stay involved. “We don’t think about the number of hours we put in,” said Doug. “It’s just whatever needs to be done.”
This year Doug and Shelia are expanding the garden by 50 percent and planting 300 apple trees and 250 blueberry bushes. They are working with two other locations in northern Kentucky to set up similar garden projects. In the future, they hope to involve local schools and also provide box gardens for senior citizens living in assisted living facilities.
Would not the world be a better place if all dreamed noble dreams…and then put in the work to achieve them?
Steve Flairty is a life-long Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of three books, a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and two “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes,” collections of stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. He will publish a version of “Everyday Heroes” for kids this summer. This piece is an excerpt from that book. Steve is a correspondent for Kentucky Monthly. His column for KyForward appears weekly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.