Doug and Shelia Bray have transformed their forty acre property along the Ohio River into a community garden project to provide fresh vegetables for distribution by local feeding agencies. (Photo provided.)
When Doug and Sheila Bray bought their northern Kentucky property along the Ohio River in Melbourne a few years ago, they planned to use the house on the forty acres mainly as a summer getaway. The couple had sold their highly successful business, built strongly from the ground floor with years of hard work and professional skills. But their new property would be a place to slow down the work pace and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Simply put, to get some rest.
As things turned out, they are enjoying themselves —but the part about rest may have to wait.
Doug and Sheila Bray (Photo provided)
The acreage had a large field that begged to be useful. It was flat and fertile, but had some challenges to cultivating that included a number of trees, a dilapidated old house and barn, along with a sizeable wetland area. The couple has always been hardwired toward a mind-set of making things better. So, as they settled into their house, they also 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 they would lead to the establishment of the couple’s gift to others, called “The Giving Fields.” The Giving Fields is a dynamic, emerging project whereby vegetable produce is grown, then transported to local feeding agencies. The Freestore Foodbank, an agency in the area that distributes food to the poor, has become an invaluable partner providing distribution support, marketing expertise, and coordination of the volunteer base.
And though the endeavor is in its early stages, The Giving Fields is on schedule to provide a harvest of over 100,000 pounds annually; fresh vegetables such as broccoli, kale, onions, tomatoes, peppers and the like then are shipped to nearby Freestore locations in Campbell, Kenton, Boone and Grant counties, providing healthy, nutritional supplement to those financially challenged.
Doug and Sheila see their operation as a 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 Grants Lick, it also is a way to honor his now-deceased mother, who, he said, “was always taking food to people who were sick and visiting people in nursing homes.” His father, driving for the family trucking company when Doug was a child, was also known to carry surplus vegetables around in his truck, often giving them away to friends and relatives.
“We learned,” said Doug, “that for a small company like Bray Trucking, we could give people loans who had fallen on hard times, and that you treat your employees like family.”
The Brays began going public with the idea for the produce project back in December 2010.
“Doug had a meeting with community leaders and told them what we wanted to do here. We had about thirty-five,” said dark-haired, petite Sheila. “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 The Giving Fields, certainly one of the biggest challenges for the Brays.
The couple also took trips to North Carolina and Florida to observe similar projects, along with a local trip to Boone County where St. Timothy Church was doing a smaller version of The Giving Fields.
“A lady in North Carolina told us that getting volunteers would be the biggest challenge,” said Sheila. “She’s been a big help. Since we started, we have been in contact with each other.”
In all the communication with the public about the startup, Doug made it clear that they expected to use “best practice methods with high sustainability.”
To that end, there has been a reliance on the Campbell County Cooperative Extension Office, with David Koester assisting, to provide expertise. The agency gave flowers for pollination, helped the Brays implement “raised beds” and a trickle irrigation system that also delivers organic fertilizer onto the crops. “Within twenty minutes, we can fertilize and water thirty rows,” said Doug.
Additionally, integrated pest management techniques are used. Grass grows between the vegetable rows, along with a plastic covering around plants to hold down weeds and keep moisture from escaping. That helps cut the amount of labor and, of course, makes it easier to do a picking after a rainfall. “As long as we don’t have lightning, we can harvest any time here,” Doug said.
As he demonstrates with The Giving Fields, Doug Bray knows how to run a business and bring in good resources to help. Now, though, the business principles he uses will likely have an even greater impact than what he has tackled in the past.
A variety of volunteers join the Brays in The Giving Fields on Harvest nights. (Photo provided.)
Sheila talked about the variety of their volunteers 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 for learning and family bonding experiences. We also had a group come from the local boys’ club, local businesses, schools, and universities. Silver Grove High School grew plants for us in their school’s greenhouse and a Boy Scout troop is in the process of building a large compost bin. We have all ages to volunteer and it has worked out well.”
The skilled work and materials donated to get the project going are a tribute to the faith in the Brays’ leadership. Much of the work for two parking lots on the property was handled by Doug’s twin brother Dallas’s trucking company, along with the help of his younger brother, Roger.
Neighbors helped the Brays clean up the rubble of the old house and barn along with the grown up fence line. They even put a new fence in to keep the four-wheelers away. A small but powerful solar panel given by a local company stands near the fields, supplying energy to charge the electric fences that keep out animal predators. Plumbing services, equipment rental, organic fertilizer, farm supplies, legal services, and the beautiful Giving fields entry sign were all provided by the generosity of local businesses.
Doug’s uncle, Ken Flairty, did the plowing and Tony Burns, a neighbor, has been a jack-of-all trades for the benefit of The Giving Fields, including installing the fence and building a stand for the ten beehives that pollinate the plants.
“The real heroes are all the volunteers,” Doug said.
However, the passion and undying work effort by the Brays has been the most important factor. Koester, who has observed the two since the beginning, remarked: “They have done everything from fund-raising to clearing brush and tying tomatoes.” Endless phone calls, travels across the country, dealing with a complicated set of local governmental regulations and supporting The Giving Fields financially are only a few of the personal sacrifices that Doug and Sheila have willingly offered.
In 2012, the Brays expanded their garden by fifty percent and planted three hundred apple, pear, peach cherry trees and two hundred and fifty blueberry bushes. They are working with another location in northern Kentucky to set up similar garden projects. Looking to the future, they hope to involve more local schools and also provide box gardens for senior citizens living in assisted living facilities.
For Doug and Sheila Bray, dedication to making The Giving Fields a reality has been a rewarding twist on their retirement dreams. They have truly created a model of service for those interested in using their extra time and skills to be a good Samaritan in their post-career years.
Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, due to be released in early 2013. His most recent book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes for Kids is now available at local bookstores. Or contact him at email@example.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)
To read more of Steve Flairty’s Everyday Heroes stories, click here.