Niche crop: Founder of Franciscan Earth Literacy Center finding new growth as urban farmer

PHOTOS BY VICKI JOHNSON Sister Rita Wienken checks over new greenhouse plants with assistant farmer Aaron Lucius, a Fostoria native.

Balancing her Franciscan beliefs with her love of organic gardening and teaching, Sister Rita Wienken has found a unique niche at Toledo GROWs.

Formerly based in Tiffin at St. Francis, Sister Rita founded the Franciscan Earth Literacy Center in the mid-1990s and served as director until 2011.

Today, as an urban farmer, she is growing food for people in downtown Toledo while she trains the next generation to grow food.

Toledo GROWs, which started in 1996, is part of Toledo Botanical Garden and is housed at the 3-acre Robert J. Anderson Urban Agriculture Center, 900 Oneida St., Toledo.

As the community gardening outreach of Toledo Botanical Garden, affiliated with Metroparks of the Toledo Area, the program balances vegetable and plant sales to sustain the center with providing food to people in need and teaching them grow their own food.

Sister Rita and New Riegel native Yvonne (Steyer) Dubielak, outreach and education coordinator for Toledo GROWs, pose in front of the sign on the front of the building in downtown Toledo.

Starting her third year at Toledo GROWs, Sister Rita’s title is urban farm and facilities coordinator.

“I manage the growing space,” she said. “I love the fact that for me as a Franciscan being able to literally help someone feed their family is just very rewarding and humbling.

“For many people, just to try to survive day to day is a challenge,” she said. “When they come to work in the garden, they have a sense of peace. It just makes my heart feel good.”

With tears in her eyes, Sister Rita talks about the people in downtown Toledo who don’t have enough food to eat.

She said downtown is a “food desert” because there are no nearby grocery stores.

Sister Rita poses with volunteer Dan Pompa of Sylvania.

“There’s no access to food. They don’t have any way to get there except to walk,” she said. “What makes me feel so good is being able to supply food to the people who really desperately need it, who will go hungry if we don’t supply it. I provide them with a bag of food to take home. They often have an empty refrigerator.”

When she gives them food, she invites them to come back and volunteer their time to help with the gardening.

“And they often do,” she said. “They long for that fresh food. It does my heart good.”

The center also gives away plants that allow people to grow their own food.

“Because of where the farm is located in downtown Toledo, we give away plants to people in the neighborhood,” she said. “These people do not have an opportunity to purchase plants.”

Sister Rita in one of the three greenhouses at Toledo GROWs

But they can learn to grow food for themselves.

“The gifts I have been given, I can give back in that way,” she said.

At age 66, Sister Rita said she has a few more years of work left, and she wants to use that time to mentor young people.

One of those young people is assistant farmer Aaron Lucius, who is originally from Fostoria. Lucius graduated in 2015 from University of Toledo with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. After completing an internship at Toledo GROWs, he was hired.

She also works with college interns studying a variety of food-related topics.

Sister Rita gestures while speaking earlier this month at the Franciscan Earth Literacy Center about square-foot organic gardening.

Another aspect of education is job and life skills training for high-risk youths. Through a partnership with the Lucas County Juvenile Justice Center, youths work with a job coach to learn marketable job skills in the areas of gardening, landscape, building maintenance and simple carpentry.

And perhaps the largest group she teaches is people who work in the 120-some community gardens affiliated with Toledo GROWs through schools, organizations, faith-based gardens and neighborhood gardens.

The center serves as a training site and offer technical assistance.

“For me, it dovetails nicely with my background,” she said. “I love to teach organic farming and gardening.”

The program provides technical expertise in assisting gardeners to plan, build and maintain a community garden as well assistance in recruiting volunteers for large work days.

It also offers educational workshops and opportunities to learn from the growing efforts at the urban farm along with networking with other community gardeners, particularly through quarterly meetings.

Also, the program encourages people to learn how to grow and eat healthful, nutrient-rich food. To that end, the program in 2016 distributed 7,575 free packets of seeds, grew and distributed 7,521 free plants, served more than 6,500 people through community gardens and received 6,000 volunteer hours that were donated to the program.

At the urban farm, 3,751 pounds of produce were harvested, 900 people attended an annual seed swap that takes place annually on the last Saturday of February, and 795 pounds of honey were harvested from the beehives at the farm and main Toledo Botanical Garden campus.

In addition, GROWs loaned 565 tools for work days as its 126 active community gardens and provided free workshops to 103 people. Twenty-five people participated in the second Master Urban Farmer class co-sponsored with Ohio State University Extension.

The center also has a space set aside for family garden plots. A volunteer received a grant through Promedica to develop a garden area with 4-foot by 8-foot plots.

“They have their own little plot at Toledo Grows,” she said. “They help each other. It establishes a sense of community among those folks.”

A new aspect of education is getting under way this spring. A five-year project to add a kitchen at Toledo GROWs is under construction, but another $12,000 is needed to complete the fundraising. It will be used to teach classes on food preparation skills, food safety and related topics to community members and at-risk youths.

Spring is a busy time of year at Toledo GROWs.

Vegetables are grown in three greenhouses as well as in outdoor plots.

“We grow 10,000 vegetable plants every spring,” she said.

Some of the plants go to community garden affiliates, some are grown at the center and some are prepared for sale during Toledo Botanical Garden’s annual plant sale on Mother’s Day weekend.

“We go out and we sell our plants there as part of that because we need to make our way in the world,” she said.

On the side of financially sustaining the program, Sister Rita plans to be at the Toledo Botanical Garden Mother’s Day plant sale.

From one of the greenhouses with heated beds, Sister Rita sells fresh vegetables such as spinach, Swiss chard and kale year round to five Toledo restaurants.

“In Toledo there are many restaurants wanting local produce,” she said. “Within 10 minutes (of the center), we could probably sell to 15-20 restaurants.”

And she has an “above-ground root cellar” where potatoes, squash and similar vegetables are stored.

“Carrots survive all winter outside,” she said.

A new aspect of Toledo GROWs is overseeing the Toledo Grown Food Hub, a cooperative agreement between the center and area community gardens.

“We had three community gardens last year who had excess product,” she said. “Rather than each community garden trying to sell individually, they sell the produce to Toledo GROWs, and in turn, we sell it to restaurants or at the e-market stand, or use it in CSA shares.”

Sister Rita said the food hub concept shows promise.

“Food hubs are all over the United States now,” she said. “They’re an excellent way for small growers to come together and use their purchasing power.

“It’s really very exciting,” she said. “It’s about revitalizing our communities and our world through gardening.”

In a closer circle, Sister Rita said she enjoys being part of team at the center who help each other.

For example, the plastic covering blew off of one of the greenhouses in March.

“But I wasn’t there alone,” she said. “As a staff, we are working together side by side. You never know what may come up and we need assistance. I just love it.”

Farming always has been in Sister Rita’s blood.

“It has been my passion from the time I could walk,” she said.

As a child, her parents would encourage her to help on the family farm in the Delphos/Van Wert area.

“Here’s a stick, plant the potato,” they would say. “If you could walk, you could help out on the farm, and that was all right by me.”

She said the family grew 90 percent of the food they ate — plants and animals.

“It was the circle of life,” she said. “We used to love Sunday nights because we would get hot dogs or bologna sandwiches. Something they bought.”

She left home for college, and entered the Franciscan community in June 1972.

From 1994 until May 2011 she was director of FELC, and she returned for visits a couple of times recently to teach programs on organic gardening at FELC.

She compares her life then to her job today as an urban farmer.

“There’s not a lot of small family farms, and people aren’t necessarily tied to the land anymore,” she said. “There’s just something that’s lost there.”

However, she’s seeing a change in direction in some ways.

“Small businesses are buying local,” she said. “I think people are starting to recognize people need good food and access to it. Food is one of those things people need a few times a day.”

And she said local food is fresher and often more healthful.

“The whole local food movement is just an awesome thing,” she said. “Real food and a real sense of being part of the land will continue.

“I grew up on a small farm and I have the gift of growing and I just want to pass that on,” she said. “It’s something that gives pleasure, a sense of peace.”