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Fresh Fruits Homestead

First Fruits Homestead co-owners Lauren Callandrilla and Jessica Sweitzer, holding daughter Isla, check the soil in the hoop house at their rural Charleston farm.

CHARLESTON -- For the non-profit farm First Fruits Homestead, a grant from an organization that promotes sustainability and access to fresh food helped the farm "give and do more."

That's how First Fruits co-owner Jessica Sweitzer described the benefit of the grant from Faith in Place, a Chicago-based organization.

A requirement for the $10,000 grant the farm received to add an irrigation system was that at least 10 percent of its food be donated, which is something First Fruits does "above and beyond already," Sweitzer said.

"Their mission and our mission line up perfectly," she said.

That was just one of two recent grant projects First Fruits owners used to improve production at the 2-year-old produce farm southeast of Charleston.

Sweitzer and her husband Owen, as the farm's actual landowners, were also able to receive a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

That helped build a hoop house, which resembles a greenhouse but is more of a mostly covered structured for "any kind of crop that likes cool weather," said Lauren Callandrilla, who also co-owns the farm along with her husband Jerry.

Sweitzer said the lack of rain this year helped lead to the decision to install the irrigation system.

The equipment hasn't been purchased yet but the system will be installed under the farm's plant beds. Sweitzer said that will get the water directly to the plants' roots, which is better for the plants and uses less water.

The hoop house will extend the farm's growing season, allowing for an earlier start of planting crops such as lettuce and tomatoes, Callandrilla said.

The soil in the hoop house hasn't been worked yet, so the first year a crop of hog radishes will be planted to loosen it.

Callandrilla said the hoop house also protects the crops from deer and having the sun as its only seat source will save on energy use.

Sweitzer and Callandrilla said they learned about one grant at an agriculture conference and about another from an acquaintance.

"It wasn't really something we knew was there," Callandrilla said, but added that it wasn't difficult to apply for either grant.

The farm covers 14 acres and has 3 1/2 acres for growing a variety of produce including zuchini, kale, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and melons.

Some is sold at farmers markets for income to sustain the operation but most is donated. Sweitzer said recipients include the PADS homeless shelter in Mattoon, the Charleston and Mattoon food pantries, other social service organizations and private fundraisers.

The farm also serves as a site for Eastern Illinois University student volunteer projects and helps educate young people about agriculture, Sweitzer added. The farm isn't far from Charleston but there aren't any other such operations in the area, she said.

"I feel like we're bridging the rural and the urban," she said.

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Dave Fopay is a reporter for the JG-TC who covers Coles County, the local court system, Charleston schools and more.

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