The Bangor chapter of the FFA is on track to donate more than 20,000 pounds of home grown fruits and vegetables to the WAFER food pantry by the end of the year.

FFA Garden manager Dustin Heitkamp said the harvest is already off to a good start.

“It’s going really well, we’ve harvested over 2,000 pounds this year,” he said and added they have a long way to go before the harvest is over.

Heitkamp began harvesting the garden in early July shortly before the start of the La Crosse Interstate Fair.

Since then, the FFA has collected nearly 1,000 pounds of stone head cabbage, more than 100 pounds of green beans, 400 pounds of zucchini and yellow squash, eggplant and cucumbers.

“Things are going really really great,” Bangor FFA adviser Bierbrauer said. “Dustin is doing a fantastic job.”

Bangor’s one-acre garden is located in WinField Solutions’ Answer Plot off of Hwy. M in West Salem. All produce harvested goes to support the WAFER Food Pantry in La Crosse.

WAFER Food Pantry Operations Manager Sue Clements said the Bangor FFA has become their largest supplier of fresh produce.

“It’s huge,” she said. “A lot of people down here live in the city, they don’t have gardens and it is so great for them to have fresh produce.”

According to Clements, fresh produce is often better than what they receive from other vendors because it lasts much longer than goods that have had to be shipped long distances.

“There is a lot more shelf life, it lasts longer, and it’s a lot healthier,” she said. “The fresh stuff just seems to flow in and out.”

Last year Bangor FFA contributed nearly 14,000 pounds of fresh produce to WAFER and Heitkamp has set his sights even higher.

“I’m hoping to beat last year’s record,” he said. “It makes me feel really good that I am helping people out in the community that need it.”

Bierbrauer said thanks to Heitkamp’s dedication to the project and changes to the layout of the garden they are already farther along than they have ever been.

“At this same time last year, we had picked a little over 800 pounds,” Bierbrauer said optimistically.

Work on the garden began late this spring when Heitcamp, aided by his classmates and family, began work on the garden.

Heitkamp took a different approach than previous garden managers.

“I did a few things different,” he said. “I got cages on my tomatoes earlier; I’ve put some of the rows closer together; I’ve been able to get more produce in than they have in the past.”

He said many plants that struggled last year, including the tomatoes, potatoes and squash are off to a stronger start.

FFA President Bryn Langrehr said Heitkamp’s improvements to the garden haven’t gone unnoticed.

“He is running it very efficiently,” she said. “He is saving a lot of space and using it effectively to get more to grow.”

In just a few weeks, the FFA has already exceeded its record for green bean production.

The extra space has also allowed Heitkamp to plant vegetables they haven’t tried before. WAFER will be getting a wider variety of fruits and vegetables this year thanks to Heitcamp.

While Heitkamp has been doing well, it hasn’t been an trouble-free growing season.

Planting the cabbage so close together has limited how large they can grow before they start crowding out other plants.

“Cabbage is something new we haven’t tried before,” he said.

Keeping the bugs at bay has also been problematic.

“You have to keep up with the bugs,” Heitkamp said. “The bugs will clean the plants right off and there will be nothing left.”

However, Bierbrauer said the harvest is only going to ramp up from here.

Heitkamp expects the fresh tomatoes will be the next commodity to hit WAFER’s shelves beginning early next week.

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Tobias Mann is a reporter with the River Valley Media Group. He can be reached at tobias.mann@lee.net or at 608-791-8216.

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