SOUTH KITSAP — Donna Branch-Gilby had just about reached her limit in inventing culinary variations of America’s favorite vegetable: the lowly potato.
“I can’t tell you how many potato dishes I’ve made,” Branch-Gilby said with a smile. “I’m done.”
Branch-Gilby and her husband Bob Gilby’s affinity for the vegetable stem from a crop they planted months ago on a tenth-of-an-acre garden plot next to their South Kitsap home. It became an edible gift that kept on giving.
After creating variations on the same theme at meal time — mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, potato salad, hash brown potatoes and potatoes au gratin, to name just a handful — the couple decided to invite vegetable gleaners to their property on Glenwood Road SW, just north of the Kitsap County line, to clear out the last vestiges of the crop in time before the remaining tubers began sprouting.
At the end of their last bountiful potato harvest, the Gilbys contacted counselors at South Kitsap High School, who put them in touch with four students needing community service credits to graduate. When the students completed their work, their gleaning resulted in a harvest that then was donated to the South Kitsap Helpline Food Bank in Port Orchard.
When this season produced another bountiful harvest, the Gilbys called Kitsap Harvest gleaning coordinator Paisley Gallagher, who put out a posting on Facebook seeking volunteers eager to dig into the couple’s rich, dark planting soil and harvest the remaining crop of at least 1,000 pounds of potatoes still under dirt.
Gallagher has created a catchy slogan for her gleaning projects: “Community service you can eat.” Which is what the volunteers earned for their good works — beautiful, hearty small yellow potatoes suitable for pot roasts, parsley topped side dishes and countless other concoctions.
When the partly sunny day of gleaning arrived in South Kitsap on March 18, Branch-Gilby estimated about 60 volunteers ages 2 to 80 — about three times the number they expected — showed up that Sunday morning ready to begin work.
They left two hours later for their homes with bags laden with a hearty supply of spuds. Gallagher said the majority of the harvest, which didn’t depart with the volunteers, was again destined for vegetable bins at the Helpline Food Bank.
The Gilbys are veterans of gleaning community projects and, in fact, host a 15-member CSD (the acronym Community Supported Agriculture, a system that closely connects foodstuffs producers with consumers through harvest subscriptions and cooperatives).
The couple participates in sustainable activities in Kitsap County, including those in conjunction with the Port Orchard and Bremerton farmers markets, as well as area food banks. Branch-Gilby also is an advocate for preserving remaining farmland on the Kitsap Peninsula.
To her, it’s a cause that’s close to heart and home. Her family has owned the 26-acre property, named Rokalu (a combination of siblings’ first names) Farms, since 1952.
The couple returned to the farm four years ago after living in Tucson, Arizona, for a half-century. Donna is the oldest daughter of family patriarch Don Ross, a retired Navy recipient of the Medal of Honor, and has a sister and two brothers.
“I never thought I’d become a farmer,” she said. “But it’s the best exercise program I’ve ever had.”
The Gilbys’ return to the Kitsap Peninsula after so many years away has reignited their passion for the land’s dark, loamy soil.
“Bob and I feel passionately that this land should never be developed,” Branch-Gilby said. “In our minds, it would be morally repugnant. I look at the news and see where California’s lands are getting scorched and dried out, which is terrible for the agriculture industry. So where are we going to get our food? We better start figuring that out.”
That’s a similar concern for Kitsap Harvest’s Gallagher. She said there’s a need for more urban and rural farming, not less.
“Let’s use our good soil to grow healthy food,” she noted. “We need people to value what local food is all about. There’s a carbon footprint behind the food that comes up from California. If your tomato is grown in California, it’s got to make it up here (via transportation).”
As the gleaning coordinator with Kitsap Harvest, Gallagher said she is working to connect small producers who want the remainder of their crops harvested through the work of volunteers.
“I help put together volunteers and deal with any liability issues. If growers have extra food or if people want to volunteer, they can contact me.
“This is great for people living in apartment complexes who don’t have access to garden space. They can be part of the green movement and get some fresh vegetables.”
One of the volunteers at Rokalu Farms said she brought her children to help glean potatoes because it was a worthy project. Tagging along were Keone Garcia, 9; Autumn Garcia, 6; Bubba Garcia, 5; and Lilly Verbic, 6.
“I saw it as an opportunity to show the kids how potatoes are grown,” Alexandra Blas of Mason County said.
Gallagher said people who are interested in the local sustainable food movement can visit a couple of websites for more information: www.sharedearth.com, which matches people wanting to grow their own vegetables with those who own land that can be tilled; the other site is via Facebook. First Lutheran Community Church in Port Orchard has a page devoted to their Jubilee Community Garden.
“They have gardens and want people to show up (and use them),” she said.
“They donate 90 percent of their food to the food bank. That’s one place where you can show up randomly, do a little work and take home some food. That’s a community garden that doesn’t get enough attention.”