The vision

One Man’s Vision Produces Vegetables for Those in Need in Somerset County By MaryLynn Schiavi

“  I was taken aback when I realized that there were actually poor people in Somerset County. I learned the clients include seniors living on Social Security, people on disability, the working poor, and the wanting-to-work poor,” said    Ernest Cottrill who has lived in Warren Township for 24 years. Cottrill was honored by the Warren Township Committee on September 27 for his work that culminated in a Giving Garden at Wagner Farm Arboretum that provided fresh  vegetables for those in need in Somerset County this summer.

For many months while driving past the rolling land that is now Wagner Farm Arboretum on Mountain Avenue in    Warren, Cottrill envisioned people tilling a garden in the field and thought, “what a waste that this great land  is not producing food with all the hungry people in the world.”

In the last three months, Cottrill was able to realize his vision. The Wagner Farm Arboretum Giving Gardeners distributed over 2000 pounds of fresh produce which was distributed by three organizations.

He first volunteered at the Food Bank Network of Somerset County about 10  years ago, first distributing food to the clients at the Somerville pantry and working in the warehouse sorting food. In 2000, the former computer software  development manager, developed an access database to record the quantities  of food distributed to the individual clients. Since that time he has maintained  the database, entered data, and created reports.

He became aware of the Wagner Farm Arboretum Foundation a little over a year ago and contacted the Foundation’s    President Suzanne Smith who invited him to bring his vision to the Community Garden Committee led by Keith Cooper  of Berkeley Heights and his idea for the Giving Garden was met with great enthusiasm and support.

By working with the Food Bank, Cottrill learned that “Summer brought with it a shortfall of donated food, while the need persists. At that time,  any supply of fresh vegetables is deeply appreciated by the clients as well  as food bank network management.”

“We distributed the food through the Food Bank Network of Somerset County, Star Fish of Plainfield, and Calvary Chapel’s Lighthouse Food Pantry of North  Plainfield serving 195, 50, and 40 families respectively on a weekly basis,” reports Cottrill.

The Food Bank Network of Somerset County (FBNSC) is a non-profit agency that  distributes food to people who need help obtaining food. It distributes staples  regularly, fresh fruits and vegetables when available and in season and items  like cheese and eggs at least once (sometimes twice) a month when we have them.  The warehouse is open 5 days a week. Three pantries are open on Saturday morning  at 100 West Main Street in Somerville, 519 East Main Street in Bound Brook,  and at the Vermuele house on Greenbrook Road in North Plainfield to serve families  who have to work during the week.

Ernest Cottrill was born in a farmhouse in Preston County, West Virginia before the arrival of electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing. He was just-in-time to experience the Great Depression during his earliest years. Children didn’t know they were poor, because everyone they knew was in the same situation.

His family was given use of the land in return for care giving to the elderly owner. It was a blessing to be able to eat fruit and vegetables picked fresh  from the branch and vine during harvest time as well as at the dinner table.  Several hundred jars of that produce was canned and stored for use in the winter.  Anyone with a need was given fresh or canned food from the excess throughout  the 1930s.

After a term in the Air Force, he married, had four children and with the help of corporate America and the GI Bill, earned a degree in chemistry. His work history includes periods in bacteriology, food inspection, metallurgy, and rocket repellent development. He retired from AT&T after 20 years working in software development.

Marie Scannell, Director of the Food Bank Network of Somerset County said their clients have greatly appreciated    the vegetables this summer. “They say wow, are these for us? Can I have some? Since we have such a good supply  this year we say help yourself. And you know an interesting this happens, they  just take a few. They seem to want to leave some for the next person.”

Scannell added, “Another thing, they gather and talk to each other about  the produce and how beautiful it is and how they’d like to garden if they had the space. We get a good feeling watching this aspect of human nature.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the Giving Garden at Wagner Farm Arboretum should contact Ernest Cottrill at: [email protected] or (732) 560-8765.