Rick and Carol Bernstein started gardening with their three children on a third of an acre at their former home in Parkton, selling the produce at a roadside stand and taking extras to their local food bank.
That was two decades ago, and the food bank workers were surprised to receive donations other than canned goods and dry pasta. Eventually, as the Baltimore County couple realized just how scarce produce is on the tables of the poor, they founded First Fruits Farm, a Christian ministry run entirely by volunteers.
"The folks at the food bank were just so thrilled to get produce," Carol said of their fist donations. "It was something people never brought."
Since the farm was founded in 2004, organizations feeding the poor have placed a greater emphasis on providing nutrient-rich fresh fruits and vegetables. The Maryland Food Bank — which supplies 600 partner organizations with food to feed the hungry — now works with dozens of farms to deliver fruits and vegetables, and hopes to increase the volume of produce it distributes over the next five years.
First Fruits Farm has become a leading source of that produce. With the help of private donations and grants from local foundations, the Bernsteins' operation has grown to 172 acres and has donated more than 6 million pounds of produce over the past decade — including 2 million pounds of potatoes, 1.8 millions pounds of green beans and 109,000 pounds of apples through last year.
"You really can't help but be in awe of God's creation out here," said Rick Bernstein, who works full time as an investment manager in Baltimore.
The bounty has surpassed the Bernsteins' expectations and has helped feed countless people through partnerships with food banks, Catholic Charities and other groups around the region. Last month, thousands of pounds of potatoes, cabbage and turnips from First Fruits filled Thanksgiving food baskets and were used in hot meals for the needy.
The farm was the first to supply fresh produce to the Maryland Food Bank, said John May, senior vice president of operations for the food bank. Now, it works with more than 50 farms to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the hungry.
May said because of price, fresh produce is generally "untouchable to the people that we serve."
"It's the best nutrition-rich food that you can get, especially if it's coming off a local farm," he said. "In some cases, we're picking it up off the farm, and it's in someone's hands within two days.
"Poverty in itself creates health issues, so this is gold," May said.
This fiscal year, fresh produce made up 23 percent of the 33 million pounds provided through the food bank to area pantries and soup kitchens, he said. The food bank's goal is to increase that proportion by 2018 to more than 40 percent.
First Fruits now ranks as the second-largest provider of farm-fresh produce for the Maryland Food Bank, May said. The biggest is Farming 4 Hunger, a nonprofit in Calvert County.
A few of the 50 farms aiding the food bank are nonprofits, while others are commercial operations, May said. Some donate the produce, while others have contracts in which the food bank covers their costs.
Organizations including United Way, the Weinberg Foundation and the France-Merrick Foundation have supported First Fruits.
First Fruits had its last harvest of the year in November, with volunteers going to the farm to gather cabbage, potatoes, turnips and turnip greens. Over the winter, the operation turns its attention to the repair and maintenance of machinery, including machines that harvest potatoes and green beans.
The farm didn't always have such equipment, but grants and donations over the years have helped purchase the tools, allowing volunteers to harvest more efficiently.
"We used to do everything by hand," said longtime farm volunteer Dan Millender, a retired Baltimore County firefighter. Millender enjoys watching people learn about the origins of their food, he said. The farm hosts volunteers throughout the harvest season, including groups from schools, churches and companies.
"It's just so rewarding to see these little kids come out and learn where a turnip came from, or a potato," Millender said. "Some of these kids don't even know."
The farm recently partnered with the archdiocese of Baltimore, which owns hundreds of acres along Belfast Road in Sparks, about 17 miles from First Fruits. Some of that land is slated to be used for a Catholic cemetery, but Archbishop William E. Lori wanted to use other parts of it to help the poor, archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said.
The archdiocese donated the use of 25 acres of the property, and First Fruits produced 325,000 pounds of food there, Rick Bernstein said. The archdiocese also donated $50,000 for supplies.
"It was so successful that we're looking to double the amount that's produced next year, and increase the amount of acreage that we donate," Caine said. He said that with Pope Francis' calls for economic justice, the church is seeing more interest from Catholics in serving the poor, and the farming project aligns with that mission.
For the Bernsteins, First Fruits — which takes its name from a Biblical reference calling for people to devote the "first fruits" of their labors to God — has taught many spiritual lessons.
Both Rick and Carol Bernstein came to their faith as adults. Carol was raised Catholic; Rick was raised Jewish. They now belong to Hereford United Methodist Church. They live on the farm in a blue house, where a weathered black Bible with tape on its spine sits on the big kitchen table.
"Farming is always an exercise in faith," said Carol, who also serves an associate director of the Westminster Rescue Mission in Carroll County. "We put seeds in the ground and trust that a crop will be produced."