Upon arrival to Reelfoot Rural Ministries in March 2021, Lyn and Gene Saltzman began planting crops on an acre of land. The summer harvest will serve neighbors in four counties across Tennessee and Kentucky. PHOTO: COURTESY LYN SALTZMAN

By Stacey Jones 
May 13, 2021 | ATLANTA 

Even after farming for 35 years, Lyn and Gene Saltzman found they still had a lot to learn about growing food. That’s because these two mission volunteers took on the task of cultivating a one-acre produce garden for Reelfoot Rural Ministries, a mission program of the Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church in Western Tennessee. 

Loading up a trailer from their home in North Central Kansas and armed with donated garden equipment and hundreds of starter plants, the couple drove the 700 miles to Reelfoot in January to start work on the garden. Where they had once raised hogs and cattle and farmed crops such as field corn, soybeans and wheat, Lyn and Gene now faced the peculiarities of growing farmers’ market produce in unfamiliar soil. 

The Saltzmans are long-time mission volunteers at Reelfoot, which serves a four-county area with tremendous need in Tennessee and Kentucky. On their five previous placements there, Lyn worked in the office, the food pantry and the Christmas Toy Store, while Gene did work such as picking up donated food, preparing meals and helping make home repairs throughout the community. 

A garden is born 

Despite their fondness for Reelfoot, the Saltzmans thought their time had run its course. “Last Christmas, before we left to go home, I told Mark, the guy I’ve worked with there, that I didn’t see us coming back anymore unless something really changes, because there’s nothing to do,” said Gene. The pandemic had forced Reelfoot to halt or drastically alter services. What’s more, Lyn added, “We didn’t want to take a paying job from someone who really needs it.” But the Rev. Robert Craig, who directs Reelfoot, had other plans for the couple and wanted them to return in the spring. “He told us of his dream of having fresh produce for the food pantry clients,” Lyn said. After Christmas, the couple started planning the garden and preparing for another return to Reelfoot. 

“We talked to friends at home who had been in the gardening business for a number of years. Both were quitting their gardening,” Gene said. And both donated a generous amount of equipment and advice. Between that and some old equipment on their farm dating back to Lyn’s grandparents’ day, the two were ready to start their project. 

Besides picking their friends’ brains, the Saltzmans did a lot of reading and research on their own. Gene even brought a welder and torch back to Reelfoot in case he had to fabricate needed equipment. 

The Saltzmans plant the first potato crop in March of this year. PHOTO: COURTESY OF REELFOOT RURAL MINISTRIES

The garden will provide fresh food to Reelfoot clients all summer. The Saltzmans have planted 1,200 potatoes, 650 tomato plants, about 400 peppers of varying varieties, 125 yams, 50 hills each of watermelon and cantaloupe, 400 each of onions and cucumbers, zucchini, squash, a smattering of other vegetables, and enough sweet corn to supply about 70 dozen ears to the food pantry each week until Labor Day. A cold snap in early April had them scrambling to cover the plantings, using donated one-gallon ice cream buckets and anything else they could cobble together, before leaving for Indiana to welcome their fourth grandchild. 

The garden will be ready for harvest starting in late June/early July when the tomatoes should come in, followed by the potatoes in mid-July. “Then we’ll have a couple of months that just about everything will be ready on the other part of the garden,” Gene said. “The watermelon will come a little later—more like late July or August.” 

Stirrings to service 

As it so often happens, a life transition led them to Global Ministries’ Mission Volunteers program, a long-term, self-funded service opportunity. “Kind of pushing me along is that her dad died,” Gene said, referring to Lyn’s father. “And when he died, I lost my father-in-law, my mentor, and then my best friend. And I got to thinking, why am I doing what I’m doing?” 

To become mission volunteers, the couple trained with the program’s director, Una Jones, in Arkansas, right across the Mississippi River from Reelfoot’s location. The Saltzmans also have served in Alaska and Hawaii. The training helped them gain awareness, Gene said, “And I think it prepared you for hardships a little bit so that, when you run into them, you’re prepared to endure and face them.” 

The training uses role playing to help mission volunteers adapt to unfamiliar situations and scenarios they may have to navigate while in service. “The culture changes immensely from state to state and place to place,” said Lyn. The program also prepared them for Reelfoot specifically, as they met Robert Craig before they finished training. 

The Saltzmans expect to leave Reelfoot after about eight months, which will prove to be their longest stint there. But Craig has already urged them to think about next year’s garden. “If he wants us back, we’ll probably start seeds again and be back out here,” Lyn said with a smile. 

To learn more about opportunities for volunteer service, attend a two-hour mission discovery event on June 3 or 5. Visit this page for registration. If you have questions or would like more information, email mv@umcmission.org

Stacey Jones is a freelance writer and editor in Atlanta, Georgia.