Clemson University Feature Stories

Senior soils and sustainable crop systems major Joseph Williams created "Hope Grown," a garden behind the pool at Clemson University's Outdoor Lab, to teach summer campers from Camps Hope and Sertoma about gardening systems.

Hope Grows Here

“Farmer Joe” is making a difference in the lives of campers

By Jonathan Veit
School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences

You might not ever know it was there if you weren’t looking for it. A garden of five laser-straight rows nestled behind the pool at Clemson University’s Outdoor Lab, home to camps Hope and Sertoma.

The garden is called “Hope Grown,” and it’s the brainchild of Clemson University soils and sustainable crop systems major Joseph Williams.

It’s an expression of Williams’ belief in the transformative nature of working with soil, a laboratory for the sustainable crop production techniques that he believes can change the world and make a difference in the lives of the campers who visit each summer.

Camp Sertoma serves children ages 7-13 who are underprivileged or have speech or hearing impairments, while Camp Hope is for children and adults ages 7 and up with developmental disabilities.

“The garden is less about me having an impact and more about giving the campers a place where they can have an impact,” Williams said.

Williams began as a counselor at Camp Hope in 2005 while attending high school in Asheville. He’s worked at the camp every summer since, except for 2009 when he studied abroad in Costa Rica. When he became a Clemson student in 2010, he approached Outdoor Lab directors Norman McGee and Leslie Conrad about creating the garden.

“We are always looking for creative activities that our campers can enjoy and learn from,” Conrad said. “We want them to experience a caring adult who is all about them at that moment. We also want them to feel the pride of doing things for themselves. We had talked about starting a garden, but we didn’t have anyone with the skill or passion to take it on until Joe approached us.”

The Outdoor Lab gave Williams a $200 budget, and he turned to environmental horticulture professor David Bradshaw, now emeritus, for guidance.

“Dr. Bradshaw helped me conceptualize the garden. Talking with him sparked my imagination and set me on my way. He also provided heirloom seed, some of which is 10 generations old,” Williams said.

Although Hope and Sertoma campers are at the Outdoor Lab only in the summer, the garden is a year-round effort for Williams. He relies on help from the Clemson Agronomy Club, and he credits Pi Kappa Phi’s PUSH America national philanthropy outreach for providing much of the backbreaking labor involved with terracing the garden and building its structures.

“The garden is less about me having an impact and more about giving the campers a place where they can have an impact,” Williams said.“I want to have everything well established and growing by opening day so the campers aren’t disappointed when they arrive in the summer. I apply techniques and ideas that I learn in my major to managing the garden,” Williams said.

One such technique is a soil preparation system called “double digging.” In double digging, the top layer of soil is dug off with a spade, forming a shallow trench, and then the under-layer is dug with a fork. When breaking up the lower layer, organic matter such as compost is usually added to the soil. A second trench is then started, backfilling the first trench. This process is repeated until the whole bed has been treated.

“It’s a lot of work, but it strengthens the plant roots and allows for more densely planted rows,” Williams said.

“Many of our agronomy students are passionate about sharing their love of soil and plants,” said Paula Agudelo, associate professor of plant nematology in Clemson’s School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences. “They learn to treat the soil as a living system and a life-giving substrate. But Joe has gone even further. He uses the soil-plant interaction as a therapeutic tool and a vehicle for experiential learning. He has mastered the art of helping people enjoy the beauty of growing plants.”

Once the campers arrive, Williams engages them in a variety of ways depending on their individual skills and abilities.

He teaches some groups about the system of the garden. He forms weeding or harvesting teams. Some campers carry the harvest to the nearby kitchen where it is used to augment the daily meals. There is a viewing area with a bench and handrails where older campers can watch gardening activities and feel a part of things. He has had them make pickles and turn bottles into planters. Some of the activities are ancillary to gardening, such as decorating the nearby benches.

“Sometimes we’ll just stand quietly,” Williams said. “We’ll just experience how the garden co-exists with the environment. And I’ll ask them, What do you see? What do you hear? With some of the older boys, I hope that working in the garden teaches them to be strong men of trust, respect and integrity.”

“One of the great things about the garden is that it doesn’t require a special skill set to participate,” Conrad said. “It’s completely unintimidating. Campers can make it whatever it is for them.”

The garden is also a teaching tool for people who sometimes do not share the same experiences as the rest of the world. The garden helps them conceptualize how food is created. Campers with sensory challenges can learn from touching the plants and tasting the produce.

Williams believes deeply in gardening’s transformative powers. He has witnessed camper confidence grow along with the corn, squash, snow peas, watermelons and various other fruits and vegetables. Some campers have started gardens of their own.

“Children are analogous to clay. Clay is something that the conventional farmer might think has little value because it’s hard to work with. But clay is waiting to have good things added to it. The campers here are like that clay. They have so much potential,” Williams said.

Williams will be graduating next year. It will be time for him to put into action the sustainable farming practices he has learned in his major. He will go out into the world and do his level best to help farmers farm better and more efficiently.

“In many ways, Joe is the embodiment of Clemson’s land-grant heritage. He is taking what he learns at Clemson and using it to better the lives of others,” Agudelo said.

For now he remains “Farmer Joe.” He takes the agronomy club to the garden where they practice all that they learn about agricultural biotechnology, soil and water science, and sustainable crop systems. But he has a hidden agenda. He wants to keep Hope Grown going.

“I’ve been coming here for a long time. Many of these people are my friends. When they leave the garden, I hope that a flame has been lit in them.”

Conrad is committed to keeping the garden vibrant even after Williams leaves to begin a career in agronomy.

“Joe could have built this garden anywhere,” she said. “He could have built it in his backyard or at Calhoun Fields. But he built it here because he loves this place and these people. There will never be another Joe. But maybe I can find somebody to care about the garden the way he has.”


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