Garden at Franklin Field

Donald William Johnson, left, hopes to grow the number of gardens and farmers markets around Rock Island's west end. He currently helps with one at Franklin Field, near the intersection of 9th Street and 12th Avenue. 

Amanda Hancock, Quad-City Times

When Donald William Johnson thinks about gardening this summer, he prays for a John Deere tractor.

To tend a few plots of land in Rock Island, Johnson and his team of volunteer gardeners have relied on rototillers for the past few years. 

“It’s hard work for us,” he said. “We put a lot of hours and sweat into this field, so I keep praying for that.”

Johnson, a 69-year-old pastor at Destiny Baptist Church of Christ in Rock Island, has a lot of things on his prayer list.

He prays for students to stay in school, and he prays for the cold weather to subside. His church meets at the Holiday Inn on 17th Street, so he prays for ways to fund a new building.

Mostly, he prays for the "food desert" in his neighborhood to go away.

For the past decade, Johnson and Jacqueline Cunningham Wells have led the gardening and farmers market movement near Rock Island’s west end.

“There’s not a lot of grocery stores nearby,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have a car to drive there, you’re probably not going to eat healthy.”

That’s why he wants to make chemical-free fruits and vegetables — his team grows just about everything — accessible and affordable to his neighbors.

“If they can walk to us and the food is cheap, they’ll come back time after time,” he said. "A lot of people get hooked if it's convenient." 

They have three market locations slated for the season: Franklin Field at the intersection of 9th Street and 12th Avenue, Destiny Garden at 10th Street and 4th Avenue and the Cunningham-Brooks Farmers Market at 4th Avenue and 9th Street. They’ll be open on Saturdays, selling corn, cucumbers, greens, watermelon, tomatoes and more, in the upcoming months.

“We want to provide for our neighborhood,” Wells said. “We want everybody to know there are ways to eat chemical-free and to even grow it yourself. We want to educate people.”

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The volunteers also aim to get the younger generation involved. They’ve partnered with students at Augustana College and teens from the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in the past. They typically donate some of their stash to nearby food banks each season. 

“We go into the schools and try to teach kids how to grow and look at food differently," said Wells, who also is a substitute teacher in the Rock Island-Milan School District. "We look to do it the most healthful way and convince people that you don't have to go to Walmart to get produce." 

This weekend, Wells plans to start planting at Franklin Field. Anyone is welcome to join, she said, but she'll expect to see most of the regular gang, including her young grandsons, to show up. 

"We've been itching for the weather to warm up so we can get out there," she said. "The best part is that we get to all come together and do it. We're a family."

But it's still not easy, Johnson said. 

"It makes you realize good food is worth working for, and it's more meaningful for us," he said. "There’s something satisfying about eating food you grew with your own hands." 

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).