Cooperative Baptist field personnel Rick Burnette and his wife, Ellen, have been worn thin since Hurricane Ian wiped out Cultivate Abundance, the food-growing ministry they operate for migrant farmworkers in Southwest Florida.
The couple has been working to address significant damage to their own property and to the five garden sites they manage for their Immokalee-based ministry, all while hurriedly delivering truckloads of fallen fruit and vegetables to food pantries and other outlets before the produce spoils.
“We’ve been running on fumes” since Ian made landfall Sept. 28, Ellen Burnette said. “The positive thing to say is we can do it, but the truthful answer is we are exhausted.”
CBF Disaster Response Manager Daynette Snead said the Burnettes, and the migrants they serve through Cultivate Abundance, will not be going it alone.
“We are partnering with CBF Florida to help restore the five gardens they use to feed immigrants and migrants,” she said. “This is going to be a long-term disaster response endeavor because it has affected so many under-served communities.”
CBF already has issued a call for volunteers for the project, Snead said. “Right now, the focus is on day trippers due to the lack of accommodations for groups. As soon as we can find long-term housing for overnight stays, we’ll send out a wider call.”
But some help already has arrived. Kenny Phillips, CBF Florida Disaster response volunteer, pulled into the Burnette’s driveway soon after the storm with recovery equipment and 120 flood cleanup buckets prepared by Fellowship congregations in multiple states.
“He showed up with a U-Haul trailer, a generator and ice to share — and also tools and a chainsaw,” Rick Burnette said. “We were still putting things together at the house, so he went to Immokalee with our staff to visit impacted properties, including our food pantry partner. He did some clean up in different spots in Immokalee, and the next day he went to Arcadia, which was clobbered with flooding from the Peace River. He surveyed damage to the Latino and Black communities there. He helped with tarping roofs, cleanup and with food distribution at a local church.”
CBF also will be helping the Burnettes with the garden on their property, which was part of the Cultivate Abundance ministry. “Our garden, which produced a ton of food a year, is destroyed,” Ellen Burnette said.
It was a disheartening — although not completely surprising — development, her husband added. “We worked hard for nine years to cultivate these fruit trees and the vegetable garden. The garden had reached a certain maturity. But we always felt we were on borrowed time considering where we live.”
Recovery assistance also will go to operations that work with Cultivate Abundance, he said. “Two partner farms in Fort Myers that donate considerable amounts of food, and where we purchase food with grants, were also obliterated.”
But the work on homes and gardens have often been delayed due to frequent calls to pick up and deliver fruits and vegetables strewn across the region, he said.
“Avocados that would have been coming in for weeks and months, along with papaya and other crops, are just laying around,” Rick Burnette said. “Our network of partner gardeners and farmers and institutions have been gathering up all this food, and Ellen and I have been sorting through the piles for what’s salvageable. We have driven hundreds of pounds of produce to those in need in Immokalee and to a nonprofit farm in Fort Myers.”
The couple also has joined Phillips in tarping the home of a Cultivate Abundance volunteer, cutting up fallen trees in neighbors’ lawns and delivering water to a Catholic ministry serving a Latino community in Fort Myers.
Burnette said he and Ellen also helped clean up the partner garden at a nearby Presbyterian church before delivering a dozen bucket kits to a traumatized neighborhood in Fort Myers.
“The need is real. Many of these migrant workers have lost their work hours because of the storm, so we have provided Cultivate Abundance with additional funds for Misión Peniel and the rebuilding of gardens.”
Snead added that she is unaware of any significant damage to CBF churches or ministries in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida due to Hurricane Ian.
Rick Burnette said many will benefit from the windfall of fruits and vegetables the storm left behind. “But it looks like it may be a pretty scarce couple of months ahead after that.”