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Environmental Center hosts 'Grow your own' festival

Caje Austin, 5, (center) holds a baby chick as his mother, Renee’ Austin, (left) looks on along with Patrick McLaughlin of Golden Farms of Statham. (Photo: Dwayne Hood)

Caje Austin, 5, (center) holds a baby chick as his mother, Renee’ Austin, (left) looks on along with Patrick McLaughlin of Golden Farms of Statham. (Photo: Dwayne Hood)

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Patti Parsons of Dances With Bees, (left) talks with a customer on Sunday at the third annual Grow Your Own Food Festival at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford. (Photo: Dwayne Hood)

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Local residents navigate their way through a secured airborne obstacle course with zip lines, cargo nets and Tarzan swings at the Treetop Center at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford. The GEHC hosted its third annual Grow Your Own Food Festival on Sunday. (Photo: Dwayne Hood)

BUFORD – Several hundred residents learned about organic gardening, food preparation and holistic medicines on Sunday at the third annual Grow Your Own: The Real Local Food Festival at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center.

More than 200 parents and children visited 11 vendors in the growing and preparation of natural foods and alternative medicines. There was a gardening class for children, a seminar on sustainable organic farming, an edible medicinal plant walk and a cooking demonstration for organic foods. In addition, there was a 30-minute seminar on county extension services.

There was also face painting, barbecue sandwiches by Whole Foods grocers and a miniature petting zoo with baby chicks.

“This is our “grow your own” event and a celebration of organic and local food,” said Jason West, Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center (GEHC) Programming Director. “We’re getting people ready for backyard gardening with an understanding of the advantages of eating locally grown produce.”

Mauricio and Lauren Zapata of Buford brought their three sons — Paolo, 12, Noah, 10 and Michael, 6, to the festival for the children’s gardening class. Said Michael: "I want to learn how to grow corn."

“I’ve brought my three boys to attend a lecture they’re giving on growing your own garden,” said Lauren Zapata. “We would like to learn how to grow some of our own vegetables and herbs at home.

“We want to maximize the programs they offer at the center because they offer so much and we live so close by,” she said. “So we’re trying to get more involved and expand their horizons.”

The Zapata brothers were among 12 children who attended the gardening class. GEHC Education Specialist Heather Fleming said it’s important to teach youngsters that food doesn’t just come from a grocery store or restaurant, it originates from the ground or an animal.

“They are our future, so getting them involved with gardening and growing their own food is important,” said Fleming. “It’s not only important for our environment but for their health as well.”

One festival speaker was Anne-Marie Bilella of Bella Vista Farms in Monroe who calls herself the “The Farmer, The Baker and The Medicine-Maker.” She gave residents a one hour edible plant walk along GEHC trails and hosted a booth featuring artisan breads, herbal remedies and seasonal specialties. She had natural products like chickweed used as an edible pesto or for a salve and violet flowers used in salads or made into candy, jelly or a salve. She also had herbal sprays, teas and flavored lip balms.

“I want to show people there are plants you can find out in the wild that you can use for medicines and for food” said Bilella who teaches herbal medicine and cooking at her farm in Monroe. “…I also have an Indian basil tea that’s used for any type of stress problems. So if you’re under a lot of stress, it helps your body adapt.”

Most of the visitors at the festival brought their children.

Cindy Edmonson of Flowery Branch brought her daughters McKenna, 11, and Chaney, 8, because their homeschooling often brings them to the GEHC for science classes.

“We want to get into any kind of activity that gives us a hands-on experience such as home grown foods, but it was the baby chicks that really put us over the top,” said Edmonson. “Anything we can do to get them out in the community to experience other places and people, that’s what we want to do.”

Patti Parson represented Dances with Bees which featured honey based products such as flavored and unflavored liquid and crystallized honeys, bees wax and a blackberry mead vinegar. There was also a variety of soaps, lotions, body oils, face nectars, salves, and lip balm. She said she and her husband, Jay, enjoy attending bee keeper seminars at the center.

“We love to come out here because it’s a great venue for people who are interested in protecting the environment,” she said.

Kelly Haag of Dacula was representing the Ladies Homestead Gathering that was seeking new members to their coalition for homesteading and self-sufficiency. Her display featured home made products such as spice apple jam, pecan praline syrup, green tomato relish and a cookbook entitled “Feeding the Flock – The Ladies Homestead Gathering”.

“Whatever a lady’s definition for homesteading is, we promote that,” said Haag. “We do everything from bee keeping to food preservation to the herbals and gardening.”

Amanda Dyson, marketing team leader for Whole Foods, served up barbecue sandwiches made with locally grown products such as rolls from Masada Bakery in Norcross and Williams and Brothers barbecue from Marietta. “We partner with more than 700 local venders,” she said.

Mary Charles Howard of Athens represented Georgia Food Tours which features walking and bicycle tours of varying lengths during the spring, summer and fall. On the tours, people can walk or bicycle to three different farms, have a tasting of locally grown farm products at each location and then eat a meal at the last farm visited. Charles promoted the tours as her six-month old son, Henry, watched from a nearby playpen.

“He’s also locally grown,” she said with a smile.

The festival also featured Pilar Quintero of Rancho Alegre who conducted a program called “Starting From Scratch: A Sustainable Homestead” in which she discussed sustainable farming of nutrient rich foods and alternative holistic medicine. Quintero hosts an online farmers market and works with the Gwinnett Technical College Horticultural and Hospitality Department on teaching sustainable farming.

Ned Jung of J&J Culinary Sensations also gave an organic cooking demonstration with samples and recipes on how to prepare organic foods.

During the four-hour festival, more than 100 visitors outside navigated their way through a secured airborne obstacle course with zip lines, cargo nets, Tarzan swings and bridges called the Treetop Center.

And once again, everyone brought children.

Chad and Sara Quayle of Cumming brought 11 members of Cub Scout Troop 200 to the GEHC for hiking.

“We like to go out on hikes of various lengths,” Chad Quayle said, “so we got on line, found this place and decided to come check it out.”

And Jane Higdon and Katherine Hilton of Roswell brought 17 rowdy, preschool age children for a birthday party for Hilton’s 5-year-old son, Liam.

“We have a group of rambunctious little boys and thought we would let them come out here to run off some energy,” Hilton said.

Higdon agreed and said her 4-year-old twin sons, Jordan and Blake, loved the Treetop Center and she would return with them and their 6 and 7-year-old brothers.

“It looks like a day of family fun here,” she said. “And we’ll definitely be back.”