One Sunday a few years ago, Terry Douglass caught a feature on the morning news about a professional football player who had given up his career to teach people how to grow food.
Douglass, a lender at the $2.1 billion-asset Independence Bank, was inspired by his mission, and she began to consider if her branch could do something similar to feed the people in her community.
"I thought, 'That goes right with how we feel at the bank,' " she said.
So she proposed that the staff at her branch in Hopkins County, Ky., plant and harvest crops to be donated.
The president of the branch at the time rejected Douglass' proposal, but he left shortly thereafter.
A few days after Kent Mills was hired as the branch's new president, Douglass pitched the idea again and got a warmer reception.
"I was like, 'Sure, it's something different. Let's give it a shot,' " Mills said.
Now, employees are in their third year planting and harvesting crops from an acre of land at Mahr Park, a local recreation facility with educational programs in agriculture.
Every employee at the branch pitches in with the initiative, which is dubbed "The Green Acre." Once the food is harvested, it is sent to several food banks in the community, including one at the Salvation Army.
The levels of experience in working the earth vary among employees. Douglass is a "novice farmer" — her father made her hoe the family garden growing up.
Another lender, Cheri McNary, joked that she had only seen a garden before. Cathy Peyton, also a lender, knows what she is doing, because she grew up on a farm.
The bankers have found some assistance, though. They turned to customers who are farmers to help them learn the trade. The Hopkins County Cooperative Extension, a part of the University of Kentucky, also helps with fertilizing the crops and looking out for pests.
"The raccoons are the biggest challenge," Mills said. "The garden area is fenced, but sometimes we have to battle them to get to the corn."
The employees bought a solar-powered electric fence for next year.
Snakes are also an issue. "One corn picker turns her music up real loud to scare the snakes away," Mills said.
So far, nobody has been bitten.
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The effort to cultivate crops has not always been successful. In their first year, the employees grew just 300 pounds of potatoes after planting 100 pounds of seed potatoes. It was a low return on investment — they were expecting 1,000 to 1,500 pounds.
"It's a gamble," Douglass said. "It was eye-opening to see how much it cost."
Last year, the group planted the entire acre. "We picked for a solid week," Mills said.
Now, they stagger their crops.
But even so, the project's scope and size builds camaraderie. Some employees show up at the field by 5:30 a.m. — before the sun rises. "One morning, we were lined up with weed eaters and looked like some kind of horror show," McNary said.
Others head out after work and stay until 8 p.m.
Harvest time is the busiest period, with all hands in the field.
"This isn't in anyone's job description," Mills said. "I've been moved by the passion that our employees have had. We will continue as long as they want to."
The reaction from the community and the bank's headquarters in Owensboro, Ky., has been positive.
"One time when we delivered food to a food bank for the first time, the director looked at me and said what a blessing we were and cried," Peyton said. "We're just doing good for our community. It's a good feeling to know you're helping people."
Douglass is glad the idea came to fruition. "Seeing others is seeing myself," she said. "It makes me feel good and feel good about the bank."
At Independence — which is one of the 75 banks that earned a spot in our ranking of the Best Banks to Work For this year — every branch has its own community projects. Each year, the branches present their projects to management for the chance to win $25,000 — half goes to a nonprofit and half goes to employees. The Hopkins County branch has won twice.
The Hopkins County Regional Chamber of Commerce also has honored the branch with a community service award for the last two years.
"We've gained accounts because of it," Mills said. "People are appreciative that we give back to our community."