Priyanka Ballary spends Sunday mornings tending to the crops at EarthShare Gardens as a way to reconnect with nature and learn new skills.

The physical labor she puts in as a volunteer at the community farm is completely different from her weekdays spent working at a computer as a data developer for Perficient. And that's one reason she likes it.

"People should know how this is cultivated, how much pain is involved so the food waste is reduced," Ballary said. "You pay hundreds of dollars to go to a gym to work out, but you can just come here and get closer to nature and get your workout done. Let's not waste our sweat for ourselves."

EarthShare Gardens is kicking off the fall season of its community-supported agriculture program this week.

The program offers different membership levels, all of which include fresh produce and help support the nonprofit farm that uses sustainable and organic practices. 

"We need the sales in order to operate the farm, but that operation includes ensuring we have enough to donate to the food bank as well," said Chris Adams, a founding member of EarthShare Gardens. "We encourage our members to be an active part of the farm, but it's not a requirement."

Involvement in the program is encouraged through a pay model: The more you volunteer, the less you'll pay for veggies.

A season membership costs $180 for those who volunteer an average of 24 hours each week, $300 for those who volunteer 12 hours per week and $360 for those who do not volunteer. Members can pick up each of their 12 weekly boxes, which provide enough vegetables to feed a family of four, on Sunday mornings or Thursday evenings.

Season memberships are also available at half the price for those who want to pick up boxes every other week during the season.

Each seasonal membership provides the nonprofit with money and manpower needed to keep the community garden alive. 

"The original intention was to make sustainably grown, organic produce available to the Lafayette community," Adams said. "And we've held true to that intent throughout the years."

EarthShare Gardens has been quietly growing in Acadiana since 2005. 

The concept began in the early 2000s with a handful of students, including Adams, who were studying environmental sciences under Eldred "Griff" Blakewood IV at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The nonprofit's first garden was planted in 2005 near the Holy Rosary Institute, and it remained in that location for about a decade until restoration efforts began on the historic school.

EarthShare Gardens was homeless for about a year before the McMath family offered the nonprofit a 10-year lease on its current property in Scott.

The new, one-acre farm is located at the end of a residential cul-de-sac and is maintained by volunteers like Ballary who are overseen by Adams and co-manager Kimberly Culotta.

Using sustainable farming practices to grow food organically in south Louisiana is a challenge because of the pests and diseases that plague hot, humid environments.

Tarp and hay are the go-to weed control methods at the farm, where summer veggies — green beans, spinach, okra, chives, green onions and luffa — are still being harvested. Fall seeds for broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, kale, collards, pumpkins are in the ground.

One-third of the garden is reserved for donations to under-served communities and food banks. The remaining two-thirds is distributed among members of the community-supported agriculture program. 

"The next step that I'm really excited about as we begin to have more of a surplus is to begin to serve our under-served communities," Culotta said. "I live in LaPlace, a food desert, where we carry this legacy of slavery today. It's shocking to me every time I think about it."

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a region without fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods, typically due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers markets and other food providers.

Food deserts are usually found in impoverished areas where many do not have vehicles to drive to grocery stores. Instead, these regions typically have an abundance of dollar stores, gas stations and convenience stores where highly processed food is available to those with limited transportation options.

Culotta, who moved back to her hometown of Lafayette last year after spending 18 years in California, is bringing a fresh perspective to EarthShare Gardens.

She's hoping to use bicycle carts to distribute extra produce in neighborhoods like those in LaPlace. She's also working with Adams to host a fundraiser brunch in November to pay for new farming equipment for EarthShare Gardens.

"I didn't know what the community would be like when I moved back," Culotta said. "But I've been really surprised to find so many people who are concerned and active and proactive, really wanting to move Lafayette forward in a better way."

A handful of people volunteered alongside Culotta and Adams Sunday morning at EarthShare Gardens to harvest and wash produce for the first CSA pickup of the season.

But not everybody at the farm was working in the field. Some were just stopping by to pick up boxes of fresh veggies to share with their families.

"Our biggest asset is our members," Adams said. "We're really excited when new members sign up because we like to share this experience with others."

Become a member of EarthShare Gardens or learn more by emailing earthsharegardens@gmail.com.

Email Megan Wyatt at mwyatt@theadvocate.com.