Community members sort through dirt and rocks to collect potatoes at the Great Potato Hunt on Nov. 10. [Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

This past spring, when the reality of the coronavirus pandemic was planting uncertainty and fear of the future in people’s minds and hearts, the Moab Seventh-day Adventist Church planted potatoes in a local field (see “Feeding the people,” Moab Sun News, April 28, 2020 edition).

Church members said they wanted to help the community cope with the effects of the pandemic. Anticipating possible problems with food supply chains, as well as the possibility that community members may struggle financially this year, the group decided to foster local food resiliency through their own farming endeavor.

That effort, called “Moab Manna,” is coming to fruition now. As the potatoes are ready for harvest, the church has invited community members to help dig up the crop. People may take home as many potatoes as they like, as long as they harvest an equal amount to be donated.

“I’ve been working with the state food bank in Salt Lake City,” said Nathan James, pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Moab. “As long as we have at least 6,000 pounds for them, they’ll send a truck to pick them up.”

James said the church planted about 20,000 pounds of seed potatoes on 10 acres of land lent to the church by a local property owner. They expect a yield of anywhere between 250,000 to 600,000 pounds of potatoes.

“We’re going to give some to the local food bank as well, but there’s more than the local food bank can process,” James said.

The church purchased equipment, funded in part by a grant from the national Seventh-day Adventist Church, for both planting and harvesting.

However, there’s only so much equipment can do, as Mary McElhaney explained.

“It still takes people to actually pick them up and put them in the bucket,” she said.

McElhaney is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Moab and helped to organize the “Grand Potato Hunt,” as they are calling the community harvest days.

Tuesday, Nov. 10 was the first community harvest day. Families, including toddlers, grandparents and four-legged friends, moved down the rows in the crisp fall air against the backdrop of the snow-capped La Sals. The Seventh-day Adventist Church had reached out to the Interfaith Coalition to solicit help: Members from other churches, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, worked alongside Seventh-day Adventists as well as unaffiliated community members.

“We’ve obviously had huge community support,” McElhaney said, indicating over a dozen community members bent over potatoes, buckets and dirt clods in the field. “This is so nice!”

Harvesting the potatoes is oddly enjoyable. It is, as the event name suggests, like a hunt for treasure: digging through dirt turned over by the harvesting machine, tossing aside rocks posing as potatoes, finding those dense, nutritious nuggets and gradually filling a bucket or sack to take home and make french fries or mashed potatoes, or to donate to those in need.

As of Wednesday, Nov. 18, James said the community had harvested 23,000 pounds of potatoes.

There are still potatoes in the ground, and there is still a need for food donations. On Nov. 18, James told volunteers in an email that he’d been contacted by the Navajo Nation with a request for 4,000 pounds of potatoes. Having sent all the potatoes harvested so far to the Utah Food Bank, James asked volunteers to come back out to the field and dig up enough spuds to meet that request. On Tuesday, Nov. 17, organizers estimated that volunteers harvested between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds. James is confident that another similar harvest day is “not only possible, but realistic.”

For community members interested in participating, another harvest day will be held on Thursday, Nov. 19, from 2 p.m. until dark. For more information, call Pastor Nathan James at 435-259-5545, or visit the Moab Seventh-day Adventist Church Facebook page.

“We’ve obviously had huge community support—this is so nice!”

– Mary McElhaney