During a normal spring, Wyoming Conservation Corps crew leaders would have spent the last few months preparing for their summer work season and putting in volunteer hours while working outside.

This year, however, an abnormal spring is transitioning into an abnormal summer. Instead of kicking off their work season this month, crew leaders are stuck in Laramie because of travel restrictions and other limitations put in place by the University of Wyoming.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t find ways to keep busy in southeast Wyoming, starting with a new collaboration with a fellow Americorps program here in Laramie.

Feeding Laramie Valley, a local program that works to address food insecurity in Albany County, has enlisted Wyoming Conservation Corps members to help get its production gardens up and running. Both organizations derive much of their manpower from volunteers who have committed to community service for a period of time.

“It happened that Feeding Laramie Valley had work to do and a way to get our people outside,” said Wyoming Conservation Corps program director Jim Fried.

Last week and earlier this week, Corps members helped Feeding Laramie Valley food production coordinator Reese Owens prepare for farming by cleaning hoop houses, turning soil, pulling weeds and other heavy lifting. They weren’t building trails or mending fences, but they were working outside and getting their hands dirty.

Feeding Laramie Valley operates production gardens on various public and private parcels around Laramie, including at the Albany County Fairgrounds and its LaBonte Park headquarters. Produce from production farms — tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, salad greens, potatoes, squash, beets, radishes and more — supplies its Food Shares Program, through which fresh foods are distributed around the community.

Owens said the COVID-19 pandemic caused the operation to fall behind its normal schedule. Additionally, a different volunteer team Feeding Laramie Valley was expecting this spring was unable to come, also because of pandemic restrictions. Owens and other staff members and volunteers had a lot of work to do in order to get caught up.

“They got a ton done and they were super helpful,” he said of the Corps. “It would have been difficult for us to do it without them, so it was great to have their help.”

He’s looking forward to more collaboration in the future as the growing season gets underway.

“All of our gardens are at least a little bit behind,” he said.

Feeding Laramie Valley founder Gayle Woodsum said the operation has seen a sharp uptick in the number of people signing up for the shares program.

“We’re trying to double the amount of food we put into production this year,” she said. “We had a greater need and fewer people.”

Fried said the summer outlook remains uncertain for Wyoming Conservation Corps. The group might be able to begin a work season in mid-August and continue through November, but that will hinder their ability to recruit college students to fill out the crews.

Meanwhile, crew leaders already on board are planning to stick close to home and work where they can. They’re hoping to do trail work on the Medicine Bow National Forest and Schoolyard Trails, and perhaps for the Pilot Hill Project as that progresses.

“Hopefully those little projects will supplement us until August,” he said.

Staying in southeast Wyoming has forced them to look for new partners and given them a chance to showcase their work to the Laramie community.

“We build trail everywhere, but sometimes the people in our backyard don’t see those,” he said. “It’s nice that we might have an opportunity to show the local community what we do.”

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