Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Youth Harvest

Clayton has run away. With only three months to go before finishing his drug court program, he decided to run with two other kids from his group home.
It leaves a big empty space in me--the same as it did when Hannah left the farm suddenly a few weeks back and we didn't know if we'd see her again. We're like an organism, at the farm. Maybe others don't feel it, but when one person leaves unexpectedly in this way, I feel their absence like a huge gap, an important part missing.
It was such a surprise to all of us that Clayton took off. Clayton, of all people! everyone said. He was the most dependable!
We found out a few days later that Clayton and his friends stole a car. Clayton was arrested for drunk driving and grand theft auto and is now in jail..
I worry so much about these kids. They are called "at risk" teenagers. I was wondering, initially, what that really meant. Over the summer, I've realized that they seem to share a certain inequilibrium that I'm not accustomed to seeing in people. I mean that they appear to be stable in themselves to some degree, but then they make choices that completely and very suddenly change the course of their lives.
There is a lot going on in
side them that is hidden. There is a lot going on inside all of us that is hidden. I wish they wouldn't put on their best face for us while so much is bothering them underneath. They don't easily trust others. For as much as rehabilitation programs focus on communication, I feel like we still fall so short, in general, in our abilities to communicate what is really going on for each of us in our lives. We each have certain issues we share with coworkers and friends, others we keep hidden. We say they are too personal? Irrelevant? "The System" in which these kids are being "rehabilitated" fails to break that barrier. It unfortunately maintains the possibility of leading a double identity--the face we show at the farm, the person we really are inside. What is it about all of us that resists intimacy, that prizes privacy? For what ends?
Though I know there is nothing I could have done to prevent the course of events in Clayton's life
, his predicament enlightens the limitations in my own ability to communicate and create intimacy between myself and these kids. Was Clayton's decision as sudden as it seemed? Or was he really troubled with no real friend to talk to for a period of time beforehand?
I have tried, in my way, to build friendships with each of the kids, but I think there is that same something in myself, and maybe in them, that resists intimacy. The kids don't necessarily trust the sincerity of those around them, either, and often just say what they think I want to hear. I've try to have candid conversations with Jordan a
bout how he feels being taken away from his family and placed in a group home against his will. He says he wants to go--"it'll help him stay out of trouble and create certain changes in his life." That's what he says. It's like he knows the lines that the "grown-ups" want to hear. He's very good at simulating the transformation he thinks they are looking for. But I'm never sure how he feels.
On a hopeful note, I have seen that in some small way, the farm has had a positive influence on each of the kids. They have each had their beliefs challenged, have learned to like things (and people) they never expected to like, and have each expressed that being accepted by everyone on the farm has made a big difference to them.
Donny, while we were pulling weeds one day, started asking questions about how to apply for college. He said his family and friends had been unable to answer his questions. It was one small moment of satisfaction for me—knowing that the farm, and Donny’s new relationships there, were providing something that he needed.
The experience on the farm has helped me to remember not to expect big changes. Working in any capacity where the expectation is a change in the lives of others requires a lot of patience and true humility. One problem with rehab programs is that the change is predetermined; a particular change is expected. When we don't see the desired results, we can feel that no impact has been made; no result achieved. But considering Donny's question, I realize that the response to one question, asked because Donny felt at ease and felt he could get an answer, could possibly change the course of a whole life.
In terms of the therapeutic benefits of farm work, they are impossible to quantify. We cannot look only for revolutionary change in the behavior of an individual--a drug addict reformed and rehabilitated. The farm has left its mark in all of our lives. It may be, in Donny's case, the realization that women with hairy legs can be nice people. It may be, in Jordan's case, the discovery that he really likes to cook. It may be, in any case, the response to a question we raise, or the question that raises itself in response to our work that begins to guide our lives in a slightly different direction.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Garden Party

PEAS interns Sara Bruya, left, and Jessica Babcock harvest flowers for CSA shares Monday morning at the Garden City Harvest/UM EVST PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake Valley. Garden City Harvest produces 25,000 pounds of food a year to give to community emergency food shelters and is celebrating its 10th anniversary Thursday.
Photo by LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian

Program Celebrates 10 Years
By Betsy Cohen of the Missoulian

It's hard to believe Garden City Harvest is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but it is, truly.

Who knew 10 years ago the fledgling program to grow food for low-income Missoula residents, which began on a spit of knapweed-infested property at Fort Missoula, would blossom into a robust 6.5-acre farm in the upper Rattlesnake, sprout satellite gardens throughout the city, serve as an educational center for students of all ages and provide therapy for at-risk teenagers.

Back then, no one could foresee the garden would be transplanted into the heart of the Rattlesnake, partner with the University of Montana and city of Missoula, and annually produce 25,000 pounds of food for the Missoula Food Bank, the Poverello Center and other community emergency food shelters.

Nor could anyone have envisioned the farm, in its eighth year, would be honored with the prestigious Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Partnership Award, which recognizes outstanding partnerships between nonprofits and universities. The 2004 award honored the farm's work to provide food for the needy and education to UM students in the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS), an internship within the university's Environmental Studies Program.

For certain, dynamic - albeit organic - evolution has shaped the farm and its programs, said Josh Slotnick, farm director and co-founder.

“We have changed as the town has changed,” Slotnick said, “but we have grown at what we know - including people in doing humble, meaningful work.”

These days, Garden City Harvest and the Rattlesnake Farm are the mothership for three distinct programs: the Youth Harvest Project, the PEAS internship, and community gardens.

Youth Harvest, which is in its fourth year, is a therapeutic service-oriented employment program for at-risk teens. Most of the teenagers in the program are court-ordered by District Judge John Larson, who presides over Missoula Drug Court, said Tim Ballard, Youth Harvest director.

Immersed in the diverse community of the farm's mostly volunteer workers, the teens help with farm chores - everything from feeding the pigs and chickens to moving irrigation pipe, weeding, planting, cooking the mid-day meal and eating with the farm hands.

Through a partnership with the Human Resource Council, the teens receive minimum wage for their work.

Not only is the farm work an unusual alternative to the more traditional fast food restaurant employment options, but mentorships are formed with the UM students and other laborers who tend and nurture the crops, Ballard said.

As the teenagers become familiar with their chores and the farm's ultimate mission to feed the needy, they gain “a sense of ownership and a feeling of belonging,” Ballard said.

It's not uncommon for many of the teens to linger after their work assignments are completed or to return after their work shift is over to lend a hand.

In several instances, the farm experience prompted once-troubled teens to get a paid position with Garden City Harvest and another to enroll in UM's PEAS internship, which combines traditional college courses with hands-on agricultural work.

“Farm work is good, and this farm in particular is really important for human growth,” said Sara Bruya, a Harvard Divinity School student who is fulfilling some of her master's degree requirements this summer through UM's PEAS internship.

“This farm is a powerful place because of the community that is developed among people and the fact that the people here are interested in nurturing the life cycle,” Bruya said. “The work here is not just about planting and harvesting vegetables. The work brings up a lot of conversation about other things - about social issues, poverty, personal issues.

“There's an educational component to this farm which makes it special and which brings out in people a sensitivity, an awareness of how things, of how we are all connected.”

Neither the farm nor Garden City Harvest would thrive without the support of vibrant private and public partnerships, said Joellen Shannon, Garden City Harvest development director.

But the program does thrive because individuals and city leaders recognize the importance of the work, and there's no better example for the ongoing support than the farm's community-shared agriculture program - in which Missoula residents of all income levels buy shares to receive weekly produce and flowers, Shannon said.

“Our farms and gardens connect people to food, to a sense of place and to each other,” she said, “and that connectedness is one of the most important things that is grown here.”

Slotnick said he too is stunned by Garden City's 10th anniversary, and what the farm's journey has taught him.

“I started doing this work because I believe in the power of this as an educational tool to get food to poor people,” he said. “I didn't know how it would tie me to Missoula - to this community.

“It's what I'd call a fortunate accident.”

Everyone's invited to the farm's fifth annual summer shindig, which is equal parts harvest celebration, garden party and community frolic.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

I want a goat

Fair Reflections

The Western Montana Fair is in town this week. At the last minute I decided that we should enter some of our PEAS Farm produce in the agriculture competition. The idea was mostly to encourage the Youth Harvest kids by hopefully winning a few ribbons that they could proudly display to their families and friends at the Fair. It turns out we did pretty well, winning first and third place for carrots, first and second for kale, first for red cabbage and celery, and second place for red onions. Our cucumbers, however, didn't place at all. The contest considers mostly aesthetic qualities such as uniformity and size without regard to maturity of the produce or, most importantly, TASTE! The blue ribbon cucumbers were all perfectly uniform, but actually, not ripe!
Of course, the competition was not exactly fair on many levels. I think we were competing mostly against backyard gardeners. Surprisingly, there was no separate category for farm-raised produce or any distinction between vegetables grown with or without pesticides, herbicides or growth enhancers.
Were I in Montana more permanently, I would love to see the agricultural component of the fair become what it might have once been--an Exposition where all regional farms are represented; where friendly competition contributes to the sharing of knowledge among farmers; where vegetables are judged by their taste and not on perfect shape. It is an environment with so much educational potential that is completely lost in the whirl of carnival rides and the seasonal allure of cotton candy and fry bread.
From our PEAS Farm fieldtrips to organic farms all over the region this summer, I am more aware than ever before of the agricultural activity going on all around us. But before that experience, I had no idea there were peaches growing up near Dixon or lavendar and grape vines in the Rattlesnake. The Missoula Farmer's Market is a celebration, of sorts, of local produce and local farms, but I sense a distinct elitism (or at best, reservation) among the organic farming community when it comes to participating in the Western Montana Fair. The Fair is stereotyped, it seems, as being for "the other half" of the agricultural world--the conventional farmer; more specifically, the ranching and rodeo crowd.
To my mind, knowing now the wonderful farming community that exists, it is unfortunate that the agricultural displays at the Fair are mostly filled, as I said, by home gardeners. None of these beautiful farms we've visited this summer are represented.
And even the conventional farmers (meaning those who use chemicals) seem to be growing mostly grains rather than vegetables. Thus I assume that most of the local produce that is available in the market is being grown by those folks that we have visited. One thing I've learned about these farmers in Western Montana is that they work VERY HARD! I don't expect them to necessarily take the time to consider educating the public about what they're doing. At the same time, however, keeping themselves within the elite community of those who shop at the Good Food Store or the crowd that comes to the Farmer's Market ultimately limits their market, I think. Many Missoulians I've talked to think, for example, that those who buy their produce at the Farmer's Market represent a good cross-section of the population of Missoula. Somehow I think if that were the case, we wouldn't have a population that supports two Walmarts...but I digress...
While farmers may not have the time to educate the public about considering the source of their food, an organization like Garden City Harvest should be doing so. It states as one of the three primary goals in their mission statement that they are committed to offering education and training in ecologically conscious food production. Now celebrating its 10th year, however, GCH has apparently not yet considered the incredible opportunity presented by the Fair to reach a broad cross-section of the population (that might not shop at the Good Food Store) about the significance of growing organically and supporting local farms. GCH could also take on the job of making sure local farmers are encouraged to participate and are well-represented at the Fair and that an awareness of the vibrant local farming community reaches the general population of Western Montana. This could be achieved in a really fun and celebratory way by integrating "ecologically consicous food production" awareness into the historically significant county fair model, which is already deeply rooted in agriculture.
If we really believe in this "conscious agriculture" idea, then we must resist the impulse toward elitism and take every opportunity to promote and encourage HEALTHY LOCAL PRODUCE FOR EVERYONE. If the organic farming community is too good for the Fair, then in effect, they're just preaching to the choir, and losing a valuable opportunity to expand the market for and the awareness of local, organic produce.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Montana peaches

The key to making a living as a farmer in Montana, as we learned last week from 'Lavender Laurie,' is finding your niche. Tom, from Forbidden Fruit in Paradise, Montana has certainly found one. The growing season on his place in a narrow valley at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Flathead rivers is almost two months longer than we have in Missoula--just 70 miles away. His peaches are juicy and delicious.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Waiting for an August muse

It's funny how the endless minutia can interrupt the creative flow. Most of July was spent in a wonderful way...helping my sister move from Houston to Nashville, buying a new car, driving from Nashville to Missoula, MT and then spending a couple of fun weeks with my sister. It's the first time in years that we've been able to spend a whole month together. We attended a family reunion, she played her bass at the Farm talent show, we had evening picnics in Greenough Park. Meanwhile, I've been trying to sort out title business for the car, have my knee examined by an expert, and attend to all kinds of other little things that need to get done. Every day, I feel the lack of time to write and reflect as a pang of emptiness. I need it.
Kristen is gone now...back to Nashville. My week has passed trying to catch up on lost projects as the summer moves on. August already! My books, abandoned. My writing waiting... I've sat down several times this week hoping to be inspired. How can it be so naggingly important and yet so elusive, the creative impulse?