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.

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