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Go to Jail or Go to a Farm: How One Community Is Growing More Than Just Food

A pioneering farm organization in Montana has found a way to help troubled youth and grow community.

Special powers have long been ascribed to farms, for good reason. A special conversation takes place there in the dirt and rain and sun, a dialogue between people and nature. The people talk and listen, while nature mostly talks, and if everyone cooperates you get a supply of food. This, arguably, is how civilization began.

If you talk to people who grew up on farms you might hear more about what the experience did to their characters than about what kind of food they raised. Some will rave about the aphrodisiac properties of farms. The therapeutic possibilities are even more rigorously documented. And the educational opportunities are off the charts. That's why gardens and farm programs have been sprouting like dandelions in schools, prisons, hospitals, houses of government, and other places whose occupants could use some illumination and direction.

A new book by Jeremy Smith, with a forward by Bill McKibben, traces the history of Garden City Harvest, a community farm and garden organization in Missoula, Montana that seems to manifest all of the community goodness that agriculture could possibly offer. The operation includes a nine-acre farm, several community gardens scattered around town, and three two-acre neighborhood farms. Growing a Garden City (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010) is a beautifully photo-illustrated manual for how to create an organization like this in your town.

The organization's flagship farm, called the PEAS Farm (PEAS stands for Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society), is worked primarily by credit-earning University of Montana students and by troubled youth given a choice between the PEAS Farm and jail. The food they grow goes mostly to the local food bank and soup kitchen, and some is sold locally via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. By selling to the high end of the market, the farm is able to give away food to the low end. In order to avoid competition with farms that don't have free labor, nothing is sold wholesale or at farmers markets.

The free laborers seem to get more out of the deal than anyone, because it is in the daily grind of running a farm and producing all this food that magic happens. "Mix physical, humble work with tangible results and a shared sense of ownership and responsibility, and the barriers between people erode," says Josh Slotnick in the book's opening chapter. Slotnick visualized the PEAS Farm years ago in a Cornell University Master's thesis.

The crops at the PEAS Farm are planted in straight rows, but beneath the surface is a complex web of relationships that extends well beyond the farm fences. Growing a Garden City explores this web through the stories of various people whose lives intersect in the fields of Garden City Harvest. And perhaps most importantly, the book gives nuts and bolts on what it takes to start an organization like Garden City Harvest somewhere else. The implicit message is that this type of magic could, and should, flourish anywhere.

"You can do this in your town," Slotnick says. "It didn't cost a ton of money. It didn't take a change in legislation. It took a small group of people who were committed to working in partnership and who were relentless and who wouldn't go away."

Another chapter focuses on a young woman named Hannah, who came to the PEAS Farm as an angry drug-addicted teenager. She entered the Youth Harvest program, joining a crew of at-risk teens who chose farm therapy over jail. They worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the college students.

"I remember walking with all of those girls and talking with everybody and just having a great time," Hannah recalls. "I wasn't used to being treated like a human being. I remember being really happy that first day. Really excited and hopeful. We planted onions. The first week or two that's what we did."

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