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

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."

Slotnick has seen this magic too many times to remember. "Weed carrots on your hands and knees with someone for hours, at the end you know where they went to high school, and you've probably heard a story about a girlfriend or a boyfriend or parent. Now do that day after day and our students become a tribe."

When CSA members visit the PEAS Farm to assemble their weekly boxes of produce, members of this tribe walk them through what's available that week, making sure the quantities stretch to all CSA members. When elementary and middle-school teachers bring their classes for field trips, the tribe shows them around. Community members who come by to "volunteer for veggies" become temporary tribal members. Each day the tribal mix is different. Every day around 11am a different crew takes to the kitchen to cook up a farm-fresh lunch for the crew.

Once a week the Youth Harvesters climb aboard a converted milk truck and travel to area nursing homes. At each stop they set up a mini farmers market for the residents, many of whom haven't seen fresh produce in a while, and are excited to be able to buy it. The so-called troubled youth don't look so troubled as they field questions about the produce they've grown, and even volunteer ideas about cooking with it. On another day, the Youth Harvesters are shuttling produce to the food bank from one of the two-acre neighborhood farms, each of which is like a miniature version of the PEAS farm.

Garden City Harvest holds a special place in my heart because its home, Missoula, Montana -- aka the Garden City -- is also my home. I know almost everyone in this book, and as I read it I was reminded of a moment at the PEAS Farm when I got my ass kicked by a Bhutanese hot chili pepper. As I coughed and sweated and moaned, a woman revived me with big slices from a juicy, just-picked cucumber. Was she a college student? An intern? A volunteer for veggies? A drug-court kid? A parent? A child? Michael Pollan? I guess you'll have to read the book to find out.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.