Harvesting hope

Jesus Center’s community garden is a work in progress

Bill Such (below) executive director of the Jesus Center, says the organization’s community garden needs a farm manager in order to expand.

Bill Such (below) executive director of the Jesus Center, says the organization’s community garden needs a farm manager in order to expand.

photo by Tom Gascoyne

Five months after it was sown, the Jesus Center community garden is bearing vegetables and flowers, though on a much smaller scale than was originally planned. Harvest began a few weeks back and every three or four days volunteers who use the center’s services are out in the garden collecting from the small plot of plants on 2.2 acres of land in southwest Chico.

In April, the CN&R ran a story describing the garden’s initial launch (See “Putting Down Roots,” Newslines, April 11). The property sits next to the old Diamond Match Co. in the Barber neighborhood and has received a good share of community support. The land is owned by the Growden family, which includes John Growden, owner of Northern Star Mills feed and garden supply on The Esplanade.

The Growdens are leasing the land to the Jesus Center for an extremely reasonable $1 a year. The garden itself was plowed without charge last March by employees of the M&T Ranch, and about a month later equipped with an extensive irrigation system, with both efforts organized by local businessman and former farmer Brian Pierce.

Bill Such, executive director of the Jesus Center, launched the effort last spring with the idea that the garden would be tended to by those who use the center, which provides meals and other services to the down-and-out. Such said the idea, besides growing fresh vegetables and flowers, would be to provide work and work training. But the first season has been a bit of a disappointment.

“We have harvested a small area and are working in a rather meager way,” he said.

The original plans called for harvesting the peppers and tomatoes and, besides serving them in the Jesus Center kitchen, also using them to make and bottle a salsa, tentatively to be called “Street Sauce.” The other idea was to collect flowers and sell them from a cart whose purchase was made possible with a $4,000 donation from the local Soroptimists.

The flower-cart plan is still in the works and should be in operation by January, Such said. The profit from the flower sales will go toward funding the Sabbath House, Chico’s shelter for women.

Such has applied for a grant from the Sierra Health Foundation, which is a private philanthropic group with a mission, as its website says, “to invest in and serve as a catalyst for ideas, partnerships and programs that improve health and quality of life in Northern California.” He wants to use any potential grant money to provide oversight to the volunteers who work in the garden.

“I’ve applied for a grant so that I can employ a farm manager for 15 hours a week,” Such explained. “That way we can really get the whole thing going, because at the moment we’re sort of doing it on an ad-hoc basis with one of my staff members going out there for six hours a week and basically taking [clients] from the Jesus Center who want to do the harvesting.”

He said meeting the original goals of the garden are very dependent upon hiring a farm manager. Such should know in early October whether or not the Sierra Health Foundation grant comes through.

“I need somebody to oversee the situation, because if I just left it as is, then I could have people out there doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “And I’m very careful with the sensibilities of the neighbors. It has been a priority to make sure they are happy with what we are doing.”

Bill Such.

Photo by Tom Gascoyne

There is an existing neighborhood garden right next to the Jesus Center’s plot of land, and earlier this year a woman working in that garden said she welcomed the Jesus Center’s presence. Such said there have been no problems reported or complaints voiced by neighbors up to this point, but that there has been some unauthorized harvesting by those not connected to the Jesus Center.

“We’ve had one or two neighbors take advantage of it by taking some of the produce, but that’s OK,” Such said. “Some of the stuff’s been picked by people just coming by and taking it. We don’t mind at this point, because we are pleased with what we’ve got so far and we want to develop it.”

At this point, he said, the produce that has been harvested by the Jesus Center is being used in a “spasmodic way.”

“We give away what we can’t use on a daily basis before it goes bad,” he said. “We are using it in the kitchen for whatever the kitchen manager is cooking that day. We’ve been able to do that on a small basis, but it is nothing like we have planned.”

Developing the garden to its fullest potential is a slow process, he said, and hiring a farm manager is vital to its success. But he does have another idea if the grant falls through.

He said he knows of former Jesus Center clients who have gone on to attend Butte College and taken agriculture-related classes.

“Two of them have gone into vineyard agriculture or learned how to operate tractors,” Such said. “I’m thinking of approaching them to see if they would be interested in managing that area. Of course, it would have to be for free.”

He said there must also be an incentive to get folks from the Jesus Center to volunteer their time in the garden.

“We have to provide a carrot,” he said. “You can’t just say to somebody, ‘Well, OK, if you go out there and do this for six months even though you have no job and no income, we think we can someday get you a job in the seasonal agricultural industry.’ We need to be providing something to them as an incentive to actually do the work.”

Such mentioned the recent help from the Chico Association of Realtors in assisting the Jesus Center secure a home called the Transitional House of Hope for women trying to break free of homelessness.

“It would be great if we had a professional organization that could help us get a men’s transitional house,” he said. “Then we could give people a carrot and say, ‘You can stay in this house and you can work for six months in the field, and then that will prepare you for a job in the ag industry.’

“At this point I need more of an incentive than just saying, ‘I’ll bring you pizza out there, I’ll bring you an extra lunch,’ and so forth. That’s not working.”

Such holds out hope for the garden’s future.

“I think it’s going to go forward,” he said, “but I think it’s going to be a slow process.”