Putting down roots

Community garden is designed to help the homeless help themselves

A worker from the M&T Ranch plows property in southwest Chico as part of the Jesus Center Community Farm project.

A worker from the M&T Ranch plows property in southwest Chico as part of the Jesus Center Community Farm project.

photo by tom gascoyne

Helping hand:
For more info about the Jesus Center’s services, visit www.jesuscenter.org.

Another community garden is taking shape in Chico. On the surface that may not sound like news; there are a number of these cooperative grows in the area. But the push and purpose behind this undertaking is news, particularly in light of recent calls either to help the local homeless or herd or them out of town.

Bill Such, executive director of the Jesus Center, is spearheading the effort to plant the garden in southwest Chico. His plan is that the plot will be tended to by those who use the center, which provides meals and other services to the local destitute. Such said the idea, besides growing fresh vegetables and flowers, is to provide work and work training for the down-and-out.

“One of the big elements that goes with this downtown [homeless] problem in Chico is we’ve got people who just can’t find work,” Such said. “Whether they’ve been in prison or whether they’ve been struggling with substance abuse, now they are 40, 50 or 55 years old, and it’s tough.”

The garden will sit on 2.2 acres in the Barber neighborhood, located in southwest Chico next to the old Diamond Match factory. The property is owned by the Growdon family, who also own Northern Star Mills feed and garden supply on The Esplanade. The family has agreed to lease the land to the Jesus Center for $1 a year. The soil needs to be tested, because it sits next to where the Diamond Match Co. operated from 1906 to 1975.

Such said the garden will serve as a “work-based training spot for the agricultural industry.” Les Heringer of M&T Ranch told Such those with at least six months’ experience working on the garden would be employable at local farms, including his.

Such said the plans include selling the flowers from a flower cart, which will be purchased with a $4,000 donation from the local Soroptimists.

“We decided to create a flower cart and have it downtown where they can sell the flowers,” Such said. “It will help them become productive by developing a work ethic. They can also get some of the profit. My director of services, Shelly Watson, had the connection with Soroptimists member Laurie Maloney, [former Chico Police Chief] Mike Maloney’s wife.”

The profit from the flower sales will also go toward the Sabbath House, Chico’s shelter for women.

“It houses up to 26 women,” Such said of the facility. “And they stay with us for up to six months to get their lives together.”

The vegetables from the garden —tomatoes, orange, red and green bell peppers, onions and garlic—will be made into sauces, bottled and sold.

“My kitchen manager, Andy Hawes, once owned a restaurant, and he wants to make barbecue and salsa sauce,” Such said. “We’ll make sauce at the Jesus Center, where we have a commercial kitchen. And we’ll train people in making the sauce in the kitchen, and hopefully make some money by selling it locally.”

He said they are thinking of calling it “Street Sauce.”

The effort was launched by Jesus Center Director Bill Such.

photo by tom gascoyne

On Saturday, March 30, Heringer brought in a tractor to plow the land and get it ready for planting. Heringer was contacted by Brian Pierce, whom Such described as a businessman and former farmer.

“Les tried but couldn’t do it because it was too rocky,” Such said. “So they brought in a [heavy duty] Caterpillar [tractor], which got the job done. Les was on that tractor until 3 o’clock.”

A worker from M&T Ranch was back the following Saturday, plowing the field into a finer grade.

Also involved in the project were members of Chico Rotary, students from both Chico High and Chico State, as wells as 25 people from the Jesus Center, Such said.

“A number of these people showed an interest in wanting to be part of this work-based training center, which is what we want,” Such said. “We did the cleanup and put on a barbecue at noon for about 120 people. And we invited the neighbors, because the word’s gone out, and their concern is, ‘Oh, is this going to be a homeless gathering place?’”

Those who do work on the garden will have to meet a number of conditions that include passing a drug test, he said.

There is an existing neighborhood garden on the property. A woman pulling weeds there last Saturday (April 6) said neither she nor any of the others who work that garden have a problem with the Jesus Center project.

Paul Cummings uses the Jesus Center’s services and was there to help on that first Saturday. A native of Northern Ireland, Cummings said he arrived here from Orange County three months ago. A series of deaths in his family over a very short time, combined with a surprise paternity suit, pushed him over the edge both emotionally and financially, he said. He is looking forward to putting his efforts into the community garden.

“We need to get the community involved,” he said with just a trace of an Irish accent. “We need local gardening places and anybody who wants to step up. This will employ the homeless by getting our hands in the dirt.

“It’s not about the garden, it’s about us,” he said. “We’ve lost families and homes. It’s time to make a new start. We’re going to ask people to come out and work in the garden. I don’t mind if they just come and cheerlead. Even if the impact on the general [homeless] population is minimal, at least we did something.”

Chatting recently at the Jesus Center, Debra Overton, a resident of the Sabbath House, was enthusiastic about her part in the effort.

“We’ll be growing and selling flowers for the Sabbath House,” she said. “It’s a work in progress, and we’ll sell them in front of the grocery stores. If the Boy Scouts can do it, why couldn’t we?”

Steven Baxter, who also uses the Jesus Center’s services, has put time in at the garden.

“I like the social aspects of being in the garden with other people and getting off the street,” he said. “I want to stand up for myself and be more confident in job interviews, and it’s going to help on my résumé.

“I like the aspect that we are taking a piece of unused property left on its own, like some of us have been left on our own. This is good for the community. When harvest day comes we’ll have a big community gathering.”