Second harvest

Jesus Center farm, set to lose its site, stakes out new acreage at St. John’s Church orchard

Jim Mathys, Jesus Center farm manager, and Rev. Richard Yale (right) were integral in getting the orchard set up at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church.

Jim Mathys, Jesus Center farm manager, and Rev. Richard Yale (right) were integral in getting the orchard set up at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

On a still, sunny September morning on the cusp of fall, the Jesus Center’s farm at the end of Chestnut Street was alive with activity. Volunteers were readying fall seedlings and filling flats with soil, clearing weeds and adjusting the irrigation system.

At the time, Jim Mathys, manager of the farm, dubbed Harvesting Hope, had received so many donated seeds he wasn’t quite sure what to do with them all. Not that he was complaining.

Over the past six years, Harvesting Hope has grown from an experimental job-training program into a transformative healing opportunity for some of Chico’s most marginalized citizens—those who are homeless.

Paid interns learn about all aspects of farming, from planting seeds and setting up irrigation to weeding, harvesting and composting. Farm workers and volunteers then deliver the harvest to CSA (community-supported agriculture) members, the Jesus Center (for use in meals) and local nonprofit food banks/pantries.

“Let’s face it, we’ve lost our connection to food and soil, and it’s so necessary for our mental health and well-being,” Mathys told the CN&R. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch … how farming changes people and ministers to their soul.”

But changes are on the horizon. The land the Jesus Center has leased since the farm’s inception—owned by the Growdon family, of Northern Star Mills—is going to be sold, so the farm is looking for a new home.

Though its future may be in flux, one thing is certain: It will take root elsewhere, potentially even as many smaller gardens spread throughout the city.

Mathys and the Rev. Richard Yale of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church—also known as Father Richard—have a friendship as street pastors. When Mathys told Yale that the farm was looking for a place to relocate, “he just lit up.”

For about 20 years, the congregation has debated what to do with a 1-acre patch of land at its campus off Floral Avenue. Now, it had an answer.

Earlier this month, Yale dedicated an 80-tree orchard with lemon, lime, mandarin and pomegranate saplings during a service with nearly 200 people in attendance. The rows of trees curve gradually from the parking lot toward St. John’s tranquil prayer garden. Some were flowering, and hummingbirds could be spotted zipping about among the blossoms.

The orchard is laid out differently than the farm’s current makeup of row crops, greenhouses and compost piles, but there is certainly room to add some raised beds, and the location’s mission will be the same.

Yale is excited about this partnership because it isn’t just going to benefit the members of his congregation, he told the CN&R, but the entire neighborhood, as well as those in need. Everyone will come together in mutual support, “learning about each other and coming to care for each other more deeply.

“It’s going to be a revelation of deeper commitment, deeper care and unity that we have together that is so often missing in our society today,” he continued, “the opportunity to rejoice and serve together.”

Harvesting Hope should be able to remain at its main location on Chestnut and West 16th streets until next summer, Mathys said. He is retiring at the end of this year to spend more time with his family, but has been reaching out to other churches—Yale and Mathys envision the Jesus Center farm planted throughout Chico.

The core value of the farm has always been providing job-training opportunities for those who are homeless, through a Jesus Center-sponsored internship program that pays a $600 stipend for three months of work. As it has grown, countless homeless interns have come through the program and left “much happier, healthier, sober and engaged in their community, and healed and set free,” Mathys said. They’ve gone on to work in landscaping, on small farms, and in other vocations, taking with them valuable basic job skills.

“When they’re done, they could start their own little farm if they’re paying attention,” he added.

That’s exactly what volunteer Paul Aiello aims to do. Lately, he’s been taking care of some irrigation duties for a strip of the farm’s crops that includes pepper, tomato, squash, okra and chard plants.

“I liked it here so much I decided to stay here and work the farm until I get my own,” he said. “I enjoy all of it. It gets me out, it gets me working, gets me moving around.”

Ray Hubbard, a client of Pride Industries—a nonprofit and employer of people with disabilities nationwide—was bustling about the farm that morning and couldn’t stop beaming when he spoke about Harvesting Hope. It’s fantastic there, he said, and “great they’re doing this for the community.”

The farm has thrived because of the collaboration it has fostered, Mathys said. Homeless people work alongside fellow community members like Hubbard and Aiello, growing nutritious produce that feeds Chicoans. During that process, people get to know one another, and a lot of barriers are broken down.

Harvesting Hope drives home that “those in need aren’t necessarily just the receiving ones,” Yale added, “but are co-workers in the mission of making this a better world.”