The youth dig it

Soil Born Farms offers green jobs to local young adults

Adriana Aceves and Connie Stumbaugh pick basil.

Adriana Aceves and Connie Stumbaugh pick basil.

Photo By Sena christian

Eric Walsh sifted through the broad leaves surrounding him, searching for a good-looking squash to clip. It’s hard work, bending over the rows of crops under the beating mid-morning sun, and he’s developed a newfound respect for farmworkers. Until a couple months ago, he rarely even ate vegetables; now the 18-year-old consumes all types of produce on a regular basis.

Walsh, a lover of jazz music, welding and civil engineering, can now call himself a farmer. He’s part of a youth work crew program at Soil Born Farms, an urban-agriculture project with two sites in Sacramento. Fifteen youth, ages 16-21 years old, work three days a week for up to 20 hours, earning $8 an hour.

Last spring, Walsh’s high-school counselor told him about the program. He was “flabbergasted” to hear about a farm located just down the street from his school, Cordova High.

“I had to jump on an opportunity like this,” Walsh said. “So I did. It’s hard work, but it’s fun. It’s worth it.”

Earlier this month, the youth worked at the farm site in Rancho Cordova, harvesting squash, basil, peppers and carrots for 58 community-supported agriculture boxes. After picking the vegetables, they washed, weighed and separated the produce into boxes, which they then loaded into a cooler.

This pilot Youth Work Crew program began at the end of May and runs through August; another program starts in the fall. Soil Born Farms collaborates with Folsom Cordova Community Partnership to provide real-work experience and job training to youth. The program receives funding through the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency, using economic-stimulus money.

“We want the kids to make a connection between food and the earth and get a new perspective for caring for the earth,” said Jennifer Whelan, education assistant at Soil Born Farms, who coordinates the program with Guy Galante. “I want them to feel empowered to take part in service projects, such as this, and work on teams and take leadership roles. And I want them to have fun outdoors. Bottom line.”

The youth learn harvesting skills and about healthy food, agriculture and the natural world. Every so often, they recover lumber from the American River for use on the farm, practicing ecological stewardship in the process. Through workshops, the youth learn work-readiness skills: résumé writing, interviewing techniques and etiquette in the workplace.

To be accepted, each youth had to have a hardship, whether it was economic, a learning disability or attendance at an underperforming school. Participants include a biology major at Sacramento State, a high-school senior who wants to plant her own garden someday and a young man who’ll soon join the Marines who’d never farmed before this summer.

That’s not the case for Iliana Teran, an 18-year-old who started volunteering at Soil Born Farms in 2007 with her best friend. About six years ago, her family moved to the United States from Mexico, where her parents raised plants and animals.

“You find peace within yourself out here,” Teran said. “I’m really happy. I like the environment of the plants and nature, and the people.”

When the youth aren’t harvesting produce, they weed, prepare compost and on the weekends help with customer service at the site’s farm stand. A few weeks back, they planted lettuce, onions, herbs and garlic for the fall harvest. Last week, they took a field trip to Walnut Grove to glean thousands of pounds of pears, along with other volunteers, for the Sacramento Food Bank.

As the youth prepared the CSA boxes, they shoveled down into the soil, carefully pulling out bunches of carrots. They cleaned off dirt and dead leaves and tied 120 bunches together.

Among those helping harvest carrots was Isaiah Maldonado, who learned gardening from his grandmother. At home, he raises pumpkins. The high-school junior and his colleagues recently assisted with the food bank’s mobile market.

“I told my mom, ‘I helped out people. I helped the community,’” Maldonado said. “I enjoy being outside and watching [vegetables] grow. I like this a lot. It’s a real good experience for me. This job, I love.”