The panel truck named "Big Red" backed up to the barn on the PEAS Farm, its rear doors open wide to receive a bounty of vegetables.
“Karrina, this one you should grab from the bottom because it feels like it’s about to go out,” said Thomas Gladue, handing Karrina Campos a bulging load of tomatoes he held with both hands.
“OK. Thanks,” Campos said.
Already, the teenage workers with the Youth Harvest Project had hauled vegetables up from the root cellar, sorted them into boxes, and weighed and logged each kind. Up into the truck went tomatoes, beets and potatoes, 21 pounds of the spuds.
Then, Kalli Wurth, Cameron Bartlett and Skyler Villwock climbed into the van and headed off to Burlington Square to sell vegetables to its senior residents. Mobile Market hit the road at 1:27 p.m. – three minutes ahead of schedule – with project coordinator Dave Renn at the wheel.
“Music,” demanded Wurth.
“Yeah! I like music, too,” Renn replied.
Wurth paused. “Can you turn it on?”
Renn: “I’d love to.”
The Youth Harvest Project is a work program for teens, and it’s one component of Garden City Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to building community through agriculture. Each year, the therapy and service program hires eight to 12 adolescents to work on the farm, contribute to community, and focus on their own personal development.
Teens come from Missoula Youth Court, Drug Treatment Court and Willard Alternative High School. Bonnie Fergerson, counselor at Willard, said the alternative school is about offering students opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them.
“It opens doors that they would never consider, and that’s the way I look at the farm, too. We’re not just about education, we’re about opportunities,” Fergerson said.
Glen Welch, chief probation officer for Missoula Youth Court, said the teens work with good role models, University of Montana students in the Environmental Studies program who are getting college degrees. They learn to have a work ethic and see a project through from start to finish.
“Some of these kids don’t even know they’re getting therapy because they’re working with someone who is digging in the dirt next to them,” Welch said.
The teens are based on the farm, but the Youth Harvest Project connects the workers to anchors across the community. Director Laurie Strand Bridgeman, a licensed therapist who has been with the program for nine seasons, said it does so by both design and evolution.
“One of the goals that we have is that youth become involved in their community in a micro, mezzo and macro level,” Bridgeman said.
The micro community is the Youth Harvest crew itself. The mezzo one is the entire group of people on the PEAS Farm, the Program for Ecological Agriculture and Society, a partnership with UM. And the macro community is Missoula.
“Research just shows it makes perfect sense,” Bridgeman said. “If kids are involved in their communities, then when they walk down the street here late at night and they see the food bank, they know the people in there. They’ve done something in there, and their desire to become involved positively rather than making a not-so-positive decision is there.”
Fergerson, the counselor at Willard, said the alternative high school started out with only core academic teachers, so all elective classes come from the core. Most of the students at Willard are “right-brain kids” who like music and art, she said, but the school doesn’t have the resources to offer as many elective classes or internships as it would like.
Youth Harvest fills the gap.
“They get credit for doing it, and they get paid for it, which is an awesome opportunity for kids, and it’s an awesome opportunity for our school,” Fergerson said.
District Judge John Larson of Drug Treatment Court said two to four teens in his court have worked as part of the Youth Harvest Project the past few years. And he said research shows the program design is effective.
“We know that many other treatment courts use a garden approach, and certainly prisons do,” Larson said. “The women’s prison has a garden as well. But this tie to working with the land, getting outside, exercising, is one that works.”
The program also offers the teenagers positive feedback from the community. “Generally, these kids have never had any amount of praise or support of any significant positive degree,” Larson said.
Welch, chief probation officer, said he has asked for and received $25,000 a year for the program from the Montana Department of Corrections through a cost containment board, and he’s been able to show a drop in recidivism.
“I’ve been called crazy for going before this board and doing something different, but sometimes different works,” Welch said.
One place he said he and others involved in the program can improve is identifying when to remove teens. This year, he said, one worker who was fired was allowed to be disruptive and “ruin it” for others for too long.
“We’ve got to learn how to pull the plug on some of those kids earlier,” Welch said.
The program also is funded by Garden City Harvest, the Human Resource Council, the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, the Louis L. Borick Foundation and the Steele-Reese Foundation.
This year, Youth Harvest worked on a special project with the Missoula Food Bank. The Food Bank asked the teens to build them a garden on a strip of land outside their building, and on Fridays, the crew worked on site at the nonprofit.
Food security coordinator James Dodge said the project was larger than the can-sorting students did in the past, It gave them a window into the way nonprofits operate, especially the way they complete projects on shoestring budgets.
“I really encourage you to take ownership of this. It’s a way for you to put your stamp on your community,” Dodge said.
Before the crew talked about the project, they discussed collaboration, the strategy they would employ. They pledged to hear out each other’s ideas, even when at first they disagreed.
Outside, the teens noted factors they’d consider in designing the garden. They saw utility equipment to avoid along the wall, rocks on the ground and signs of children in the area. At least one observed cigarette butts, and Renn said it was a sign the group should consider placing an ashtray in the design.
The PEAS Farm is on Missoula County Public Schools property, and tobacco is not allowed there, but the garden for the Food Bank doesn’t have the same restriction.
“It’s not all going to be a reflection of us,” Renn said. “It’s going to be a reflection of our community.”
Throughout the season, the teens worked inside at the Food Bank, too, bagging vegetables, stocking the cooler and cooking Friday lunches.
One day, they heard community relations director Jessica Allred talk about poverty, and several of the workers talked about visiting the Food Bank with their parents. Gladue said he has grown up in poverty, and at the end of the discussion he wondered if he himself can pick up groceries there.
“Do you have to be an adult or with a parent to grab food?” Gladue wanted to know.
“You don’t,” Allred said.
“I’m probably going to grab some food today,” he said.
In 2013, the Food Bank served 65,804 individual clients at its store, and 5,731 households. An estimated 35 percent of households included children younger than 18 years old.
In the store, the Food Bank lobby was full of people who soon would pick up groceries, and the work station in the back with teens was a hubbub of activity. A couple of them played catch with a small head of cabbage, and Campos eyed a box of raspberries.
“Oh my gosh. Can I just have these?”
She took just one, put it in her mouth, and closed her eyes. Nearby, Wurth waved a green and pink stalk in the air.
“Hey. What’s this?”
“Nuh-huh. I love rhubarb.”
As the teens bagged vegetables, they talked about the upcoming Western Montana Fair, and Bridgeman told them that one year a farm intern entered a bunch of Garden City Harvest’s vegetables into the fair – and won “quite a few blue ribbons.”
Villwock listened, and he talked about his first trip to the fair this year as he contemplated a pile of kohlrabi.
“What do I do with these?” he said. “You can’t just leave me with these.”
He was half joking, though; he liked the environment.
“Even if I didn’t work here right now, I’d still want to volunteer,” Villwock said.
Campos agreed: “I want to work here next year.”
Said Bridgeman: “My heart is so big right now.”
Early in the spring, the crew headed to Free Cycles to hear from Bob Giordano, director of the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation. Free Cycles offers bike classes and a tool shop where people can build and fix bikes – or other wheeled contraptions – with free parts.
“It’s a community bike shop,” Giordano told them. “We’ve been here in Missoula almost 20 years, and we’ve been in this location 10.”
People bring them bicycles every day, he said, and the shop has given away 15,000 since 1996. On site, it has bike parts people can use to build their own transportation or fix a bicycle that’s broken.
The project on tap for Youth Harvest was putting together a portable vegetable washer for the farm.
“If you guys see something that sparks your imagination, or something that could work, let us know,” Bridgeman said.
The teens were in awe of the shop, their eyes on the rows of tubes and tires hanging on the wall and racks of wheels. Nate Charles, who grew up on a ranch in Rock Creek and brought his own tools to the PEAS Farm, couldn’t stop looking at the raw material.
“I’m definitely going to be spending a lot of time here,” Charles said.
The crew broke up into pairs to tackle different parts of the project. Wheels were organized into sections: “wheels for art” or “wheels for carts.”
Giordano helped Katelyn Cox pick out one, an imperfect one “with a small wobble.”
“But for a cart, it’s perfect,” Giordano said.
They cut frames, filled tubes and put all the pieces together, and Charles announced he would return to the shop.
“I’ll volunteer extra time outside of school,” Charles said.
On one wall of the shop is a handpainted sign: “YOUR WORK IS A BLESSING.”
On another day, the teens were off to Home ReSource, a building materials reuse center. Here, “grand poobah” Steve Nelson helped the workers build the hanging baskets they designed for the Food Bank garden.
In the workshop, Nelson showed them a handwritten diagram of the “monkey bar trellis bed” and how it eventually would look. Then, he gave them a list of pieces they needed to cut and showed them the places they’d find the right lumber.
“Your task is to find the straightest boards. Good luck. You can do it,” he said.
Some of the workers were in a wood shop for the first time. They put in earplugs, snapped on goggles and prepared to bring to life a concept first conceived in the farm barn.
“Are we using this saw or that one?” asked Cox.
“Either one. Which one do you feel best with, Katelyn?” Nelson said.
He’d never had so many people in the shop at once, nine of them on this day, and he and the other adults offered praise, direction and redirection. Soon, the room was a hive of buzzing saws, spraying sawdust and clattering drills.
“Katelyn, this is your dream,” Bridgeman said. “It’s coming to reality.”
On a break, the crew snacked on pastries and coffee from Black Coffee Roasting Co. next door, and Nelson offered them high praise.
“I’m amazed by all of you, and it’s so great you’re putting this together,” he said.
Later, when the crew installed the garden at the Food Bank as planned, it was a sight to behold, with hanging flower baskets and giant planters, perfectly cut. The farmers at Youth Harvest had a grand vision, Renn said, but they couldn’t have pulled off the construction without Home ReSource.
“If we hadn’t had their support and expertise in that building phase, I’m not sure how long it would have taken or what it would have ended up looking like,” Renn said.
Youth Harvest culminates with Mobile Market. The teens have planted, weeded and harvested, and then they hop into Big Red for a bone-rattling ride to take the produce to low-income housing complexes.
There, they sell veggies at a bargain to seniors and people with disabilities, some of the most appreciative customers anywhere – and territorial ones.
At the Russell Square Apartments, Pat Rivera knew the teens by name, and she voiced a concern that’s come up with the market.
“We have a big problem with people cutting in line,” Rivera said.
And that’s not all, she said. The market rations vegetables so even people at the end of the line have a shot at their favorite, but Rivera said one shopper cheats and buys for her daughter, who is not a senior.
“This is for old people,” Rivera said. “There are things we would like to have that she buys first. One week, she bought all the eggplant.”
Outrage is one side of the coin, and gratitude is the other. At Burlington Square, Donna Johnson said she likes to support local merchants, and she loads up on carrots, cucumbers, onions and potatoes.
“Their carrots are so sweet, just wonderful. And their prices? You can’t beat their prices,” Johnson said.
There, Becky Hotchkiss arrived early to be first in line, and she stayed until the end in the hopes she could buy extra. She grew up on a farm in Washington, “so having good, fresh veggies is my thing.” She bought a bouquet of flowers, too.
“I treat myself with those. They last almost a week."
“Thank you, kids,” Hotchkiss said.
In unison, Bartlett and Wurth replied: “You’re welcome.”
At each stop, they loaded up the vegetables that remained, and at last, they made a stop at the Missoula City-County Health Department. There, they hauled in boxes of produce the department donates to its WIC clients, a nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children.
Michelle Baker, a public health nutritionist, opened the doors to a conference room, and she marveled at the vibrant green beans, especially compared to ones at the grocery store.
WIC offers food free of charge to anyone who has an appointment, and it shares tips for cooking the less common vegetables.
“People don’t know what to do with eggplant,” Baker said.
The week before, Youth Harvest had unloaded nearly 500 pounds of vegetables there.
“Most of it was gone in about three days,” Baker told the teens.
This week, all that was left was a small head of red cabbage.