A Win Win Saturday: Urban Farming & Kids Volunteering

You are never too young to plant it forward.


            The grackles are cawing from their perch on the telephone wire.  Below, Simon, Cam and I are shuffling through the dirt looking for rocks. We pick up a brown clod and hit it with a stone.  If it breaks, it is clay.  If it does not--if the clod has an almost metallic ring--it is a rock, and we throw it into the orange wheelbarrow.  We soon discover that most of what looks like a rock is not, and my hand soon feels a little shattered from the constant banging. 

            “You know,” observes Simon, “I think most of the rocks are white, and they are heavier.”

            So we adjust, looking for traces of white in the soil.  We quickly learn to recognize a rock by sight and by feel so we no longer have to pound the clods, which speeds up the process.  This is good because at 8:30 a.m., the field looks quite large stretching out under the power lines, the grackles and the loops of razor wire on the fence that borders the neighborhood beyond.

            We are clearing this field for Plant it Forward, an organization that works with Congolese Refugees to help them start urban farms. The refugees go through a one-year training program that also includes a business module in which they sell their produce Farmers Markets, restaurants and through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture).

              We started volunteering with them a year ago on a similarly hot August morning, and today we are back.  Last August we shoveled soil to build the first beds.  When winter came, we fertilized and weeded, and in the spring we planted tomatoes--learning to bury the stem deep in the soil.  The kids resisted initially, but once they got their hands around a shovel, their backs seemed a little straighter and their motivation a little stronger.

        They liked working side by side with immigrants and hearing different languages drifting across the rows as they dug, hoed and wiped sweat from their brows.  

            Today, it was not so hard to get them to agree to come, and we arrived early, found matching pairs of gloves from a pile by the water jug and got straight to work.  Given a choice, the kids picked rock hunting over weeding, and that is how we ended up out here on arid terrain preparing the soil to produce food.

         When the wheelbarrow is full, Simon picks up the handles and gives it a shove through the plowed soil.  It is only half full of rocks and chunks of cement, but that is our limit.  Sweat drips down our faces and the backs of our legs, but the kids admit they feel strong and energized.

        Once we get to the hard ground at the edge of the field, pushing is easier, and Simon spills the rocks next to the flower beds where they will become a border. Constantine, one of the team leaders, comes by and helps us sort.  Then he looks over at another farmer, Salman, and calls out something about the compost.  His French is so beautiful that it does not sound like he is talking about rotting leaves. We wave and head back out to our task.

            On our left, we pass neat rows of cucumbers, kale, flowering okra and lush green sweet potato, all of which seem to love the bright hot morning sun. We make a right turn and park the wheelbarrow in the soft dirt again, but this time we have learned a lesson and leave it a little closer to the edge. 

            “What’s spam?” asks Cam, who has come across an old tin.

            “Mystery meat,” I explain, pleased he does not know.

            “Not like this,” I add, pointing to the long beans, the sweet potatoes and kale plants, which look like mini palm trees.  “This is real food.”

            There is silence again as we work. Looking up I can see Dan, the sociology professor we have just met.  He is down at the far end, picking up the bigger rocks and setting them to the side of the field.  This seems efficient, so when we finish our next load, we push the wheelbarrow to Dan's section and load up the rocks he has gathered.

        A system emerges.  Several of us zigzag up and down finding the rocks, while others collect them to haul back to the flower beds.  It works well enough with lots of water breaks, much faster than when we started banging on the clods of clay, but the sun is also higher now, and our shirts are soaked with sweat.

        Simon suddenly gets dizzy.  He heads back to the car for a drink and a rest.  I wonder if it is the zinc in the sunscreen that has made him pale or the fact that he is not used to Houston’s blistering humidity after a summer in the cool Pacific Northwest.

        Cameron and I keep going.  We say hello to Salmon who is one of the farmers in training.  Salmon shows us his cucumber plants.  His French accented English is quite good considering he has not been in the states long.  I admire his Dalmatian-spotted white cowboy hat.

        Simon returns and helps us with a final load. The job over, he and Cam are pleased but ready to go home.  I would like to join some volunteers who are weeding the blackberries, but I realize that I too am getting a little dizzy from the heat and reach for the water bottle. 

        "I think I like doing this in the winter better," Cam observes, and I agree.  

        It has been a good morning though.  We survey the field, which is now ready for the planting of a cover crop.  We have actually done a lot in a couple of hours.  We figured out how to identify the rocks and coordinate our efforts efficiently.  We have also had a chance to reconnect with Constantine and the other farmers.  It feels pleasantly familiar to be here again, and we linger a bit to take photographs with the other volunteers. It is nearly impossible to see our iPhone screens in the bright sunlight, so we take several shots to compensate.  This turns out to be wise because I end up with many pictures of my finger.

        On our way back home, we stop by the Eastside Farmer’s market to pick up some Basil from the Plant it Forward booth. I buy three fragrant bunches and a handful of long beans before heading home to make pesto. I know that my back is going to hurt tomorrow.  It already feels a little tight on the left side, but that is okay; dinner will be delicious, and my heart feels good.

This post first appeared in   Wolfparents.com

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