The Farm at the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps
I waited with Nicole beside the greenhouse for the afternoon crew to arrive from Winooski. We had already selected the flats of red onion seedlings, dunked them in fish emulsion, and laid them out for the kids who would plant them in the fields. Nicole was a bit fidgety. Looking over towards the back of the Monitor Barn for the crew’s arrival, she said, “I hate waiting.”
In spring, every weekday afternoon for six weeks, a group of English Language Learners from the Winooski High School comes to work for a few hours at the VYCC farm. They are new immigrants from Africa, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, and the Middle East. From our house, which abuts the farm, I can see them walking along the edge of the gardens with their green VYCC shirts over their clothes. The girls are often dressed in colorful, flowing headscarves; some are dressed in long skirts. Their presence on the landscape has become as sure a sign of spring as the arrival of robins and red winged blackbirds after a long Vermont winter.
“Ah!” she says finally (after we have waited for a long three minutes). “They’re here!” We watch the group appear over a rise with the magnificent barn behind them. The students form a circle around Nicole who gives them their instructions for the afternoon. “Today is a perfect day,” she says. “The volunteers who were here today did an amazing job planting onions. I know you can work even faster than they did.”
One of the reasons I like to participate in the farm work at VYCC when I can is because I get to hang around some pretty amazing people. Nicole Mitchell – who studied anthropology and Chinese in college – is beginning her second summer in her food security VISTA position as a farm apprentice. Lucky for Nicole, who hates waiting, she doesn’t often have time on her hands with nothing to do, because the farm apprentices are up at daybreak and generally work until nightfall, six or seven days a week; they not only have to dig, weed, and plant, but also have to manage teams of fifteen-year-olds, lead them in reading and discussion sessions over lunch, teach cooking classes, and coordinate sometimes large groups of volunteers, who often can’t distinguish a potato plant from a parsnip.
We follow Nicole, letting the onion flats hang down by our sides as we walk toward the rows prepared for the onion seedlings. Jeremy Schleining, who was the 2013 summer farm crew leader, and Nicole demonstrate their method of poking holes in the plastic weed barrier using a spacer. The plants are then gently pulled from the flats, dropped four to a row onto the plastic, and then planted. Crouched down over the ground, we loosen the clumps of clay soil and press the young onions into the earth.
Jeremy and Khada, who are working beside me as we plant, are deep in conversation – something about religion and Robert Frost. A high school junior, Khada is one of Vermont’s many new immigrants of Nepali descent who were forced to leave Bhutan, and then were not welcomed when they tried to rebuild their lives in Nepal. I remember how Khada, who worked on the farm crew last summer, was shy and insecure about his English. Now he talks excitedly, leaping from one topic to the next as we move down the row.
When I moved here in 2007, we were surrounded by nothing by industrial corn. Little by little the VYCC developed its farm program, reclaiming the land from the abuses of industrial agriculture. At first, they did not know they would become deeply involved in tackling food insecurity in a state known for its vibrant agriculture, or in the movement for sustainable farming. Last summer, only a few years since they planted their first gardens, the farm at VYCC cultivated eight acres of vegetables and distributed 53,000 pounds of fresh produce to food insecure Vermonters. The program continues to grow by creating new partnerships and opportunities to connect youth with the land, while finding creative ways to build a more inclusive local food movement. New in 2014 will be programs for gap year students (who are between high school and college), who will live in yurts and work alongside the farm apprentices, ELL students, and at-risk youth crews.
When we have planted nearly three quarters of the row, about the length of a long city block, Nicole thanks the group for their hard work and tells them they can take a break before their bus arrives to take them home. “You don’t have to stay,” she said, “but I’d really appreciate it if some of you volunteered to help me to finish this row.” Most of them – and all the boys – vanish before I can even turn around, but three of the girls have volunteered to stay–Fartun, who is from Kenya, and Rosie and Zuti, from Thailand.
It has been a long time since I have tried to maintain that crouched position for so long, and my body is screaming, but I also stay. It is my chance to visit with some of the girls whom I met one day last summer. Rosie, wearing a bright blue headscarf, jeans, and silver cowboy boots, remembers me from that day. We had lunch together in the Hay Mow, when she explained to me so patiently why she and her friends were not fasting although it was Ramadan.
I recall how Zuti, who is originally from Burma, told me that she came here with her large family from a refugee camp in Thailand where they lived for eleven years. She wears a long plaid skirt and a red headscarf that frames a refined, melancholy face and falls down over her shoulders. She loves to farm, she told me on that midsummer day. “I plant all this,” she said, gesturing with a sweeping motion over the rows and rows of squashes, tomatoes, peppers, onions, potatoes, and leeks. She is surprised that I remember her. But how could I forget?
The five of us work quickly and finish the row. “I am so happy that I don’t have to stay until dark finishing this row all by myself,” Nicole says. “Now you better run to catch your bus!”
The three girls run off and Nicole and I walk back down the row, where we come to the property line that divides our place from the VYCC. I am already home. Over the following week, I will pass by and admire the long rows of tender onion seedlings, forming ribbons of green across a growing tapestry of row covers and spring plantings.
In 2014, the farm will produce even more food than in 2013, to feed yet more hungry families. Aside from all the awesome food, I know that by far the most important product of the farm is the transformation in the lives of all the youth who pass through here. As I leave Nicole and head home, I can’t help but feel that a little of that magic has rubbed off on me, too.
[The Farm at VYCC always welcomes volunteers, and relies on individual donations. Contact them at farmatvycc.org]
[See my article on the VYCC healthcare shares program, “The Vermont Paradox: Youth Program Takes on Hunger and Chronic Disease in a Locavore State” at http://civileats.com/2014/09/11/the-vermont-paradox-youth-program-takes-on-hunger-and-chronic-disease-in-a-locavore-state/%5D
Richmond Farmers’ Market opens this Friday, May 30. We will be there every other week (May 30, June 13, 27, July 4, 18, August 1, 15, 29, September 12, 26, October 10, 17) with our homemade honey ice cream and sorbet, and later in the season with our wool–yarn, rovings, and felted crafts. Stop by and see us!