YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Farm Sows Seeds of Hope for Kids With Rocky Past

Juvenile hall near Oxnard lets youths learn new skills by turning 10 acres into fields of produce.

August 12, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

The farm doesn't look like much yet. It's just a windblown patch with tufts of dry brush, a family of horned toads and what seems to the boys at Ventura County's juvenile justice center to be a quarry of river rock.

They should know. For a month they have been clearing the land to make way for a fall planting, the first step in creating a working farm at the new facility.

While the project is still in its early stages, plans call for the first year's crop of onions, lettuce and Swiss chard to be donated to an Oxnard food bank. Officials hope to turn it into a money-making venture providing organic produce for family dinner tables.

But first there is the matter of a field full of rocks. In the four weeks they have been removing them, it seems like they have barely made a dent.

"It'll take time, but we'll get there," said a brawny 17-year-old named Wade, who like the nine others picked to pioneer the project shows up for work wearing a white T-shirt, baggy shorts and hair so short it leaves just a shadow of color on his head.

In and out of lockups since age 13, the Oxnard youth said the program was one of the few that have clicked with him.

"I like hard work and putting my body to use," he said. "You learn this is like anything else in life. All it takes is patience and a lot of effort."

The same could be said for those taking part in this project aimed at nurturing a crop of troubled kids.

Sponsored by Ventura-based Green Cure Inc., the farm took root last month at the year-old juvenile facility, a $65-million complex near Oxnard dedicated to training and treatment.

The program includes classroom instruction on organic farming, drainage, drip irrigation and other farm topics. Officials are working on getting high school or college credit for participants.

The project also is designed to teach youngsters the value of a hard day's work, allowing them to dirty their hands, knead the soil and learn what it's like to plant a seed and make something grow.

"I'm trying to show them that life is a process and that it takes time to grow," said Green Cure founder Deborah Mills, whose nonprofit group promotes organic gardening and community greening. "We are trying to teach them how to be the farmers, not the farm workers. We want to empower them with knowledge they've never had before."

The project is three years in the making. As plans were being laid to build the new juvenile justice center, Mills teamed with representatives of nonprofit Food Share to pitch the idea.

The Oxnard food pantry has for years used wards at juvenile hall to help round up provisions for the poor. And through her creation of community gardens, Mills worked with young offenders in a county program designed to teach job skills and promote education.

Their perseverance paid off when county officials included the farm project in the treatment options available when the justice center opened last fall. They set aside 10 acres of county land outside the center's security fence for the farm.

"It's really just another way of giving them some tools they will need once they get outside," said Senior Probation Officer Greg Knight, who helps oversee the program. "Hopefully, every kid who is here will be able to get out there and touch the farm in some way."

The farm has had plenty of help breaking ground. Ventura-based J & S Excavating cleared the farm's first acre free of charge. And in April, Ventura County Superior Court Judge John E. Dobroth put together a charity golf tournament that raised $11,000 for the effort.

"It's really a unique project," Dobroth said. "It's not just planting seeds. The kids are learning real skills."

Although the first seeds have not yet been planted, the farm is progressing fast.

Late last month, the youngsters chose a name for their business endeavor: "100% Organic Greens CSA." CSA stands for community supported agriculture, a grass-roots approach to farming in which growers pick, pack and deliver produce to customers who subscribe ahead of time. Plans call for the farm to eventually launch a subscription service that will generate money for the program and other justice center activities.

To lend it an air of permanence, an Oxnard youth named Robert spent part of a recent afternoon inscribing the name of the farm on a river rock that will serve as a cornerstone. Nearby, other wards built rock borders around the farm and rock culverts to slow erosion.

Sandwiched between the juvenile jail and the Santa Clara River, the farm has no fences or guards, but no one has tried to run away. And while it is being worked by youngsters from different cities and gangs, there hasn't been a single problem as the project has forged common ground.

"It's a privilege to be here," said a 16-year-old Oxnard youth named Luis, who is nearly halfway through a yearlong sentence for armed robbery. "I like working here and I'm a good worker too. I want to prove to my mom, my probation officer, the judge -- everybody -- that I can do good."

There is plenty more to do. There are rocks to remove and irrigation lines to put in. And there's a new issue concerning a neighboring property owner who wants to install a drainage pipe across the farm, possibly delaying the first harvest.

A new crop of youngsters is set to rotate through the program while several of those who pioneered the effort are hoping to stay involved.

"We're the ones who started it off, we are the first ones who moved rocks and we are the ones sweating to make it happen," said Wade, who is serving a one-year sentence.

"I've been putting all this time and effort into building something," he said. "Honestly, some people are out here just to do another program. I'm really trying to change me."

Los Angeles Times Articles