Doing My Part: I'm a Community Agriculture Volunteer

Fort Bragg is in pretty dire straits, a lot like me, and I hope both of us can pull through. I know neither of us is going to do it without a community, because it’s impossible to survive on your own.
Publish date:
February 24, 2012
volunteering, gardening, food politics, farming

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the garden lately, but not my garden: the production garden at the Noyo Food Forest, a local organization that promotes community agriculture. They hold classes and workshops, invite volunteers onto the farm, oh, and grow tons of fresh produce for local schools. They’re pretty awesome.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I’ve found myself with a lot more spare time than I ever really wanted or intended over the last month. Initially, this translated to lying in bed staring at the ceiling and feeling sorry for myself, occasionally heaving my carcass upright to stagger to the kitchen for more ice cream and potato chips. Sometimes I would moan softly in the hopes that leftover Chinese food would magically appear in the middle of the fridge so I could eat it out of the carton while staring moodily out at the rain.

This rapidly got extremely boring, even when it was interspersed by lively intervals of sending out flurries of resumes, article pitches, and all the other fun things you do when you’re a freelancer and your income sources shift. I realized that I needed to do something productive with myself, and that didn’t necessarily mean I had to work for money; that I could do other beneficial things and they might also distract me from the fact that, financially, things are actually looking pretty grim for me right now.

So I started going to the garden, because they need volunteers. I first showed up on a harvest day, where volunteers select and cut produce to send to the schools. When we were done, I stuck around to help dig out a bed, transplant some starts, thin things, and otherwise make my hands reasonably useful.

I like working in the garden, because you get these tangible results that you can step back and really see at the end of the day. And also eat the fruits of your labor, eventually. After we tidied up the bed and transplants, it felt like I had actually done something. I was grubby and covered in straw and my shoes were filthy and my hair was slicked back with dirt and sweat, but that was totally okay.

We sat in the shade house and ate the focaccia I’d brought for lunch, left over from my pizza making. We labeled seeds that had been started. We talked about upcoming things happening in the garden. I ended up spending five hours in the garden that day, and the whole time, I didn’t think about all the things falling apart everywhere else in my life. I was just having fun grubbing in the dirt.

I live in a small community, and it’s also a dying community. Our major sources of income have dried up, it seems like every time I go downtown a new business has closed. We can’t even keep basic services going. Fort Bragg is in pretty dire straits, a lot like me, and I hope both of us can pull through. I know neither of us is going to do it without a community, because it’s impossible to survive on your own.

Noyo Food Forest is one of the groups trying to build community and create something in a town that is really flailing for meaning and some sort of larger purpose. Food justice is also a particular interest of mine, so it's exciting to see a local organization thinking about food sources and how to get the community connected with its food. Like a lot of nonprofits, it has issues with accessing funding (you can donate here), reaching out to the community, keeping consistent volunteers, but it's doing the best with the resources it has.

And it’s a great place, with a truly awesome vision. It’s a place where people want to create community and extend that out to get people working together, rather than in opposition. Small town politics can really interfere with functionality at nonprofits, but this is a place where gardeners and farmers come together over a common love of plants, and get things done even though they come from very different backgrounds. You don’t need to talk politics while transplanting seedlings or raking the aisles.

They’re working on extending more community outreach; they have a number of programs for young folks, for example, to get them more interested in gardening, learning about food production, and nutrition. Conveniently, their farm is located right next to the high school, and a culinary arts center currently under construction will be next door. My friend Gowan, the garden manager, is working on accessible beds for classes that can include people with mobility impairments, while Natalie, another staffer, is working with the local women’s shelter on a program for their residents.

Working there for a few hours, I was really struck by the enthusiasm of the staff and volunteers, and found myself getting into it as well. I was gung ho, swinging tools around and gleefully crushing snails and toting flats of starts around and peering at compost and nibbling lettuce. I have a hard time not being enthusiastic when I’m around growing things, honestly.

Halfway through my first day volunteering, I realized I was saying “we” and “our,” not “you and “your.” It had become mine in just a few hours, and that’s what kept me coming back, feeling like I had a place to be and a purpose. It was a place where I was totally welcomed without question or comment because I liked plants and I wanted to help, and those were really the only two requirements for admission.

I’d forgotten how awesome volunteering in my community could be, and it took a few hours in the garden to light a fire under my butt. And I'm not the only xoJane contributor with volunteering experiences to share -- Lesley just got back from Jamaica, Christina got in a little over her head with local organizations, and Jessica went to Thailand. Just for starters. Are we just a volunteery bunch? What gives?