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Moving It Forward: YF&R chapter establishes thriving community gardens

Issue Date: October 21, 2020
By Ching Lee
Kern County YF&R holds an annual cherry-picking competition at Murray Family Farms, with the cherries donated to food banks, though this year’s event had to be canceled due to the pandemic.
Photo/Courtesy Kern County YF&R

(Editor's note: This is the second installment of a three-part Ag Alert® series highlighting individuals and committees participating in the Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program.)

Efforts to help hungry Americans often come in the form of food and monetary donations, but what if you also empower people to help themselves by teaching them how to grow their own food?

Building community gardens—and teaching people the skills to maintain them—has become a cornerstone of the work being done by Kern County Young Farmers and Ranchers, whose members earned the California Farm Bureau Federation Harvest for All award for their efforts to fight hunger.

Now in its 18th year, the national Harvest for All campaign is spearheaded by members of Farm Bureau's YF&R program to help provide food to Americans in need. Last year, YF&R programs across the U.S. donated 26.2 million pounds of food, spent 14,380 hours volunteering and contributed more than $494,700 to their local food banks, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The idea for building gardens took root about five years ago, when Kern County YF&R set up a farmers market to give away produce in exchange for donations, and then used the proceeds to build gardens throughout the region, said Lindsey Mebane, the group's president. The farmers market, featuring thousands of pounds of produce and other products donated by local growers, has now become an annual event—except for this year due to the pandemic, she added.

Working with their county Farm Bureau board of directors and local farmers, Mebane said securing food donations for the farmers market has been "pretty easy … because everyone wants to give some help," and "think it's a great thing that we're trying to help feed people." Anything left over from the market goes to local food banks, she added, so no donations are wasted.

Not only does the farmers market showcase the region's agricultural bounty, so that "everyone knows where the food comes from," she said, but building gardens also "teaches people about what we do."

"We really try to partner with somebody that is going to be able to keep the garden going and also be able to teach the people how to grow food and be able to help them provide meals for themselves," Mebane said.

In addition to building the gardens, the group makes recommendations on what to plant and helps with upkeep and harvest, if needed, she noted. Its most recent garden project was for the Boys and Girls Club of Lamont.

"We don't just build the garden and then walk away. We make sure that they know what they're doing and are able to succeed with our gardens," Mebane said.

The first garden the group built was for the Bakersfield Homeless Center, the only shelter in Kern County for women and children.

Praising the "intense work" Kern County YF&R did to erect the three-tiered garden, Cindy Lyday, external affairs manager at the center, said the garden has since become part of the center's afterschool curriculum for the children it houses.

She described the "beautiful day" when the children finally harvested crops from the garden and made salads from the vegetables, as it showed them food doesn't need to come from the grocery store and that they can grow their own. The hope, she said, is that these lessons will "instill in them that knowledge and that power that 'I don't have to be food insecure.'"

Noreen Barthelmes, principal of Downtown Elementary School in Bakersfield, which received help from Kern County YF&R with its school garden in 2018, said she had wanted to add greenery and beauty to the campus for a long time, but the small, inner-city school lacked the money and staffing to establish a garden in what she called "our urban concrete jungle."

She noted YF&R members donated citrus trees, potting soil, planters fashioned from wine barrels, and other planting materials and supplies to construct the garden. They also provided manpower and knowledge to get the project started.

"We're so appreciative of the partnership between this wonderful organization and our parents and our staff, because we could have never pulled this off ourselves," Barthelmes said. "Without this partnership, this would have never been possible."

Barthelmes also expressed gratitude for the support YF&R members have given the school by checking in to help maintain the garden by pruning trees, "skills that I don't have at school," she said.

Mebane noted all the gardens members helped build continue to thrive, even through the pandemic, as recipients of the gardens have had staff or other volunteers help maintain them, including the school garden while the school is not in session. She said she's encouraged by the status of the gardens, as it shows the recipients "wanted it and they know how to run it."

But COVID-19 has disrupted many of the YF&R group's regular activities. Most of them had to be canceled, including the annual farmers market, food drives and in-person meetings, the most popular of which is held at Murray Family Farms, where members each spring participate in cherry-picking competitions and then donate the fruit to local food banks. Farmer Steve Murray, who runs an agritourism operation, typically gives a tour of his farm, allowing the young farmers to learn about aspects of that business.

"It's one of the meetings that most people always come to, because it's so much fun and your whole family can come out and the kids love it," Mebane said.

Murray characterized the work Kern County YF&R does as parallel to what programs such as Leadership Bakersfield do, by adopting a cause and then contributing to it. He described members of the group as "clear-eyed professionals" with a passion for agriculture, and applauded the work they do. With "a graying of farmers" and "an exodus from the farms," Murray stressed the importance of cultivating leadership in the next generation of farmers who could continue the legacy.

"I know Farm Bureau is very appreciative of the young farmers and ranchers and the contributions that they make toward the betterment of the whole organization," he added.

Despite challenges from the pandemic, Mebane said her group has still found ways to remain active this year, such as by helping a local organization obtain produce to fill food boxes for the needy. Members also volunteered to help pack boxes of the donated food, which were then distributed throughout the community.

"I think COVID has made our YF&R groups get very creative with how they give back," whether by drive-through dinners or other fundraising means, she said. "When we come out of this, I think everyone's going to hit the ground running with doing stuff, because we're all kind of tired of being locked up."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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