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We made our return visit to the Stanislaus County Juvenile Detention Center where we had another opportunity to engage a small group of interested and bright minds. The young men we work with are typically high school age youth who have grown up in the surrounding rural Central Valley towns. This time around we offered another workshop which was designed to be partnered with the garden installation's second phase, a mini-food forest. As we went through our activities and discussions with these young men it became abundantly clear how important this lesson is in the landscape of orchards and mono-cropping which has been contributing to our drought crisis. We often pass through the country roads on our way to the facility in Modesto to see orchard after orchard with mid-day flood irrigation, although this time of year we are more distracted by the beautiful blossoms than the grimmly glistening and quickly evaporating 300 year old groundwater stores.

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When we arrived at the detention center we began the day by digging right in, the youth got into teams of two and dug holes in which they planted a tree surrounded by a guild of understory, ground covers and companions along the four directions. As we debriefed what we had done and began our discussion of what makes this food forest different from the common monoculture fields that prevail the young men began to share their firsthand knowledge. All of them, black, latino, and white and all from working class backgrounds, know what the fields are like and how this profit maximizing model undervalues its labor. Many youth we work with from working class backgrounds recognize the exploitation of field workers and of workers throughout the food chain. These young men also quickly began to understand how a food forest is a more dynamic way of growing which relies on the passive ‘work’ of natural systems rather than chemical products, inefficient water systems, back breaking labor, and heavy machinery. While the Bay Area is a great place to teach about sustainable and non-industrial agricultural practices, the culture and constituency of the Central Valley is fertile ground for spreading this knowledge.

 

After they planted the lemon tree, mandarin tree, blueberry bushes, lavender, sage, fennel, chamomile, and ground cover thyme in their garden, the young men identified several different plant varieties that could be used for each layer of a food forest (tall tree, low tree, shrub, vine, ground cover, root, herb, and fungal) and the functions of planting companions (nitrogen fixers, insectaries, dynamic accumulators). They pointed out the many functions of a food forest, besides a perennial source of food, also habitat for insects, reptiles, birds, and other wildlife, as a place to nurture their health using herbal teas, to create a sense of peace and beauty within the confines of the juvenile detention facility, to build soil and recycle nutrients, to efficiently use space, and to have a low-maintenance system. Using a permaculture lens, the young men recognized that after the initial design, site and soil preparation, and planting, nature takes over for the most part to sustainably fertilize, weed, and control pests in the food forest. Other than harvesting, the only work left is adding mulch, cutting back vigorous plants, and annual pruning.

 

Then we played a game that highlights the different value systems between a permaculture design perspective and a capitalist framework. The young men divided into two teams: the capitalists (the “capies”) and the permaculturists (the “permies”). They were asked to really step into these roles to think about how to develop a ¼ acre piece of land similar to the size and shape of their garden. The main goal is to develop a project and create a proposal that works within the food system. With large butcher paper and pens, the young men were overflowing with ideas. Each team had certain limitations and parameters based on their framework. The “capies” had to pick two land-owners and operate as a corporation with one business owner who must approve all decisions of the group and the rest were workers who were paid wages set by the business owner. This group learned more about the principles of capitalist development: private property, capital accumulation, profit motives, and the exploitation of labor and resources. The “capies” decided to design their lot to produce several food products that they identified as being expensive on the market, such as almonds, eggs, milk, and artichokes.

 

The “permies” were to operate as a worker owned cooperative where everybody’s vote counted equally, everyone’s wages were the same, and profits were invested back into the community. They were to follow the principles of permaculture design, such as cycle energy, nutrients, and resources to produce no waste, integrate rather than segregate, use small and slow solutions, and catch and store energy. The “permies” decided to design a diverse perennial food forest integrated with animals, powered by a windmill, and with a farmstand on site to sell their products. When the two groups each presented their design and proposal, the differences were visually apparent since the “permies” had no straight lines like the “capies”. Then everyone voted for which design and proposal they would want to see developed, but also how they could find ways to collaborate between these two contradicting frameworks for design.

After the game, we did a walkthrough of the 12 raised beds and herb spiral built last summer by young men there, and we were humbled to see that it had transformed the dry hot courtyard into a habitat suitable for lizards, frogs and toads. We identified cauliflower, kale and herbs that were ready to harvest and pointed out some broccoli that had gone to flower and was attracting pollinators. Aphids had taken over a whole crop of chard, and the ladybugs were abounding on their prey. The garden is doing beautifully in its second season and we are excited about what the spring will bring.

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