Originally published in Heifer International's World Ark.

If You Pay Them, They Will Come

In 2005, Anathoth Community Garden was just an empty field, a group of strangers and an idea. Church and community leaders in Cedar Grove, N.C., wanted to start a community garden as a way to strengthen their rural community, but didn't have a firm plan for how to get started. I was the eager new garden manager who the local Methodist church hired to get it all going, a transplant to this one-stoplight hamlet. Not content to start small and expand slowly, I decided we needed to dig an entire acre-and-a-half of raised vegetable beds. By hand. Our members were initially enthusiastic. But many were aging, obese or suffering from mental illness. If I was going to get this garden built, I needed strong backs. That's when I discovered the endless source of free labor known as community service volunteers.

The teens who arrived each Saturday morning had been charged with various minor offenses: shoplifting, drug possession, carrying a knife to school. Our work with them was part of Anathoth's mission, which came from the book of Jeremiah: "plant gardens and eat what they produce ... and seek the peace of the place to which you are sent." I had no trouble teaching teens how to plant gardens and eat what they produced, but I struggled with the peacemaking part. My patience was stretched by youngsters like Mohammed, who enjoyed shocking himself on our electric deer fence; or the three boys who snuck off to the woods to smoke an illegal substance; or Bassie, the young man who played in a punk band ("it's basically a wall of sound coming at you with offensive song titles") and who told his mother before coming to work with us, "I don't care if they're curing cancer out there—I'm not working at Anathoth!"

Over the next three years, kids like them slowly built up our garden. But with so few teens returning once we'd signed their time sheets, I wondered if our garden was doing enough to build them up as well.

The teens who came to us had grown up eating from convenience stores rather than gardens. It's a myth that most rural Americans know how to grow food. As a result of poor eating habits and lack of exercise, childhood obesity was skyrocketing in rural and urban areas alike. The Center for Disease Control has estimated that, of all the children born in the U.S. after 2000, one in three will develop type 2 diabetes.

If increased exercise and healthful eating was the medicine to cure such food-related illnesses, then Anathoth Community Garden was the hospital. We wanted to inject the gardening antivirus into the teens' young bodies in hopes of curing them. Perhaps they might even become farmers some day. But for the cure to take place, we needed to keep them longer.

So we hired them. In February of 2009, with a three-year grant from Heifer International, we started Manos Abiertas (Spanish for "open hands"), or simply "Manos." Our 10 new employees were as diverse as Anathoth's older members: a healthy blend of ethnicities, attitudes and social classes. I was tentatively hopeful. Toward the end of the program's first year, however, my wife and I moved back to the North Carolina mountains to be closer to family. Since then another year had passed, and I returned to see whether or not the cure was working.

ON NOVEMBER 20, 2010, the final workday of the season for the Manos teens, Hannah Alison, 17, and Amea Holley, 14, were planting a seaberry bush. Or trying to. Hannah and Amea had spent the previous nine months learning the ins and outs of planting organic vegetables. During the school year they worked four hours a week; in summer they worked 20, earning $1 more per hour than minimum wage. If they finished the season they would receive a scholarship for college. A small portion of the program funding was generated by the teens themselves through produce sales in their community supported agriculture enterprise. And best of all, the program supplied a massive wood-fired oven with which the teens hosted Friday night pizza parties, where they proudly claimed that they themselves had grown the pizza ingredients.

Though Hannah and Amea were well-versed at growing vegetables, this was the first time either of them had planted a perennial. The Siberian seaberry bush, featuring a fruit that packs 10 times the vitamin C of oranges, was part of Anathoth's new one-acre edible forest garden, and the girls wanted to get it right.

While Amea wrested the three-gallon plant from its container, Hannah stood poised with a shovel, casting a worried look. "This is going to be the only plant in the whole forest garden that doesn't live," she said.

Assisting the Manos crew that day were Keith Shaljian and Ishmael Dennis, members of a local permaculture cooperative called Bountiful Backyards. Permaculture, the teens learned, is a sort of uber-organics whereby the local ecosystem, in this case the Eastern deciduous forest, becomes a model for creating an edible landscape. "Our goal here is to mimic what happens in the forest," Shaljian said. In addition to the standard orchard trees—apples, plums, pears, cherries—the teens were also planting more unusual fruit like seaberries, goumis, hardy kiwis, juneberries, persimmons and pawpaws.

Marsis Daye, 15, another Manos teen, sauntered over to where the girls were working. "Whoa, that's not how you do it," he said, and made a show of grabbing the plant. Then Dennis stepped in. He reminded them of the process: loosen the planting hole with a mattock; add organic soil amendments like compost, rock phosphate and greensand; spread the plant roots over a mound of earth inside the planting hole.

"Look!" Amea said, "I was doing it right!"

Shaljian emphasized the importance of soil. "Our soils," he said, "are called Ultisols—the second oldest soils in the world after Australia. They don't have many nutrients, so we amend them. Be careful, though. If you make the soil in the planting hole too rich the roots will never leave the womb. We want them to be adventurous and push out into the harder soil beyond."

Shaljian's talk on soil and roots could well have described the teens of Manos Abiertas. By joining a program focused on food justice, gardening and neighborliness, they were being challenged to leave the comfortable womb of peer groups, shopping malls and Facebook—the trappings of American teenage life—and push out into harder soil.

WE WERE STANDING in a future forest garden, but it suddenly felt more like high school debate class. The topic: industrial versus organic agriculture. Emmett Hobgood, 15, a Manos team member, sat on a wheelbarrow and sang the praises of industrial food. Emmett liked working at Anathoth Community Garden, but believed that people who thought organic agriculture could really feed the world were hippies. People like his teammates, for instance, who mostly ignored Emmett's gadfly efforts and who persisted in practicing "The Organic Way." When Emmett began to extol the benefits of cheap corn and high-fructose corn syrup, Hannah interjected.

"We need to be growing more fruits and vegetables, not corn," she said. Hannah and Amea were nearly finished planting their seaberry.

"What's wrong with corn?" Emmett asked.

"It's grown with pesticides which are bad for the soil. And high-fructose corn syrup is bad for us. That's one cause of diabetes and obesity."

"I just want my food cheap and plentiful, which is why I support industrial agriculture." Emmett concluded, leaning back on the wheelbarrow.

Ishmael Dennis jumped in. "Hey, that dollar meal at McDonald's is cool and everything—until you're obese and your liver breaks down at age 45."

David Hamilton, the garden manager, asked Emmett to get off the wheelbarrow and get back to work. "I want you to plant a tree all by yourself, Emmett."

"Do you expect me to change my mind about industrial food?"

"I don't expect you to change your mind about anything," Hamilton said, giving Emmett a pat on the back. "I just want you to plant a tree. And I want you to kiss it when you're done."

Later, when I asked Hannah where she learned so much about health and sustainable agriculture, she credited the Manos program. In addition to the hands-on work of fruit tree planting, she had learned about biointensive gardening, mushroom cultivation and beekeeping. Manos teens also learn about food and spirituality. Workdays open with a reading from the Psalms, perhaps, or a poem by Mary Oliver. They learn about food justice, how income disparities affect food access in rural areas, and how food affects health. For Hannah, these subjects are new worlds to explore, and the garden has become a portal. Or, to use Hannah's metaphor, the garden is "the blank canvas on which we get to paint."

I ASKED NORMAN WIRZBA, research professor of theology, ecology, and rural life at nearby Duke Divinity School, why it was important for teenagers to work in a garden like Anathoth. "Because they learn through their hands, taste buds and stomachs, the connections that join people to the earth. Growing food together builds community. Teens learn that communities don't just happen. They need nurture and protection just like a garden does."

Manos Abiertas is one of many similar programs that have sprung up across the country in recent years. I asked Anim Steel, director of national programs at The Food Project in Boston and a leader in the burgeoning youth food movement, what made the Manos program unique. "Its rural character, for one thing. The majority of such programs are taking place in cities or quasi-urban areas."

Steel also found the intergenerational connections at Anathoth important. Working alongside the teens that Saturday in November were two retired gentlemen in their 70s. In addition to interacting with volunteers on Anathoth's Saturday workdays, the Manos teens also connect with elderly community members each week when they make free vegetable deliveries. This multigenerational emphasis is another one of Manos' strengths, Steel said, because teens benefit from the elders' wisdom.

There are important parallels, Steel said, between the youth food movement and the Civil Rights movement. "Instead of the sit-ins of the '60s we have dig-ins. Young people now are committing their bodies to the work of growing food, just as young people then committed their bodies to protesting racial injustice. That bodily act gives youth an experiential and moral base from which to develop their voice, and that's coming from places like Manos Abiertas."

ON THE LONG DRIVE back to the mountains after that November day with the Manos teens, I reflected on the things I'd seen. Clearly Anathoth's focus on planting gardens and seeking peace had resulted in a fine crop of teen farmers. But the economic downturn has taken its toll on nonprofits like Anathoth, and there was a question if a well-developed program like Manos could continue without outside support. At the time, David told me they had yet to secure more funding after the Heifer grant ends in 2011.

I worried for them. Then, as I neared the mountains and home, I had a crazy thought: Even if the Manos project and Anathoth Community Garden were abandoned tomorrow, even if the collards withered in their rows, the pizza oven crumbled and the new forest garden became an untamed haven for deer and wild turkeys, it will have been worth it. In fact, I wondered if programs like Manos Abiertas should think of themselves less like institutions, which in their quest for preservation can too easily become calcified parodies of their younger selves, but instead imagine themselves to be more like a field of wildflowers. Something that blossoms for a time, spreads beauty and abundance all around, then returns to the soil from which it came. Only to spring up again someplace new.

A crazy thought, I know. I hope Anathoth will continue to grow and develop and open its hands to others for many years to come. What I do know for certain is this: among a small core of teens, the cure has already taken hold. Hannah, Amea, Marsis and even Emmett, who doesn't know it yet, have all been injected with the gardening antivirus. It's only a matter of time until they inoculate someone else.