At first, 16-year-old Andrew Silva wasn't thrilled about the idea of planting an organic garden to raise produce for the west Modesto farmers market.
Tilling the soil was never his dream and he often ignored the greens that his mother put on his plate. But after helping to create the vegetable garden this year, he discovered he likes farming and eating what he grows.
"The first thing I learned was following directions," Andrew said during a break in the work Wednesday. "They taught me transplanting and how to space things out in the row."
The Modesto High School senior and 14 other young people are tending the one-acre garden at the nonprofit Heifer International farm outside Ceres.
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Before the planting started a few months ago, most didn't know a kumquat from a cucumber, their mentor says, but they soon became involved with planning what crops to grow and have handled the seeding, weeding and harvesting under the supervision of Heifer International staff. The young farmers are selling their fresh produce at the West Modesto Certified Farmers Market, a weekly event created last year to improve access to healthy food in that section of the city. Soon, they will learn about farm management, profit and loss, and other business principles.
Along with acquiring leadership skills, these teenagers from low-income neighborhoods are sharing their newly found knowledge of healthy foods with their families and peers.
"I'm experimenting with frying zucchini for snacks," said Andrew.
Modesto High junior Joseph Cox said that when he forgets to bring lunch, he snaps off a cucumber and enjoys the taste.
The organic farm sprang from the Healthy Eating-Active Living Community Health Initiative , a five-year project to promote healthy lifestyles in west Modesto, which has high rates of chronic illness. A $1.5 million Kaiser Permanente grant funded the project.
Last year, organizers started the farmers market at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center to sell affordable produce to residents who mostly shop at convenience stores or fast food outlets.
The outdoor market suffered from a vendor shortage: Some farmers worried about possible crime, and HEALCHI asked vendors to keep their prices affordable, said Carole Collins, program manager for the West Modesto Neighborhood Collaborative.
Looking to increase the market's offerings this year, organizers connected with Heifer International, a nonprofit group concerned with ending world poverty. The organic garden was in line with Heifer's mission of self-reliance and teaching sustainable agriculture.
Project Uplift, a youth mentoring program in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, agreed to provide the work force and the farm was certified by county agriculture officials. Heifer International is leasing the ground to Project Uplift for $1 a year.
Paul Bertler, the field coordinator for Heifer, said the first step was talking with the teens about the seasonal growth patterns of vegetables and the produce that appeals to people of different ethnic backgrounds who attend the market.
They planted tomatillos, cilantro and Asian greens, along with squash, eggplant, collard greens, purple beans, melons, lettuce and basil. Existing trees also produce peaches and apricots for the market.
The young farmers helped to assemble the drip irrigation system and are learning that much can be grown while conserving water and avoiding the use of pesticides.
To control pests, they squash bugs with their fingers and place grease pots at the end of rows to trap insects. Flowers in the garden attract beneficial insects that eat the pests, Bertler said.
The young farmers took in $120 when the market began its 2009 run last week. Thursday, they were trying new ways of displaying the produce in baskets and encouraging customers to buy.
Their food is priced for people who can't afford supermarket fruits and vegetables, but there is still a profit margin, said John Ervin III, founder and chief executive officer of Project Uplift. Since they are paying $1 for the land and the seeds were donated, "overhead is not an issue," he said.
Virginia Salas of Modesto was pleased to see their kiosk Thursday. "It's nice to be able to get something that is more affordable than in the stores," she said.
The teens from Modesto, Turlock and other cities work three days a week, some earning $8 an hour through the summer employment program funded by federal stimulus dollars, while others are volunteers.
Ervin said many of his charges initially thought farmers were poor, but they have since learned agriculture is the backbone of the Central Valley's economy and supports viable careers. Andrew said he wants to explore the vocational options after graduating next year.
The farm operation will continue until after the last farmers market in September, yielding produce for small stores in west Modesto, food banks and other programs. It also will provide work experience for young people such as Rodell Meeks of Modesto.
"I would be home playing video games if I weren't here," Rodell said. "This is good experience."
The West Modesto Certified Farmers Market is every Thursday from 3 to 7 p.m. through Sept. 24, at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center, 601 S. Martin Luther King Drive.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.