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Mary Cherry was once in foster care, and later spent five years working on a farm. When the chance to do that again came up early last year, she jumped at it, moving from Santa Cruz to eastern Contra Costa County and coming to Family Harvest Farm.

“Working on a farm gave me community, which I had never known before,” said Cherry, now the manager for Family Harvest Farm, a working farm on a 3.5-acre parcel in Pittsburg that opened in June. “It also empowered me about food, the food movement. It gave me all this power I never knew I had.”

Family Harvest Farm is a program of the Martinez-based John Muir Land Trust. It’s a new kind of program for an organization known mostly for preserving rural pieces of land, including former ranches and farms, and for wildlife habitat preservation. It’s urban, situated on open land beneath PG&E electric transmission lines just north of state Highway 4, sandwiched by suburban subdivisions. The small working organic farm employs people ages 18 through 24 who have been part of the foster care system; learning job skills, learning about healthy food and working outdoors are all benefits of that work.

“We want this place to allow young people to find their way in this world,” said Jack Cortis, a John Muir Land Trust board member and co-founder of Family Harvest Farm. “This is the place we hope they’ll start developing their own community.”

Cortis, a Contra Costa County master gardener who has extensive experience in the banking world, said he had wanted to start a working farm like this. He thought that the therapy he received from horticulture could apply to foster youth.

“It seemed to me like a no-brainer,” Cortis said.

‘I’ll find you land’

In early 2017, he ran into Linus Eukel, the land trust’s executive director. Cortis brought his idea to Eukel.

“At that point, I was looking for a location,” Cortis said. “Linus told me, ‘Stop looking, I’ll find you land.’”

That land turned out to be the parcel off Highway 4 owned by PG&E. The land trust has a 10-year lease for the land. Eukel said the PG&E land is a large, flat parcel near where many foster youths live. “That’s extremely hard to find in the East Bay,” he said.

The farm was supposed to formally begin operations last March, but the COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders delayed that opening until June, Cherry said.

“We want this place to allow young people to find their way in this world. This is the place we hope they’ll start developing their own community.”

Jack Cortis, Family Harvest Farm

An initial capital investment for the farm came from PG&E, Eukel said, and other entities — notably John Muir Community Health Fund — provided money, supplies, fencing, tools and other in-kind services. Getting the farm up and running has been expensive, Cortis said — about $1 million — including an estimated $130,000 to get water to the farm site. Other core collaborators have been Concord-based First Place For Youth; Uplift Family Services, also based in Concord; Youth Homes Inc. of Pleasant Hill; and the Contra Costa County Children and Family Services Independent Living Skills Program. The main mission, several folks said, is to help give a boost to these fosters who, once they age out of that system, are often left with few skills and few connections to make their way in the world.

Anywhere from five to 10 people, ages 18 to 24, who have come through the foster care system, work at the Family Harvest Farm at any given time, Cortis said. They make six-month commitments, he added, and sometimes can get that extended another six months. The employees, who are paid, are referred by agencies including those listed above.

They plant and harvest crops and do the related work of running a small organic, no-till farm. Some of that work, Kim Overaa said, involves re-energizing the soil for growing crops. Most of the soil in western Pittsburg is clay, with few nutrients.

First amendments

“We’ve added soil amendments, including worms, and cover crops,” said Overaa, co-founder of Family Harvest Farm and a board member with the Lafayette Community Garden. Adding such organic matter to the clay soil, she said, makes for a great medium to grow vegetables. Such amendments, she said, should preclude most of the need for tilling or otherwise physically working the soil as part of “regenerative farming” practices that ultimately help battle climate change.

Most of the produce growth at this early stage has been at and near what farm officials call the “kitchen garden,” a diamond-shaped patch where vegetables and herbs are grown for consumption, including by the farm workers. A nearby section contains Napa cabbage, broccoli, collard greens, onions and garlic. The goal, Cortis said, is to sell some of the produce, donate some to food banks and food kitchens, and to keep the healthy organic food themselves.

Even before a covered kitchen area at the farm is finished (a concrete foundation pad has been laid), the workers and volunteers who help out eat some of the produce. They eat other things, too, including a full Thanksgiving dinner, with turkey, al fresco at the farm. It is the kind of activity, Cherry said, that builds the community she once found so elusive.

Yahel Moreno said he appreciates being part of that community. He was looking for a job when he started at the farm right before its formal opening. “I wanted to do something outside of my comfort zone,” said Moreno, 19, of Antioch, who had spent six months in the foster care system.

Working at the farm, he said, has provided both mental and physical benefits, Moreno said. That his workmates have bonded like a family, he said, has made the experience that much better.

“I’m in the process of appreciating the outside world now, and how we have to take care of it,” he said.