It’s easy at the Green Team farm to forget that you’re in the Rio Grande neighborhood, where homeless campers and drug users produce so much hazardous waste that front loaders are needed to haul it away.
Here, everything — and everybody — finds a use.
“Waste is a design flaw,” says farm manager James Loomis, wearing frayed cutoffs fashioned from pinstripe dress pants as he bundles kale in a repurposed shipping container.
Appliances are powered by an otherworldly “solar saucer” DJ booth that was loaned by area up-cyclers and looks as though it crashed into the earth, just shy of the pumpkin patch.
Weeds are taken to the chickens, who bawk rowdily in anticipation. Tailings from Vive Juicery are heaped upon the compost pile. Yellow jackets, who substitute for pesticide, are welcomed like old friends.
And eight women who came here with no jobs, no relevant experience and no homes are the farm’s dedicated and grateful custodians.
On this August morning, three middle-aged women busily collect kale as a boombox plays the sounds of bamboo flutes, trickling water and birdsong.
Nikki shows a kale leaf to Trina, a relative newcomer to the Green Team.
“This? That’s a no,” she says, discarding it into a pile.
“This?” she says, trimming off another leaf and placing it in a plastic bin. “Yes.”
Nikki was in the first class of homeless women to arrive at 622 W. 100 South last August, finding a weedy, gravelly lot that was popular among squatters.
At the time, she says, “I hated getting my hands dirty.”
Now? “I love it.”
That once-blighted 1.5-acre parcel has become a thriving urban farm, and Nikki is back for the first full, 10-month season of Wasatch Community Gardens’ Green Team.
Team members earn $9 an hour for a minimum of 20 hours per week and attend Friday classes on job skills. The land is leased by Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency at a cost of $1 per year, and the produce is sold at a cut rate to the Head Start program for disadvantaged children.
Nikki was able to leave the nearby shelter after teammate Ira obtained housing and invited her to become her roommate. For those who are still homeless, The Road Home makes an exception to its 30-day turnout policy and allows them to stay for the full season, uninterrupted.
Joy, an outgoing, plainspoken woman who needs the occasional breather from pulling carrots, says she hadn’t worked for 10 years before joining the Green Team — “one of the best things that‘s ever happened to me.”
“When I first got here, I didn’t even know what kale was,” she says, chuckling. Now, eating vegetables is her favorite part of her day, and she’s converted picky eaters at the shelter. “Everyone’s like, ’What do you have from the garden today?’”
Sharon, who left the program after a traumatic experience at the shelter but returned a month later, announces with a wide smile that she talks to her plants.
“I just say, ‘How are you doing today? You’re looking great.’”
They’re here to grow organic vegetables, sure. But Loomis says the farm is also intended to be “a safe, beautiful place to come get their mojo back.”
They can stay as long as he’s there — which is until dark on some days — and are assigned lockers to stow their stuff in.
A small stone path on the garden’s east side leads to a circular clearing of wood chips, wreathed by larger stones, where the women begin their day doing yoga, tai chi and qi gong.
Next to the circle, in a “fairy garden,” wind chimes and other emblems hang from branches over a cluster of tree stumps.
Each woman also gets a 6-foot stretch to plant whatever she likes. Lynette, whose Pomeranian-Chihuahua service dog, Ed, watches her patiently, chose melons, green beans, beets and snap peas so sweet they’d pass for candy in a blindfold test.
When she and Ed return to the shelter, she said, “I’m not so short-tempered.”
“I’m able to stay there easier.”
The seed for the Green Team program was planted by Camille Winnie, director of community services for The Downtown Alliance.
Winnie had already helped launch the Clean Team, a group of about two dozen homeless people who pick up trash in the shelter vicinity, and it occurred to her that she could do something similar with a community garden she’d been trying to start.
She was further inspired by a TED talk video from a speaker, Ron Finley, who planted vegetable gardens in abandoned lots and on medians in South Central Los Angeles, “home of the drive-through and the drive-by.”
So Winnie scouted out what would become the Green Team farm after another property fell through, and it suited the purpose decently enough. It had been a garden before, and it had a sprinkler system, some trees and a dilapidated greenhouse.
Wasatch Community Gardens and Advantage Services were willing partners, and the RDA board, once it was convinced that there was no risk of contamination, signed off.
Now, she just needed a farmer.
Loomis, a former furniture shop foreman who consults with small farmers and can “build anything, grow anything, make anything,” was the clear choice.
His obsession with self-reliance and permaculture began as a child, he says, “raised in the church of the apocalypse and Armageddon.”
Regenerative agriculture — which not only preserves but improves ecosystems — can save the world, he argues credibly between explaining, without hesitation, the next steps to women who have finished their tasks.
He asks, more than he orders — as in “Why don’t we ...?” Eve, a young mother who once studied fashion design in New York, occasionally grins as she listens to him describe his worldview, as though Loomis isn’t her boss but a colorful friend.
She particularly enjoys this comment: “Let’s be honest,” Loomis says, “I’ve never been a woman facing homelessness. I’m not the most qualified person to figure out the answers.”
“Some people want to know all about food production and learn it from that angle,” he continues. “Some people just want a job.”
Loomis is restless, and the farm isn’t finished. He’s currently installing a greenhouse at the north end of the property, where the women will be able to learn hydroponics. He wants to add beehives next year. And the best farms have farmers who live on-site, he says. A sprawling, rocky lot across 50 South is partially owned by the RDA, and might allow for that.
Winnie and others said it’s likely that 622 W. 100 South will be developed, eventually. Salt Lake City officials have made clear that if it comes to that, they intend to find a place for the Green Team.
In fact, Salt Lake City Councilman Derek Kitchen, who is vice chairman of the RDA board, would like to see something similar at two new homeless shelters in development at 275 W. High Ave. and 131 E. 700 South.
“There‘s mountains of research that talks about the benefits of getting your hands dirty, as far as therapy goes,” he said.
But in the meantime, it’s harvest season. The eight women on the Green Team are busy reaping their rewards, and some are preparing to re-enter the workforce.
Nikki is hopeful that she’ll find work soon. She’s gained a zest for gardening, but she also loves yoga, and Winnie arranged for her to become a certified instructor.
Her first gig: volunteer instructing at a nearby hospice for the homeless, The Inn Between. Their smiles, she says, are payment enough.
“That‘s where I light up,” Loomis said, “is her attention to their needs.”