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Seeds of love: Saturdays in spring mean rolling up our sleeves as volunteers at Firstfruits Farm in SLO 

It's just about noon, and my back is telling me I need to go home now.

My family and I have been kneeling, squatting, and bending alongside 100-plus volunteers for the past three hours. The morning's task was simple: Put more than 8,000 seedlings in the ground. I stand gingerly now—my farming muscles are way out of shape—and look over the nearly 2 acres of Firstfruits Farm in SLO. It looks like we've done it! All of us volunteers not only put these baby fruits and veggies in the ground, we'd added compost to each one and rolled cloth over multiple rows of lettuce.

click to enlarge ABUNDANCE Through the Food Bank of SLO County, God's Storehouse, and other partner organizations, Firstfruits Farm distributed more than 18,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables last year to community members in need. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRET ROOKS
  • Photo Courtesy Of Bret Rooks
  • ABUNDANCE Through the Food Bank of SLO County, God's Storehouse, and other partner organizations, Firstfruits Farm distributed more than 18,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables last year to community members in need.

These seedlings will grow to be harvested and donated to roughly 800 families a week through local organizations, including the Food Bank Coalition of SLO County and God's Storehouse. Today's volunteers came out in numbers higher than organizers hoped for, and every hand was put to good use. As the season progresses, these crews will be joined by volunteers from GleanSLO, a nonprofit that specializes in harvesting and sharing food from farms and backyards across the county.

Firstfruits Farm was founded to fill a need. According Darin Laity, one of Firstfruits' lead farmers, volunteers working at places like God's Storehouse saw that much of the contributed produce was less than fresh. So in 2013, with donated land, tools, seeds, and everything else it takes to run a farm, a handful of volunteers rolled up their sleeves and planted food on the conviction that their impoverished neighbors deserve the best, the first fruits of the land.

Here we are, six years later, and the history of the farm is in the back of my mind as I survey the tiny shoots of lettuce, melons, tomatoes, kale, and so much more that we just planted. My girls were toddlers when we started volunteering at the farm's first site, on Serpa Ranch Road in SLO. They played with other kids in a sandbox while the parents and other volunteers tended the rows of crops. At the farm's current location on Alpha Academy's Buckley Road property, my girls—now in fourth and sixth grade—are actively helpful.

click to enlarge GROWING UP My older daughter was among the volunteers planting red-leaf lettuce at Firstfruits Farm on a drizzly Saturday morning in late April. Everything grown at this farm will be donated to community members in need. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRET ROOKS
  • Photo Courtesy Of Bret Rooks
  • GROWING UP My older daughter was among the volunteers planting red-leaf lettuce at Firstfruits Farm on a drizzly Saturday morning in late April. Everything grown at this farm will be donated to community members in need.

As of 11:30 this morning, we'd been among a small crew of volunteers of all ages planting red-leaf lettuce for the past half hour. The beautiful purple leaves were attached to an inverted pyramid of dirt and roots that needed to go about a finger's depth into the clay soil. Even though I'd already busted through two pairs of non-latex gloves, my fingers were the best tools for this job. Some prefer trowels, weeders (the ones that look like two-pronged forks), or even screwdrivers to dig in the soil, but I'll keep using my gloved hands.

Before joining the red-leaf lettuce crew, I'd been helping several people unroll long sheets of garden fabric over the romaine and green-leaf seedlings to protect them from the elements and bugs. After laying the fabric over the plants, we drove u-shaped wire staples through the cloth and into the ground.

Earlier in the morning, I'd been planting melons in nearby rows. I smiled as I heard my youngest pretending to be a spy with one of her friends. Apparently these were no ordinary lettuces; this was a crop of top-secret medicine guarded by my super-spy daughter.

At around 10:30, I'd looked at my watch and thought, "These melons are going to be a delicious treat on a hot day." Immediately afterward I thought, "I'm glad it's not hot today!" This drizzly April morning meant ideal planting conditions for the seedlings—and the volunteers.

click to enlarge SOWING THE SEEDS More than 100 volunteers planted upward of 8,000 seedlings in three hours during Firstfruits Farm's spring work day in on April 27. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NATALIE ROOKS
  • Photo Courtesy Of Natalie Rooks
  • SOWING THE SEEDS More than 100 volunteers planted upward of 8,000 seedlings in three hours during Firstfruits Farm's spring work day in on April 27.

We'd started planting romaine around 9:30, after breaking into teams—some of us took the heavy trays of seedlings and set each tiny plant 8 inches apart on alternating sides of the irrigation tape. As I laid the little lettuces along the row, other volunteers dug small holes, placed the seedlings inside, and carefully pressed the soil around the tiny stalks.

On the other side of the field, Darin was teaching first-timers what to do; my family and I had helped with planting for the past several years, so we led a small crew of returning volunteers over to the lettuce rows and got started.

We'd showed up to the farm, a little after 9 a.m. today, April 27, hoping that we'd be among the 50 volunteers needed. We usually get about half that number, so it was exciting to see people young and old continue walking through the gate while Darin talked to everyone about Firstfruits' mission: "to grow fresh, high quality produce and give it away freely to people in the community."

Through God's Storehouse, the food bank, and other partners, the volunteer-run farm distributed more than 18,000 pounds of fresh produce last year. And if all goes as well as expected, Firstfruits is poised to harvest and donate even more this year, according to Darin.

At about 8:45, as we'd been rushing to finish breakfast and get out the door, my older daughter said to me, "This is why I don't like the farm: plants, bugs, dirt."

She had a point—we deal with all of those out there. So I asked her what she does like: "That I get to help people," she said, explaining that she enjoys going wherever she can be helpful at the farm. Last year, she and her sister loved to fill the farm's wagon with snacks and pull it around the fields, distributing water and granola bars to her fellow volunteers.

She added that she likes to help the people who are helping other people, our fellow community members who can't afford to buy the fruits and veggies we take for granted.

Jon Medlock, the pastor of our church, Trinity Presbyterian—which runs the farm alongside Grace Central Coast—puts it this way: Firstfruits Farm is more than a ministry of mercy and care. The idea of the farm is food as justice. Δ

Associate Editor Andrea Rooks is out at the farm pulling weeds from the seedlings of justice. She can be reached at arooks@newtimesslo.com.

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