Tehama Plow Share Project
● By Melissa Mendonca
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By Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Jen Womack
Making school runs with grandkids was just what J.T. Shoults signed up for when he relocated to Red Bluff from the Napa Valley to be closer to his daughter, Tai Bickert, and her girls. What he didn’t expect was a sight that would become all too familiar as he scanned the school grounds one day during a drop off: beautiful raised garden beds, empty and abandoned.
“They lose the primary person with enthusiasm or a skill set,” says Shoults of the decline in so many school gardens. He did a survey throughout the county and his findings were consistent from school to school: “Almost all of them already had gardens where they’d started and then given up.”
He decided he couldn’t let that happen at Antelope School, where his 8-year-old granddaughter was spending her days. He approached principal Rich Hassay about restoring the garden. Given permission, he and his granddaughter set out to plant the beds and install a drip system. Deb Highley, an after-school program facilitator, took note and asked if her students could get involved. Eventually, he began working in the after-school program throughout the county.
Gardening, he says, teaches “nutrition, science, math, teamwork.”
In addition to teaching children how to raise their own food, he knew they could help Tehama food programs with excess produce. “It’s just a perfect fit to get these gardens going,” he says of what has become the Tehama Plow Share Project. The schools have everything they need for vibrant gardens: land, water and eager kids.
“The concept is to restore and maintain the gardens year round,” he adds. Children learn throughout the school year and during summer programs, developing a taste for fresh fruits and veggies. Volunteers work the land when children aren’t available and distribute whatever the children can’t consume to local food banks and nonprofit organizations.
One recipient is the shelter for survivors of domestic violence at Alternatives to Violence. “Even though they’re going through a rough time,” Shoults says of the residents, “at least they’re getting a variety of fresh-picked food that will hopefully make them feel a little better.”
Linda Dickerson, associate director of Alternatives to Violence, couldn’t agree more. “We sometimes get people who have never had fresh produce,” she says. “They just don’t get it. It’s especially good to be able to use the fresh produce from Tehama Plow Share to encourage those who are using our shelter to use fresh produce.” And, she adds, “He always puts cookies in there, too! And people appreciate those as well.”
“I’m a gardener from the time I was able to walk,” says Shoults, noting that he grew up as one of 11 brothers and sisters who relied on garden-fresh produce for nourishment. In 2008, when the economy tanked, he started the Napa Valley Plow Share Project to help fill the pantries of local food banks with fresh produce.
While he has decades of gardening experience, two things initially held him back: “I didn’t have any funds and no one knew me.” Those issues were soon alleviated with a generous donation of plants from the Red Bluff Garden Club and a Facebook presence that invited subscribers to learn about and contribute to the work. The outpouring of support, he says, has been tremendous. “I don’t do this myself,” says Shoults. “The business community has been extremely supportive.”
Tehama Plow Share Project has expanded beyond school gardens to include churches and even private land where owners are willing to grow for food banks. “We got a little bigger than I was able to maintain myself,” he says, noting that the project seeks volunteers to look after gardens. Shoults is currently putting in 20 to 30 hours a week.
“We love to grow things the kids have never seen before,” he says, noting the natural curiosity and enthusiasm they’ve had for things like Armenian cucumbers and heirloom peppers, tomatoes and carrots. They always plant strawberries, a kid favorite. “After the kids work in the gardens, they love to go pick strawberries off the vine.”
Shoults has a particular fondness for working with kids in alternative school settings. “The students who are the biggest troublemakers in the classroom can be the biggest stars in the gardens,” he says. “And that’s where they need to be.”
Hassay, the superintendent of the Antelope School District, agrees. “Learning should be fun,” he says. “We sure see kids having a lot of fun out in the gardens. The hands-on outdoor learning is a great complement to our classroom activities.”
Find Tehama Plow Share Project on Facebook