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A Teen's Take: Growing Myself, Biointensively
by Francesca L. Mills, VGFP 2022 Intern

Victory Gardens for Peace (VGFP) has been approached by a local high school to to integrate GB classes into their Career and Technical Education Program so students can receive credit for work-study at VGFP, and apply what they learn to manage their own school garden in the town of Mendocino. Our current 1-year intern, Francesca Mills, is a high school student working with us to develop this opportunity for other students.

Victory Gardens for Peace BannerDaylight breaks as I flip the viny green sign on the garden gate that reads “C'MON IN”. The crisp air breezes past my skin as vermilion light illuminates the barley and squash through the fog. Coming in before school, I open the garden – and my day – with intention and presence. I open the solar dryer to harvest the earliest rays. I hear myself breathing deeply. After tending to the grounds, I feel energized for school.

I am a seventeen-year-old girl raised in Mendocino, California; a coastal kid who spent her time in the undomesticated woods instead of on metallic jungle gyms, and swimming in the brisk Big River instead of chlorinated pools. Thanks to this idiosyncratic connection, I have always felt an instinct to protect nature, as she has raised me.

Out here in the sticks, adolescents are often anxious and uncertain, looking for a way to escape our little town. Anticipating the next part of our lives has filled our schedules since Sophomore year.

Just like in the garden, there are outputs from school: sometimes positive and negative. I quickly become drained by the 35-hour-a-week onslaught of incoming information. School: locked into uninspiring classrooms, finding it laborious to maintain my attention in class. In the way my ceaseless mind works, the amount of time and energy is often not fruitful; the unsustainable busy work doesn’t yield satisfaction. Instead, for many people in my stage of life, the yield from school sometimes takes the form of anger and frustration.

But when my first-year botany teacher dropped How to Grow More Vegetables on our desks, the cover’s brightly depicted veggies enticing me to open it, I was sold. It contained what I was after, simplicity and a cerebral systematic example of sustainability that transcends cultures all within 239 pages of gold. Instead of treating the soil like a “natural resource” to exploit, we read about how to work in harmony with it, exuding appreciation for all it does for humanity. It just made sense and it gave me something to direct my abundance of energy into. This is something I could implement even without a PhD in agronomy. From that point onward, the school garden and having my hands in the soil was something I looked forward to everyday. But at this point, I had no idea how much I would grow in a fully Biointensive garden.

However, my generation is brimming with skepticism, from within the teenage brain and from what others project onto us. As a case in point, I was skeptical about farming when Matt Drewno, a towering rustic farmer extended his leathered and earth-encrusted hand towards me, almost like a dare. I started an official Internship at Victory Gardens for Peace at Stanford Inn by the Sea in the late spring of 2022, finding an outlet in double digging. Though at first it felt like stabbing into rock, I began to learn and grow in strength and nuance, feeling empowered when bringing warm black fertility to the soil. I developed a fixation on getting the full 24 inches down.

How to Grow... is filled with statistics and percentages about what goes into agriculture versus what we get out, compared to conventional approaches. At VGFP, we do the math of the garden, tracking down every energy flow in time, water, biomass, calories, energy from the sun, etc. However, there are many unquantifiable inputs and outputs. Among these are personal energies such as dedication, that yield self-growth and the development of confidence that comes out of growing your own food.

The greatest yield of all has been the international community I have found. Even through a Zoom screen, we share in the excitement of a perfectly spaced bed of fava, or the successful germination of a rare purple ancient grain. This feeling of satisfaction transcends the wide range of ages and backgrounds of those inside our garden gate. Biointensive is not easy and demands adroitness, but despite the steep learning curves, I am enriched. With emphasis on conscious eating, sustainability and inter-cultural communication, GROW BIOINTENSIVE crystallized my values and gave me a metaphysical experience of gardening intertwined with food systems that I now believe all people should be exposed to.

Farming runs in my family, as it does in everyone’s if you look far enough down each family tree. My mother, who was raised in rural Hungary, and had no option but to work in the sweltering fields, harvesting summer fruits to earn just enough money for her school textbooks. My Jewish grandfather on my dad's side—who was, like me, the child of an immigrant—grew up in the Bronx during the 1940s, across the street from an original wartime Victory Garden that his family worked and grew food in during WWII. While I cannot say I garden for patriotism, our Mendocino Victory Garden is for Peace, with the goals of pre-creating security, to avert wars and other hardships and encouraging peace for all that join.

Presently, growing my own food security and the joy of Biointensive gardening is a privilege and choice. Seeing me smile, covered in dirt, and bringing home food gives my mother pride. Biointensive is a beacon of hope, a wellspring of mental health, preventing generational trauma around monetary needs and food insecurity, a plan for healing our families and the earth. The beauty of the micro-scale of a GB garden is that it can be personalized for each community and individual. After all, gardens always know how to fill a space. In a world where we have depleted our soils more in the past 50 years than in the prior 10,000-year history of agriculture, we see how our current methods of food production will fail. In times of war, sickness, drought, food insecurity, and climate change we can no longer afford to depend on others to grow our food.

In contrast to my mother, I do not experience farming as labor, I think of it as an act of love. Although on the surface it may look strenuous and quite unlike something a privileged American teenager would devote their time to, in fact it energizes me. I crave more time amongst the plants, each with their own distinct personalities and needs. I see them as both fuel for the mind and the body. They enliven me as I rehydrate the living sponge cake soil they inhabit and as I reap the produce for my next tasty concoction, a cycle of reciprocity. Every available hour, I am in the garden and when I am not, I am thinking about gardening.

Biointensive is us, the people who practice it. A living example of this deeper input-output story is Matt Drewno, the once intimidating garden manager who benevolently pulled me into the garden. The garden is a place I feel safe, heard and respected as a learner and as chiefly as a young woman seeking skill in a field that originally seemed male-dominated. Without my inputs being channeled, supported, and valued, they would not have been applied efficiently. I would not have been able to cultivate myself or the plants. Matt is someone I consider to be one of my few genuine mentors, someone who, even when I was skeptical, has never once given up on me. He is someone who has ample faith and love in the fact that anyone can do Biointensive farming when met with the correct mix of compassion and patience to pass it on to the next generation of biointensive farmers. An open mind can see far, especially when it comes to incorporating mistakenly pulled bunching onions meant for seed into a delectable leek soup (sorry Matt). He is a true people-grower. Matt's prolific investment in me has been even more deeply nourishing than N, P, or K.

Entering college, I want to bring my Biointensive farming experience into the classroom. Studying soil chemistry while never having actually developed soil would be abstract. I want to continue making food systems more sustainable and diverse, teaching others to garden in the way that Matt taught me. As I move away from Mendocino and my Victory Garden next fall, I will continue to bank and spread the literal and metaphoric seeds that Matt gifted me, sharing with anyone willing to plant them. While I still empathize with my past skeptical self, I should have known that farming and farmers are much more dynamic than the stereotype. After all, they, no we, are in the lofty game of taking chances on things that grow.

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