GRuB Digs In

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STORY BY JENNIFER CRAIN
PHOTOS BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF AND LISA SCOTT OWEN

Growing food is a vehicle for social change at an Olympia nonprofit.

GRuBIn the spring of 2015, the farm that’s tended by Mark Oravsky and his volunteers was a half-acre of matted grass, littered with trash and rusted equipment. In a photograph of the plot, located on the east side of Olympia, a storage drum lies abandoned next to a fence, and the metal skeleton of a swing set teeters next to a pile of old lumber.

Oravsky, a fit man with a close-cropped beard and a wide grin, says he and five other Victory Farmers cleared four tons of debris from the space so they could transition the land back into a productive farm. It was hard work but, as military veterans, they had experience with taxing physical labor and side-by-side efforts to accomplish a difficult task.

Another photo of the same site, snapped just four months later, holds proof. The sun slants across neat rows of crops and straw-covered walking paths. Cabbages, tomatoes, carrots, kale, parsley, eggplants, and zucchini are all visible. Even more vegetables and herbs extend beyond the viewfinder. In its first season, the site, named Victory Farm, yielded 2,000 pounds of produce.

Oravsky launched Victory Farmers, a program that provides farming and service opportunities for veterans and active-duty service members, following an internship with the Olympia-based nonprofit Garden-Raised Bounty, known as GRuB. His is just one of the community-based social justice programs the organization has seeded during its 23-year history.

In 1993, a man named Richard Doss started building raised garden beds in Olympia for people who couldn’t otherwise afford them. He built 1,400 raised beds over the next seven years, an effort he called the Kitchen Garden Project. In 2001, GRuB was formed when Doss’s program merged with another local program, the Sister Holly Community Garden Project, which connected youth with seniors.

Today, GRuB still works with youth and organizes community volunteers to build backyard gardens — their grand total will surpass 2,800 gardens this year — but this is only a portion of their work. Last year, 269 GRuB volunteers performed 7,500 hours of service in a variety of programs that defy easy categorization.

GRuB teaches people to grow food — mainly people in marginalized populations, such as youth who thrive outside a standard school curriculum, veterans transitioning to civilian life, and families on limited incomes. GRuB does so in a variety of contexts, such as working the GRuB farm, building backyard gardens, hosting farm field trips for elementary school students, establishing community gardens, and partnering with the local food bank. If someone in a neighboring community wants to establish a similar program, GRuB provides training, technical support, and consultation services.

All of GRuB’s programs emphasize sustainable growing practices and hands-on environmental education. They structure their work around community service, social justice, and anti-oppression principles. But GRuB’s core goal is to encourage personal engagement.

“Our first work,” says Executive Director Katie Rains, “is to be together.”

They do so in a way that’s intentional and so simple that it almost seems benign. Before a period of work begins, the group circles up and faces each other. Then each person answers the question, “How are you today?”

GRuB 2The group check-in, whether between staff on a typical office day or a passel of volunteers gathering for a site build, is focused on active listening, a skill that’s as integral to GRuB’s work as weeding and seeding. High school students turn compost and run GRuB’s farm stand, but they also play trust-building games and learn techniques to help diffuse heated conversations. In addition to hauling soil and learning how to grow tomatoes, veterans participate in peer-to-peer support activities that encourage listening, healing, and self-evaluation.

“This model works because people are hungry for connection,” says Rains. “People are lonely. Many of the social connections we have are devoid of authenticity, of trust, of an ability to share and be seen. We help provide the social and emotional tools for people to do that more authentically. And we provide the tangible skills and space and resources to grow food and connect with food and begin to transform our culture around the way we eat. The simple act of coming together around good food is one of the most powerful community-building tools that any of us can use.”

The three acres surrounding the GRuB office, located on a corner lot in a residential neighborhood, are dotted with greenhouses and tool sheds. A brightly painted chicken coop squats near the center of the property, near a long line of wheelbarrows. The organization purchased some of the property in 2009 and preserved an adjoining portion as farmland through a partnership with South of the Sound Community Farm Land Trust last year. This is where staff, interns, volunteers, and youth partners come together to grow food every season. They sell their vegetables and flowers through CSA shares and to the public at a roadside farm stand. They donate a portion of their produce to the Thurston County Food Bank.

GRuB’s history at the site dates back to 1999, when Blue Peetz, one of GRuB’s co-founders, was growing food through the Sister Holly Community Gardening Project. After GRuB formed, he and co-founder Kim Gaffi established Cultivating Youth, an after-school and weekend project that employed students through partnerships with area high schools, aiming to curb dropout rates by addressing obstacles such as hunger and inequality.

When Marcela Shannon joined GRuB’s youth team, she learned about crop rotation, composting, and replenishing the soil, but also about “life skills that you don’t usually learn in the classroom.” Shannon, who now works as GRuB’s administrative assistant, says she was a “fiery, angry teenager, and I often spoke before I thought. The youth group helped me learn how to communicate effectively.”

girl GRuBThe transformative work GRuB was doing with teenagers soon earned the program a reputation, attracting 100 applicants for only 20 positions. It also drew the attention of a local high school principal, who proposed a formal partnership between GRuB and the Olympia School District.

After a two-year pilot, Peetz was hired by the district to run a program based on the GRuB model. Now, more than 40 students at two high schools participate in agriculture-based alternative education programs. Students spend a portion of each school day at farm sites, earning science, social studies, and elective credits. Like other GRuB-conceived programs, the farm work is a vehicle for leadership training, team building, and personal reflection.

Rains says a trajectory like this one — from a pilot to a GRuB program to an outside project — is in line with their vision for the organization. “It’s not our intention to create a GRuB empire,” she says. “We want to stay hyperlocal, and we want to support communities.”

In fact, youth gardens based on the original GRuB model have started in four neighboring counties. GRuB provides support and consultation for the programs as they’re getting established, work they call “pollination.” It’s an apt term for an organization that has developed a knack for germinating community leaders and nurturing their work.

Like a grapevine being trained to a trellis, Victory Farmers is entering a new stage of growth. In addition to serving the needs of veterans, the program is evolving to fit into a new role as a community partner. This season, Oravsky says they plan to double the farm’s production so they can offer CSA shares to formerly homeless veterans through a local re-housing organization. They’re considering a physical expansion, too. The group has been offered more land to cultivate, and Oravsky hopes they can use a portion of it soon to grow more food and to practice the “therapeutic value of putting our hands in the soil.”

At GRuB, a relationship with the soil, and the food that comes from it, is both restorative and revolutionary.

“It is about empowering people,” Shannon says. “There is something so powerful about eating food that you have grown yourself. There is nothing more rewarding.”

Jennifer Crain is an Olympia-based freelance writer specializing in food production and business. Read more about her work at jennifercrain.com.

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