Sierra Gardens Program empowers Nevada County families to gain food independence |

Sierra Gardens Program empowers Nevada County families to gain food independence

Laura Petersen
Special to The Union
Noah Bailey and Tia Thompson with their children Jayda, 16, Anthony, 4 and Clementine, 16 months in the backyard food garden installed by Sierra Harvest's Sierra Gardens Program.
Photo by Laura Petersen |

Last year, on five acres at the base of Banner Mountain, Noah Bailey and Tia Thompson started a small vegetable garden in an overgrown meadow in their backyard.

Seeing they could use a little gardening guidance and help with the initial infrastructure costs, a friend recommended they contact Sierra Harvest.

Soon after applying for the Sierra Gardens Program, a group of six volunteers came out with a rototiller, load of soil and deer proof fencing.

“They came out and knocked it out. A community came together and put a garden in,” said Thompson, a young mother.

“And it tastes so much better. It’s nice to know where it comes from and what’s going into it. You definitely appreciate food when you put the work into it.” Noah Bailey.

Today, the garden is a bounty of cabbage, winter and summer squash, tall sunflowers, peas, tomatoes, beans and more. It’s a place where the couple’s children, Jayda, 16, Anthony, 4 and baby Clementine, 16 months, do their part to pull weeds and harvest food for the dinner table.

“It’s nice when you don’t have to keep going to the store,” Thompson said.

“And it tastes so much better. It’s nice to know where it comes from and what’s going into it. You definitely appreciate food when you put the work into it,” said Noah Bailey.

It’s the second year the couple has grown their own food. In addition to the produce garden, they raise pigs, chickens and ducks.

The family is one of 18 in the county enrolled in Sierra Harvest’s two-year Sierra Gardens Program. Offering backyard garden scholarships, the program is designed to broaden access to nutritious food so “no-one goes hungry” and boost the overall health and vitality of the local community.

“The cost of gardening does not have to be prohibitive, but it can be expensive to get started,” said Sierra Gardens Coordinator Edy Cassell.

This spring, 15 to 20 volunteers helped Sierra Harvest put in seven new gardens for eligible families. For two years, the program provides the knowledge, motivation, seeds, starts, good compost and cover crops needed to grow healthy food for a lifetime. Gardening and cooking classes are included.

“We focus on soil fertility since that is the foundation for a successful garden. Our goal is to get them started and inspired — to arm them with the knowledge they need to grow their own food and be that much closer to food independence,” said Cassell. The need for the program “is huge,” yet many people don’t know about it despite outreach to schools, community centers, obesity and nutrition programs, said Cassell.

Funded by grants and private donations, the program exists in a community where 13,000 families struggle to put food on the table and Calfresh (food stamps) is underutilized, Cassell said.

Sometimes, to avoid a negative stigma, people choose hunger rather than supplement their monthly food bill. Yet Calfresh can provide access to expensive seeds and starts for the garden and tokens for local farmers markets and vouchers for CSA boxes from area farms.

Eligibility for garden scholarships is based on household size and income, enrollment in school free or reduced lunch programs, or other assistance like Calfresh, WIC or disability.

Families are expected to make monthly payments for the garden service, based upon what they can afford, even if it is as little as $5 a month. They are also expected to participate in installation and ongoing maintenance of the garden. A mentor visits four times a year to answer questions, trouble shoot and help with seasonal plantings.

One of the biggest challenges of her job is motivating single parents to come to a cooking class all about kale when they are struggling with the day-to-day challenge of trying to make ends meet. Cassell wants to continue to be a resource for families after they term out, by providing additional homestead know-how about things like chickens or honeybees or fruit trees.

The garden program is available to everyone. A price sheet breaks down the costs for all applicants and gardens available for schools, homes, apartments, businesses, churches and community organizations. Besides families this year, the garden program works with: Nevada Meadows Apartment Complex for low income households and seniors, Divine Spark’s Streicher House for homeless, Grass Valley Library, Turning Point behavioral health center and Alta Sierra School.

Started by Leo Chapman several years ago, the Sierra Gardens Program draws inspiration from programs like City Slicker Farms in Oakland, Grub in Olympia, Washington and Gardens Project in Ukiah.

Since she started her post in February, Cassell has been busy. A longtime believer in the power of gardening, Cassell got her start in 1991 during an apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz in what is now called Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. With a graduate degree in education, Cassell manages her own 10-acre homestead with goats on the San Juan Ridge. Soon, she hopes to install a green house on her property for growing starts for the Sierra Garden Program.

Some of the most “epic days” have been working with volunteers turning raw land into working gardens. Volunteers with basic construction skills, strong backs and pickup trucks willing to haul compost and lumber are always needed.

“We get out there and we build fences and we dig. I really love working with the families and seeing the progress that people are making. A garden is a great example of getting out of it what you put into it,” Cassell said.

For more information about Sierra Gardens Program, visit:

Contact Freelance Writer Laura Petersen at or 530-913-3067.

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