When Wilbur Bullock was 15 and growing up in Dorchester, his escape from the challenges of inner city life was agriculture.
Now 32, Bullock is head of The Trustees of Reservations City Harvest Youth Program, giving young teens from Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and other areas a chance to get their hands dirty like he did.
“The great thing about agriculture and farming is every year it is a blank slate; we can create what we want to create here,” Bullock said recently on the Eleanor Cabot Bradley Estate’s Cherry Hill Farm in Canton. “This is one place where it doesn’t make a difference if you’re from a single-parent home, how much money is in your account, there’s no difference if you’ve had a college education, or if you’re black or white.”
Behind him, about a dozen teenagers weeded ordered rows of crops. Light rain fell on and off, but the teens didn’t seem to notice and continued their work.
Program participants are paid for their work at $8.50 an hour for five hours a day from Tuesday to Saturday, Bullock said. He added that getting paid was an important part of the program. Some of the teens have parents who depend on them to bring home income, and paying the teens also allows Bullock to hold them to a higher standard, he said.
Over the course of the program, which ended last week, Bullock tries to push his crew past their comfort zone.
“Farming is labor – it’s hot; it’s raining; there are mosquitoes – this is not normal for these people,” Bullock said.
Some participants are unwilling to get down and weed in the dirt, and Bullock does his best to encourage them to put everything into their work.
He also pushes them through what is called an enrichment block, he said.
Enrichment happens for about an hour per day and involves lessons in communication, team building, leadership, public speaking, and open discussion about diversity and other issues.
Crew members are paid for the enrichment time as well as the farm work.
“This is a rare opportunity for them to get paid to learn,” Bullock said.
The program began in 2007 with four teens, according to Bullock. Over time it has expanded and in the past two years it has been presented in partnership with the YMCA of Greater Boston.
Crew members get to use many of the skills they learn during enrichment on Wednesdays when children from the YMCA come to visit the farm.
For the YMCA, which helps Bullock find interested participants in the program, City Harvest presents their kids with an opportunity to do something different, according to Andrea Baez, director of operations at YMCA of Greater Boston.
“It is a way to get kids out of the city and give them an experience that wouldn’t have experienced and to give them job experience,” Baez said.
Bullock said that selecting participants is one of the most difficult parts of the job. He is not looking for past farming experience as much as a person who will be committed to showing up and who will be willing to take risks and work as a team, he said.
Bullock is able to select only about 20 percent of the applicants, he said.
He also looks for diversity in where the teens come from. He takes them from Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Milton, Canton, Framingham, Randolph, Holbrook, and other communities.
The youths get to give back to their neighborhoods through the farmers’ markets. Over the eight weeks of the program, the teens bring food to markets at least twice per week, according to Bullock.
Crew members and people who know them from their areas both feel heartened through the experience of bringing fresh food into urban areas, he said.
“It is uplifting for the community members themselves seeing young people doing things that are positive and helping the community as a whole,” Baez said.
The 90-acre farm in Canton -- with walking trails, chickens, a mansion, and rows and rows of garden space -- makes the perfect setting for the program, according to Bullock. It is also close to both Boston and the highway, meaning it is accessible to a large number of people.
Jamia Fernandes, 16, from Holbrook comes to the farm each day with her mother, who drives her there. It takes about a half hour, she said.
“I wanted a summer job where I can do stuff and am not just sitting behind a counter,” Fernandes said. “I’m more like an outdoors person.”
Fernandes has previously volunteered helping the elderly at a hospital, and wants to be a pediatrician, but she said she has enjoyed getting up and going to work with this job.
She also said she has learned about food.
“People take stuff for granted and I used to do that, too,” she said. “Now I realize where stuff comes from and I have this experience to tell people about when I go back to school.”
Savonna Small-Brown is from Framingham and joined the City Harvest program for the third time this summer. The 17-year-old said she doesn’t like the heat or the bugs, but that she keeps coming back for more because she enjoys connecting with the people in the program.
“It would be weird having a summer without the farm,” she said. “It’s a routine now.”
Small-Brown enjoys being able to bring fresh vegetables to inner city communities and also appreciates the discussions that can be had on the field.
“Sometimes I feel like I could be doing other things – I could be at the beach – but the beach isn’t helping anybody else but myself,” Small-Brown said. “If I can be helping people in another community, I’d rather be doing that.”
She plans on joining the army after high school.
Justin Riggins of Dorchester is 15 (cq) and joined the program for the first time this year after hearing about it from a friend.
He said the group was able to bond on the first day, doing many exercises together, and that helped form a good group for later in the season.
In some ways, this is like the environment itself, he said.
“We have to cherish what we do have. We throw away a lot of food, but everything is very precious,” he said. “Everything works together in a big cycle.”
Bullock’s goal is not to raise the next generation of farmers, he said. Instead, he hopes crew members will understand the work that goes into food production and make appropriate decisions about nutrition in the future.
He also hopes that the hard work they accomplish inspires them to continue to believe in themselves.
“My hope is that after this summer… they will be more aware of the choices they make – with food and with life,” Bullock said.
Riggins said he intends to do just that.
“Farming is a tough job; I never understood how hard,” he said. “After doing it and realizing I can do it, if I put my mind to anything I can do anything I want, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”