Alyssa Charney is an MTCC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with the FoodCorps team in Red Lodge.

“So next time you see an animal around, whether it’s a cow or a deer, a goat or a chicken, make sure you thank them for helping to make the soil that grows our wilderness and gardens.”
And with those words of wisdom from local farmers Ivan Thrane and Chia Chen-Speidel, the next group of students jumped up to help spread two-year-old cow manure on the raised beds of the new Red Lodge Youth Garden. At first I was shocked by how eager they were to dig in, so as we filled up the wheelbarrow, I wanted to make sure they really knew what was in the pile.
“It’s old cow poop!”
And why are we adding it to the soil?
“To feed our vegetables!”
The activity was part of an Earth Day celebration for kindergarten through fifth graders at the new Youth Garden. In addition to meeting Ivan and Chia’s goats and helping to spread cow manure, the students also learned about recycling, ground wheat and made butter, and then enjoyed the local snack they had helped to create.
For some students and teachers, it was the first time they had seen the garden with its filled raised beds, hoop house structure, and tilled plots. Two days earlier, the Red Lodge community had come out in full force to build the garden.
I’ve been saying since I arrived how impressed I am by the community’s enthusiasm and support, but on this Garden Work Day, I was completely blown away.  Throughout the afternoon over fifty kids, parents, grandparents, teachers, school board members, and community gardeners came out to help us build.
We unloaded four trucks filled with donated soil, got the hoop house into the ground, picked out rocks from an area that a community member had tilled for us the day before, and dug up some additional beds. People donated shovels, seeds and pots of rutabaga, oregano and chives.
At the end of the day I thought about about how well Ivan and Chia’s “story of poop” represents the interconnectedness of what we’re building here. The manure is connected to local beef in the schools, to the fields where the cows graze, and to fresh produce that is sold throughout the area. These different components rely on each other, and together they form a sustainable food system.
And here in Red Lodge we’re creating a system whose pieces and people rely on each other just the same. That sense of connectedness and interdependency is reflected when a student suddenly exclaims, “I helped fill this with soil last weekend!” or “My class worked to build these raised beds!” or even “This soil came from my family’s land in Belfry!”
Just as all the complexities of our food system (even the poop!) build sustainability, by bringing more and more youth and community members into the project, we’re ensuring the sustainability of the garden for the years to come.