Changing Lives through the Farm Program
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In the early mornings at Ed Van Ness Farm, Ranchers meet up to get the feeding done before the worst of the heat arrives. At the stables, Juan and Manny wait for Khalid to return from the field with a horse to pull the wagon. Today it’s Rudy, an experienced wagon horse. When Khalid leads Rudy out of the pen, the boys get to work assembling the wagon harness
around the horse.
Manny is new to the farm program, so Juan and Khalid take the time to show him the proper way to assemble the harness. Even when they have to go back and correct his work, they are explaining their movements so he knows the right way for next time.
Juan has been at the Ranch for a year, and has worked at the farm for most of that time. Even though the work can be challenging, the environment has inspired a lot of change in this young man.
“Everything changed when I started working here,” Juan said. “Everything got better.”
Once the harness is assembled, they guide Rudy backward into the wagon frame and connect him to the front. One of the Ranchers sits in the driver’s seat, holding the reins until Rudy is in place. Manny lifts the heavy feed barrel and lets it land with a thud on the back of the wagon. The other boys pull themselves up onto the wagon bed, feet dangling over the edge as Rudy
pulls them toward the barn to pick up the feed.
Even though this task is second-nature to Juan now, he had to start out at the farm just like every other Rancher in the work program. He had to apply for the position, interview and get hired.
On his first day as a volunteer to check out how the farm operates, Juan almost lost his chance. Part of the reason Juan’s family chose the Youth Ranches was to help him keep his anger in check. When he first arrived at the Boys Ranch, Juan was sure he was going to keep up his bad behavior with no consequences.
“I got angry and cussed out one of the adults out at the farm,” Juan remembers. “He told me to go back to my cottage.”
Working at the farm is a promotion from other work programs at the Ranch. It pays the most money and teaches the widest variety of real-world skills that can be used in a future career.
Juan had to earn that position, and his behavior that day proved he wasn’t ready.
A few weeks later, Farm Manager Jeff Parker had a conversation with Juan. He told him that if he went to the adult he had yelled at and apologized, he would get another chance to apply at the farm.
“It was hard,” Juan said. “I was embarrassed, but I went and apologized.” Since becoming a part of Mr. Parker’s team, Juan has come to respect and trust him and other people, something he struggled with before coming to the Ranch.
“I came here having no respect for anyone, and then I met Mr. Jeff and he’s like the dad I never had,” Juan said.
Now that he’s been working at the farm for several months, Juan can see how far he’s come at the Ranch.
He works well with a team and has learned to control his anger instead of lashing out. When the feeding team makes their way around the Ranch, the boys go on autopilot. One of them steers the wagon toward the cattle pen, and two boys jump down and grab bags of feed to empty into the troughs.
The herd of cattle gathers together behind the boys, waiting patiently for the troughs to be filled and breakfast to begin.
As the boys make their way down a hilly dirt road to feed the horses, they crack jokes and help each other with their tasks. The sun rises higher and sweat starts to bead on their foreheads, but they will continue until the task is done.
Despite the sometimes hard work required at the farm, the boys do it without complaint. It’s work worth doing—both for the skills they learn and for the time spent gleaning wisdom from the staff they work alongside.
“I’ve really learned to take initiative,” Juan says about his time at the farm. “If I see something that needs cleaning or doing, I don’t just leave it for someone else. I do it myself.”
At the 2021 Awards Banquet, Jeff Parker presented Juan with the Agricultural Award. Both of them poked fun at the other while Juan ascended the stairs to accept the shiny new belt buckle.
Thank you for giving young men like Juan a second chance to turn their lives around!