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Mollie Mustoe and Theo Killian pull thick weeds from old strawberry beds at the Billings Farm in Ashland on Tuesday. The cleared beds will be used in a community garden program designed to help the homeless and low-income people grow their own food.

By the sweat of their brows

The homeless population and low-income individuals can sign up for a new community garden at Billings Farm near Ashland. Participants either can work alongside others in a large garden area, where produce will be divvied up according to work hours, or establish their own section to maintain and harvest alone.

"It's a lot like your normal community garden," said Emery Way, 24, a lead organizer. "But we are providing it for a population that usually doesn't get this sort of opportunity."

Before working at the site, north of Ashland at 1140 Jackson Road, all participants are required to sign an agreement for the landowners, Mary and Larry James.

The contract includes a health waiver, a work-trade agreement and a mandatory code of conduct. Illegal drugs, alcohol, smoking, fighting and overnight camping are prohibited on the property.

Participants are asked to work five to six hours per week in the garden or around the farm. In exchange, they will receive two or three small baskets of food per week, depending on the availability of produce.

The garden's personal plot program allows participants to build a 4-by-8-foot raised bed to maintain and harvest on their own. Participants also must work one hour in the community garden for every bed they build.

The garden is open only to local homeless individuals and Ashland residents who fall below the federal poverty line. The program also provides an outdoor kitchen, restrooms and occasional gardening workshops for participants.

"We need folks who are interested in helping out and being respectful," said Mary James, whose family has owned Billings Farm since 1858. "When it comes down to it, I don't discriminate just because someone is homeless "… but they've got to be good people."

The property's garden area is a third-of-an-acre, and an adjacent 1/4-acre plot is ready to be tilled and planted. In its entirety, Billings Farm is 140 acres, Mary James said.

"The garden we have now can produce a lot of food," she said, "but we've got the space to grow if we need it."

Organizers are working to get the word out about the garden, said Way, as organizers are the only participants. Way said the number of community gardeners will be regulated as organizers get a better idea of how much food can be grown at the site. There's room for 10 personal gardens now.

Agreement forms can be found at the Department of Human Services in Ashland and at Billings Farm, Way said.

Aaron Reed, who works part-time reaching out to homeless people between the ages of 11 and 21 in Ashland, said the garden should be a hit.

"I'm working on spreading the word," said Reed, the Ashland street outreach coordinator for the Medford-based social services organization Community Works. "It could be really beneficial for a lot of the kids I know."

Mary James said the program can expand as long as things keep running smoothly.

"I see it as an opportunity to help someone who really needs it," she said. "When your neighbors are hurting, that's just what you do."

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

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