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After his return to the States in 2008, he slung his mandolin over one shoulder and did the work he'd grown up with in Chillicothe, Missouri: farming. He learned organic practices at the University of California Santa Cruz, spending six months living alongside a 3-acre plot. That led to a stint with the Veterans-Farmer Coalition, where he shuttled from an artist's co-operative in Tahoe to working alongside former Navy Seals teaching inmates to farm at a Nevada prison. Crops remain like signposts where he's been: Hopi white corn off a reservation in Santa Cruz, Ali Baba watermelons in Iraq.
He's been working since April of this year to transform the farming practices at Boys Grow, using transplants from his family farm in Chillicothe and installing a drip-irrigation system. In 2011, the boys spent hours each day hauling 5-gallon buckets of water from a nearby pond.
"If we're going to change the food system, we've got to start with the kids," Anderson says.
Not far from the end of a row of kale, 14-year-old Cesar sits in a green army-surplus tent seeking out shade after one of the three morning work sessions. Depending on the heat, the boys work 30- to 45-minute shifts as part of a three-hour workday, for which each earns a $25 stipend. Cesar sends some of his savings from his biweekly paychecks to his mother, an accountant in Texas. The rest he keeps in a checking account, with an eye toward a pair of Nike KD4s.
When they talk about Boys Grow, the boys unintentionally parrot Gordon's phrasing. They extol entrepreneurship. They bring up responsibility and discipline. They are future business-school applicants in cross-trainers, firing as many questions as they are asked.
But they're still teenagers, and their body language doesn't always line up with their burgeoning acumen. When conversation slows for a moment, one or two look down and trace slow circles in the dirt with their shoes. But when asked about what Boys Grow has meant to him, Cesar shifts his posture. His eyes come up from the ground, and his mouth puckers slightly as he thinks about why coming to the farm matters.
"I'm a city kid," Cesar says. "I love the city, the skyline. I never imagined being on a farm far away from the city. But I have four brothers and sisters. It's always loud in my house. Here, it's peaceful."
The only regular sounds on the 2-acre plot are the occasional passing car, a dusty red mower and sharp laughter from a group of boys gathered in the shade of a tree by the creek that supplies the farm's water.
The farm is the engine behind a serious food-service business, one that Gordon hopes will eventually fund the organization's operations. To help get there, these second-year participants are creating a signature item from concept to product. Last year, it was salsa; this year, it's agave ketchup.
In early summer, Cesar was one of three boys who tested more than a dozen recipes with Gordon at a West Side community center. At the end of that process, the entire class picked a favorite, which would be bottled at Original Juan's on Southwest Boulevard. In addition to providing a portion of the ingredients for the products, the land generates produce to sell at a half-dozen area grocery stores and restaurants. Gordon schedules sales calls, but it is the boys who must present the organization and its products.
"I wanted to create something that kids really do," Gordon says. "It's not fluff. It's not for show. They have to make decisions, and anything they learn, they'll have to apply directly."