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How one bishop's idea to plant tomatoes blessed a rural Utah community

HOWELL, Box Elder County, Utah — On a September Saturday morning, Bishop Rodney J. Ward stood in the small community center kitchen and cranked a juicer, filling a pan with tomato juice. Several red stains striped his light-colored shirt.

In the next room, groups of young women and young men worked side by side with adult leaders to fill and seal canning jars of homemade salsa and tomato juice. When ready, they placed the warm bottles on a table in long rows.

Nearby, on another table, a young man dipped tortilla chips into a bowl of freshly made salsa to confirm it had just the right taste.

Later, an adult leader sliced fresh tomatoes for hamburgers cooking outside on a grill.

The scene was the culmination of an inspired idea to teach the youth — of the Howell Ward of the Garland Utah Stake — principles of hard work, self-reliance and service over a period of several months. As Bishop Ward observed the hive of happy activity, he couldn’t suppress a big grin.

“This is awesome” he said.

Wyatt Logan, a leader in the Howell young men's presidency, pours tomato juice during a youth canning activity at the Howell Community Center on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.
Wyatt Logan, a leader in the Howell young men's presidency, pours tomato juice during a youth canning activity at the Howell Community Center on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. Photo: Trent Toone, Deseret News

It all started more than a year ago when a family moved from the Salt Lake City suburb of Herriman to Howell, a small rural community in northern Utah. In becoming acquainted, the bishop learned the mother of the family was concerned her oldest son wasn’t getting outside enough.

The situation reminded Bishop Ward of a cousin from California coming to live with his family when he was growing up. His father put the young man to work.

Drawing upon that memory, Bishop Ward suggested the family get 100 tomato plants and assign the young man responsibility for their everyday care.

“That will get him out of the house, and he’ll have something to look forward to,” Bishop Ward said. “At the end of the fall, he brought me two bottles of salsa.”

The project not only yielded tomatoes, but also it helped the young man to prepare to receive a mission call this year.

While sitting in a bishop’s welfare meeting and discussing the self-reliance initiative, Bishop Ward felt the Spirit whisper the words, “Expand what you have done,” he said.

After discussing the idea with his counselors and other leaders, Bishop Ward invited the ward’s young men and young women to plant and care for tomatoes and other vegetables through the summer and harvest them in the fall. The Relief Society sisters agreed to teach them how to make and can salsa. Other ward members learned about the project and embraced the idea, donating enough money to pay for the plants so nothing came out of the ward budget.

“Nothing replaces the value of work,” said Lyle Nessen, an 87-year-old ward member who contributed to the tomato project. “It’s good to work for your reward.”

Most Howell youths live on farms or ranches and stay busy with 4-H projects or raising livestock. But for those who don’t, the tomato project was something new. When first presented, their reaction wasn’t exactly enthusiastic.

Left, Annie Packer, Kristene Murrow and Emma Packer gather tomatoes as part of a harvest and canning project in Plain City, Utah, on Sept. 5, 2018.
Left, Annie Packer, Kristene Murrow and Emma Packer gather tomatoes as part of a harvest and canning project in Plain City, Utah, on Sept. 5, 2018. Photo: Trent Toone, Deseret News

“I was like, ‘That’s just another chore I’ll have to go out and do,’ ” said Hayden Kotter, a member of the teacher’s quorum.

Most of the young women had gardened before, but they had another concern.

“Personally, I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t go well because the young men would be involved,” said Annie Packer, a Beehive. “I worried they would kill our tomatoes and it would be a disaster.”

Each young man and young woman planted tomatoes at their homes, but anticipating Howell’s dry climate, Bishop Ward had a backup plan. He arranged with a friend to grow a nice crop of 200 tomato plants in a friend’s garden in Plain City, his hometown.

The Plain City garden not only yielded an abundance of ripe tomatoes, but it gave Bishop Ward’s elderly father, Merlin Ward, a chance to be involved.

“I asked the youth to minister to my dad,” Bishop Ward said. “Growing up, my dad always had us work with older people so we could learn from and respect them. It seems like we’ve gone away from that. If we can bridge that gap and get the youth talking to adults again, that would be awesome.”

Over the summer, many youths worried their plants would die. Just keep them alive; water at least every other day, Bishop Ward advised.

To keep his tomatoes alive, Hayden had to fend off deer and clear out weeds. He actually started to like his extra chore, he said.

“It hasn’t been that bad,” Hayden said. “It was fun.”

“"Nothing replaces the value of work."”

As predicted, the dry climate didn’t produce a lot of round, red tomatoes in Howell, but the Plain City garden yielded several bushels.

For a weekly combined Young Men/Young Women activity in September, a large group of young men and young women swarmed the garden and carried away more than five bushels of tomatoes and some jalapeño peppers. Along the way, a friendly tomato or two was thrown and 14-year-old Jacob Gunter’s eyes watered for more than 10 minutes after he chomped a jalapeño, much to the delight of the young women.

A few weeks later, the group gathered again at the Howell Community Center, this time with the Relief Society women to can salsa and tomato juice. After randomly sampling salsa from various sisters’ recipes, Bonnie Sorenson’s recipe was selected for the project.

When it was over, each young man and young woman received six quarts of tomato juice and two pints of salsa to take home to their families or give away. Other bottles were auctioned off or given away at a community Harvest Ball. It warmed Bishop Ward’s heart to see one youth give bottles to an older sister in the parking lot after Sunday church meetings.

“I told them it’s important to give some away,” Bishop Ward said. “It makes you feel good when you give something away to someone who’s not expecting it.”

Left, Emma Packer, her sister Annie Packer and Howell Bishop Rodney J. Ward pick tomatoes as part of a harvest and canning project in Plain City, Utah, on Sept. 5, 2018.
Left, Emma Packer, her sister Annie Packer and Howell Bishop Rodney J. Ward pick tomatoes as part of a harvest and canning project in Plain City, Utah, on Sept. 5, 2018. Photo: Trent Toone, Deseret News

Many of the youth agreed the project brought the ward and community together in a spirit of teamwork.

Alan Johnson, first counselor in the Howell Ward bishopric, said the project hit the mark.

“The coolest part is the turnout. We had a lot of good people come help,” Johnson said while filling bottles with a red liquid. “The youth are getting a lot out of this, including service and work ethic.”

His wife, Julia Johnson, the ward’s Relief Society president, agreed.

“At first it was a little overwhelming,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ve had too many sitting around. They’ve all been engaged and doing good work. It’s been a good experience.”

Shelly Ann Logan, the Young Women’s president, who learned to can as a young woman herself, said not only will the experience teach the youth skills, but it will bless them as they face the challenges of life.

“I’ve noticed that they’ve taken pride in their project. Many of them were nervous to try. They swore they weren’t good at taking care of plants, but they were up for the challenge,” Logan said.

“So it made me excited and proud of them to even take on the challenge. I think it’s going to give them a sense of accomplishment, even though they may not be super fans of tomatoes. Their commitment to come be a part of this challenge from a bishop has made them step up, and hopefully made them more committed to take on challenges they may not think that they can do in the future.”

Bishop Ward believes the project has blessed many people in different ways. He hopes they can do it again next year.

“Many have said how blessed we were that we produced enough tomatoes to accomplish our goal,” Bishop Ward said. “Now I find myself driving in town and seeing empty pieces of ground and thinking the kids ought to be growing something there rather than letting the weeds grow.”

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