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The Next Generation of Gardeners 2017

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Born into an Italian farming family, Johnny Poggio was exposed to growing things from the day his parents brought him home from the hospital. He grew up having access to fresh fruits and vegetables grown by his grandfather on the Poggio Ranch in Linden, and he went to work in the orchards when he was only eight years old. Johnny is just one of the students who took part in the annual seed and plant exchange this year at my continuation high school in Linden. In early spring, I bring in a variety of vegetable and flower seeds, as well as seedlings, and I pass them out to the most interested students. We document and photograph their progress as I offer suggestions and advice.

However, before Johnny could complete the growing season, circumstances uprooted him, and he had to leave his little garden patch behind. Luckily, he was able to move in with his maternal grandfather, who already had a sizable garden going. “It seems no matter what happens in my life or wherever I go, I am never far away from plants,” Johnny shares. Where most kids in the Central Valley just take agriculture for granted, Johnny has an innate fascination with growing things. “I guess you could call it a part of my heritage, part of my Italian roots.”

Johnny says that when he was very young, he would go outside just to look for flowers that he could arrange in vases. He loved bringing the color from outdoors indoors, and even in winter, he would go out to find something in bloom to brighten the house. “I would find these red and pink flowers growing in my mom’s garden; I don’t remember what they were called, but I would bring them in and put them in vases. I’ve always liked experimenting with color.” Always having an eye for plants, Johnny remembers that when his parents split up, his mom took the potted hydrangea. “I don’t even know what else she took, but I know she took that because it’s her favorite plant,” he chuckles.

When most young boys were playing sports or video games, Johnny was working for his grandpa on the Poggio Ranch. “I was helping out, not really getting paid, but it was important work.” Johnny would ride along on the tractor in the walnut orchards, making sure the branches didn’t swing back and hit anyone. He still works on the ranch during summer vacations, painting the trees to prevent sunburn and other various jobs where he is needed. Johnny is mostly happy where there are trees and he reveals that he has a longtime fascination with willow trees. “I guess you could call it an obsession, but I love the way they just blow in the wind, always going with the flow. And they look good year-round, until I got in trouble and was sent to get a switch,” he laughs.

Although he doesn’t have any real goal in mind for after graduation, Johnny is positive his future will include land and farming. “Someday I plan to move back to the farm, maybe live in one of the houses, or even get my own piece of land.” He tells the story of how his forefathers came from Italy, breaking their backs, working their way across the states to California. “My great-grandfather came over with only three dollars in his pocket. I want to teach my kids how to have a good work ethic and the importance of the land.” As Johnny gets older, he sees a real need to get back to the basics, growing his own fruit, gardening and living off the land. He says that he wants his kids to have their feet firmly in the soil, having the stability that he’s never really been able to achieve.

His girlfriend of three years, Becca, supports Johnny’s earthy goals. “She’s always lived in town, but she already knows how much the land means to me. She doesn’t know much about farming or growing things, but she’s willing to learn.” He states that their ideals are pretty much the same and there is no doubt they will work together, raising a family to appreciate the generations of Poggio farmers who came before them. Given his background, it’s not surprising that Johnny Poggio is such an idealist, and may also be somewhat of a romantic. “I see Becca and me getting married on a moonlit beach and going home to our little farm to pick fruit together.” Our hope for Johnny is that he continues to hold those dreams dear and to find the means and support in helping to fulfill them. ■

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