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Trust and healing blossom
at Mercy Spring Ranch

You wouldn’t think heirloom vegetables and kids who have experienced trauma have much in common.

But at Mercy Spring Ranch in rural Escalon, the two co-exist, often with tremendous results.

Mercy Spring Ranch is a 501(c)3 non-profit ministry, operated by John and Monique Black. The sale of the heirloom vegetables they grow at the ranch helps finance their ministry: therapy horses for working with kids suffering the effects of trauma.

“We started in 2010, actually, we lived out in the Wood Colony area (in unincorporated Stanislaus County west of Modesto) for about 20 years and we ran our program on a friend’s property,” explained John.

In 2018, they made the move to the 21819 McBride Road property in Escalon and started their therapy program back up in 2020.

“We didn’t have any infrastructure (in 2018), it was a 35-year-old almond orchard so we had to tear everything out and start the infrastructure,” John explained. “We’re a non-profit ministry that uses horses and other ranch activities to help children and families who have been through trauma.”

The ranch program is open to kids from ages six to 18 and sessions begin each year in April, offered in two-month blocks; April-May, June-July and August-September. October features a large gathering, an end of the year ranch family dinner, with program participants and their families invited to come enjoy a relaxing, fun day at the ranch, topped off with a dinner to close out the program.

“One of the things we do is we sell heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers and eggplant, they are a fundraiser for the ranch and we’ve been doing that for lots and lots of year,” John said.

Highlight of the growing season is the annual Heirloom Tomato Tasting in August. This year will be the ninth annual tasting and it’s scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 17 from 10 am. to 2 p.m. at 21819 McBride Road.

The free event offers people the opportunity to try the different varieties of heirloom tomatoes and vote for their favorite, as well as learn about the varieties being planted in the ‘test garden’ at the ranch. There will also be a garden talk Q&A at 11 a.m. as part of the tasting.

John and Monique also plan to share some of the heirloom pepper sauces they produce.

As far as the garden, the tomatoes are definitely the star of the show.

“Out here we can do 35 varieties,” Monique said, adding that last year’s tasting featured 42 varieties, which included some that other heirloom vegetable enthusiasts provided for the event.

“We grow fresh fruits and vegetables for our ranch families,” John added. “A lot of our families, they’re lower income and a lot of them, they eat things that are not necessarily good for them because they think it’s cheaper. So, we can show them, you can grow your own.”

They also make sure families participating in the Mercy Spring Ranch program have opportunities to pick their own produce in the garden while their children are in a session with the horses.

Last year, John said, they provided about 2,000 pounds of produce to participating families.

“They find us,” Monique said of the participants for the therapy. “We do have a Facebook page and a website.”

Those hoping to get involved have to call in to the ranch on the first Saturday of the month prior to the start of the next session block; those in the June-July class had to sign up on May 4; sign up for the August-September session will be on July 6.

“We run the sessions on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, we’ll do a morning session and an evening session,” noted John.

Those signing up for a Wednesday session, for instance, will attend every other Wednesday, for a total of four sessions during the two-month block.

Sessions run an hour and a half; the first half hour is ranch chores.

“We think it’s important for kids to understand the importance and value of work,” John said of having the participants help with chores, whatever needs to be done that day.

After that portion, the next hour is devoted to the session on the ranch.

“They can do a lot of things with the horses, sometimes the kids want to ride, other times, they’ll paint the horses, we have fluorescent tempera paint; the horses love it because they’re getting attention and it washes right off, so it’s fun,” John noted. “Or they’ll just groom them, and we have a couple of goats and sheep, they like to play with the sheep and they’re very playful.”

They also have time to work in the garden, do a craft project and John often instructs the youngsters in woodworking and metalworking skills.

As far as “qualifying” for the program, there aren’t specific hard and fast rules.

“We don’t put a limit on that, it can be a lot of different things,” John said of the event that has put the family – and specifically the child – in a place of need. “Kids that are in and out of the foster care system, kids that have had traumatic deaths in the family, families going through divorce.”

“It’s also important to note that this is a lockdown facility,” Monique added, “so when sessions are going on, no one is allowed on the property except staff.”

All staff members have been background checked as well, providing a high level of safety and security for program participants.

“I was in law enforcement for about 32 years so it’s very important to me to make sure these kiddos are well-protected,” John said. 

Monique agreed, adding that it’s also easier for the organizations they work with to know that the ranch already has those safety protocols in place.

As far as what brings her the most joy? For Monique, it’s kind of two-fold.

“Having your hands in the dirt,” she said with a chuckle. “I love producing the food and then giving it to the people.”

Being able to let parents roam the garden beds and pick some fresh produce while their children are in session is a fringe benefit, as the family gets to take home some good food.

Monique also has started ‘Garden Talks’ on YouTube and has visited a number of garden clubs around the area to discuss their regenerative, sustainable, organic operation.

“We’re teaching these practices so that people can learn to do this without having to use chemicals and keep the soil healthy,” she said of the organic gardening.

They also teach about saving the seeds from the produce so families can plant them next year and start their own heirloom garden.

And while the fruits and vegetables are a tangible sign of growth, Monique said they see it with the kids working with the animals as well.

“They aren’t out here because they want to take riding lessons,” she said. “They’re coming out here because something happened to them so a lot of times, their confidence isn’t there.”

And that’s exactly where the horses come in.

“The great thing about horses is that they are what we call mirror animals, so they have a very sensitive system,” she explained. “They can sense our heartbeats, they can tell when your heartbeat goes up, they can smell the chemicals our body is releasing and they feed that information back to us.”

In the case of the kids and horses, she said their Mercy Spring Ranch horses may feel the nervousness and anxiety, but they don’t respond in kind; instead, they provide a calming presence.

“The first time a child that’s really broken reaches out for a horse and that horse wants to be with them, it’s really amazing to see,” Monique shared.

“We’re a mentorship program, that’s the whole point, it’s one on one, it’s one horse, one child, one leader,” John added. “The horses, everything else we do are just tools to break down the walls so kids will actually open up and talk.”

Mercy Spring Ranch welcomes volunteers to work in the garden and around the grounds, with regularly scheduled work days throughout the year. The ranch has other service opportunities available as well.

For more information, visit or call 209-691-6054.