Teens Reaping More Than They Sow
When I look around at what young folks are eating these days, it really concerns me.
Most have been consuming artificial foods since they were born, and there’s no reason for them to see a problem with it. Our current drive-thru culture is all they have ever known; and they have no connection to where real food comes from. They are so used to having their taste buds over-stimulated by artificial taste enhancers that most of them are unwilling to eat many unprocessed foods. Eat a vegetable? Forget it! (Well, unless you have a bottle of Ranch dressing behind your back!)
I find all of this disturbing for two reasons:
- I’m concerned for their health.
- I’m concerned for my own health!
Perhaps you’ve heard the adage that every time we purchase food, we are voting with our dollar? In other words, the more folks who choose healthy options, the more prevalent these items will become—and vice versa. This is “supply and demand” at its best. So, I’m worried that when I’m 80 years old, the market place will be dominated by folks who think it’s fine to eat everything from a package (no matter what color it may turn your tongue), and I will be left with nothing worth eating at the grocery store.
A couple weeks ago, however, I met a group of young people who restored my faith in the future of food! I was checking out the new farmers market in the Gifford Park neighborhood, and I noticed a very young looking gentleman who seemed to be “in charge” at one of the produce stands. He was selling melons and jams, talking to customers and even handling the cash flow with an enormous wad of ones and fives (the enormity of which seemed to really bring a smile to his face). His sign read “Teen Market Garden,” which I came to learn is a gardening/mentoring/entrepreneurship program for teens in the Gifford Park neighborhood.
Teen Market Garden
The Teen Market Garden sprouted in 2009 with teens who had been involved in the youth program at Gifford Park Community Garden(34th & California Streets). As they got older, the teens were looking for a more intense experience. Adult mentors Kate Bodman and Cynthia Shuck, who had been involved for years with the youth garden at Gifford Park, decided to take on the task of developing a program for teens that would allow them to grow and sell their own produce while learning important business and life skills.
They secured the use of a plot of land in the neighborhood (thanks to the generosity of Creighton University). Creighton’s commitment to sustainability allows them to support the project, and they are excited to see their land being used as a sustainable teaching classroom. They even mow the lot every 10 days or so to keep it looking nice! And, as you can see from the photos and videos included here, the garden is bountiful and beautiful!
It takes a lot of teamwork to get a program like this up and running. Aside from the huge amount of volunteer hours from generous mentors Cynthia Shuck, Tiare Weak, and Kate Bodman, there have been many friends and family members who have labored long hours tilling, mulching, planting grapes/raspberries, assembling the composter, etc.
The Gifford Park Neighborhood Association wrote three grants and included the Teen Market Garden in the request: The 2010 Mayor’s Neighborhood Grant funded the garden’s ComposTumber (+/- $500); The Peter Kiewit Foundation offered a 50/50 match grant (up to $2,600) for a small tool shed; and Nature Hills Nursery awarded the teens several hundred dollars worth of plant material (grapes & raspberries).
Additionally, some of the mentors have chipped in out of their own pockets to help get the program off the ground (e.g., lead testing fees, water barrel hardware, t-shirts, farmers market fees & materials). Now that’s passion!
More Than Gardening
If this program did nothing more than teach teens how to grow food, that’d be enough to impress me. But, make no mistake, this program is sowing much more than seeds. And these teens are reaping much more than fresh produce and a little spending cash. The Teen Market Garden is an all-encompassing mentoring program where youth learn firsthand not only about organic and sustainable agriculture but also critical life skills such as leadership, team work, creative problem solving, etc. They gain an appreciation for the importance of Mother Nature, gardening and healthful eating. They also practice social skills and build self-confidence. Further, they acquire entrepreneurial skills like marketing and money management strategies. They choose what items they’d like to grow and sell, name their own businesses, set their own prices (based on market research, of course), etc. As stated in their newsletter, the teens are “provided a supportive environment where they can learn to take calculated risks, adapt, create, find strengths and conquer fears.” All lessons that “can be carried over into other endeavors (they) choose to pursue later in life.”
Further, according to mentor Cynthia Shuck, the teens learn how to “make and keep commitments and to have the courage to take risks. They learn opportunity identification, financial control, customer service, media relations and how to collaborate.” Working at the garden also provides endless opportunities for creative problem solving. For example, one of the teens lost her crop of herbs, which is what she’d planned to sell this season. The loss forced her to seek alternative ways to supplement her company’s herb and flower business. She found recycled beverage bottles at her house and decided to decorate and make vases to compliment the flowers that her partner was selling.
The teens are also learning opportunity identification. Last year, one teen grew tomatoes because her grandfather had lots of extra tomato plants to give her. During the market season, however, she noticed that flower bouquets were much more popular than tomatoes, so this year she decided to sell flower bouquets instead.
And, last but not least, the teens are practicing patience. They planted grapes and raspberries this year in hopes of selling both juices in 3 years. Talk about delayed gratification; I get irked about watering my pepper plants for 3 months before I reap the rewards! (But in my defense, I was never involved in a program like this to teach me patience!)
Meet the Gardeners
The youth involved at Teen Market Garden are an amazing crew! They are young entrepreneurs who have a great appreciation for real food; and they know where it comes from. Heck, they even know how to grow it themselves! Most of them have been gardening longer than I have, and I’ve been on the Earth more than twice as long as them!
All of the teens have their own 18’ x 20’ plot, and several of them have created joint ventures, rather than going into business alone.
Fruit Fly Farm
- Unique melons: Minnesota Midget cantaloupe, pink & yellow watermelons
- Homemade jams and sauces – Made from cherries and apricots grown in Julian’s backyard; strawberries he grows at the Teen Market Garden and Gifford Park Garden (a plot he’s had since he was about 5 years old); and some berries he supplements with from Bellevue Berry Farm.
*Julian is sure to point out that he only uses organic lemon juice and sugar in his products because he wants to “avoid pesticides on foods that give us diseases!”
The Pepper People
- Wide variety of organic and pesticide-free peppers
- Lettuce (which didn’t grow so well this season!)
Persephone & Co.*
- Naturally grown herbs (which didn’t grow so well this season!)
- Cut flower bouquets
- Hand-decorated vases
*Persephone is the “goddess of flowers” (and these girls LOVE Greek mythology!!)
The teens will be the first to tell you that there are definitely “ups and downs” to gardening and running a business. I was able to sit down for a chat with a few of them to find out more:
For Julian Weak, the worst part is the tilling “because the teens had to do it ourselves.” And the best part is harvesting and selling the products. He says that all of the hard work of gardening pays off in the end; and with this 11-year-old entrepreneur’s year-to-date profits resting handsomely at about $150, I’d say he’s right!
Emma Kalkowski-Farrand is in awe of how many kinds of peppers are available and how many ways there are to prepare them! What she enjoys the most is “learning about different peppers through tasting them.” “Though sometimes that can be a little exciting,” she adds (no doubt referring to that morning’s impromptu pepper tasting that I witnessed during harvest time at the garden. One pepper was much spicier than the teens had anticipated, leaving them wishing their water bottles were filled with something a little more heat-reducing!).
She says the hardest part was figuring out how to get free pepper plants to start her garden. (In the end, several folks in the neighborhood donated seedlings!) Emma really enjoys socializing with the other teens and clowning around sometimes to make the garden work more fun. But it’s not all fun and games when you have a business to run. Emma explains that a substantial time commitment is required. Throughout the season, the teens work in the garden every Monday night to weed, water, etc. Earlier in the year, they needed to water almost daily, so that was quite a commitment! Then, on Fridays they head back to the garden to harvest and sell at the market that night from 6-8pm. In addition, for the past month, they have been selling on Saturday mornings, which means they have to get up early to harvest and sell at that market all morning, too!
Ana Carlson is thrilled to be part of this program. She enjoys having a bigger plot than she’d had at Gifford Park Community Garden, and she appreciates the chance to learn business skills (like setting prices according to market value). What Ana loves most about the program, is the chance to socialize with the other teens. The worst part, she admits, is getting up early on Saturdays! Another difficulty is mulching—Ana says it’s a lot of work—but she admits it pays off because “it’s better than having to pull weeds”! Most importantly, she’s been pleasantly surprised to learn just “how easy it is to start a business if you have the right help!”
Get the Goods
Has all of this fresh fruit and veggie talk left your tummy growling? Well, here’s the scoop on where you’ll find the “goods” produced by these teen gardeners:
The Outdoor Market at Midtown Crossing
Saturdays 9am-12pm (until Sept. 4)
Turner Park (31st & Farnam)
Make sure you pick up a copy of their weekly newsletter with recipes and preparation suggestions for items being sold at their stand each week.And check out their Sampler Basket, which gives a nice taste of what the gardeners brought to market that day. The day I patronized their booth, baskets included: potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, cantaloupe, fresh cut flowers, and a variety of peppers for only $15.00 (including the basket)! And, while supplies last, Sampler Baskets will also include a free CD-version of Eating Outside the Box, a natural foods cookbook with over 150 recipes for you to enjoy!
Want to Help?
The Teen Market Garden would love for you to engage them at any level with your time, talent or treasure. Here are a few ways you can get involved:
- They welcome more mentors, especially those with expertise in the following areas: Education, Marketing, Business Finance, Economics, and Urban Farming.
- Donations are always welcome - monetary or otherwise. Heck, they’ll even take your yard waste! They’re in need of carbon for their compost pile, and they have bins available at the garden for your donations. So, come on down with your dead leaves, straw or hay, wood ash, black & white newsprint or sawdust and wood shavings (no treated lumber, redwood, cedar or walnut please).
- Join the Teen Market Garden’s Facebook fan page and spread the word to all of your friends!
- And, of course, spend at least some of your weekly farmers market budget supporting this great cause. It’s a “win-win” situation. The teens earn a little income for their efforts, and you get some of the best produce money can buy!