On a recent hot and sunny afternoon on the north side of Milwaukee, about half a dozen Young Farmers are hard at work in their garden. There’s a lot to do. Water the plants. Pick the weeds. Plant new seeds. Harvest fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
And finally, sell the produce.
This garden at the Mary Ryan Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee in Sherman Park is part of the Young Farmers program, which is run through Groundwork Milwaukee. It’s one of three program sites in the area.
“It’s to get young people involved in our food system,” said Alex Hagler, Young Farmers Program Educator with Groundwork Milwaukee. “We’re really trying to get them to adopt healthy habits early on in life. Thinking about where their food comes from and what’s in their food.”
As the Young Farmers examine the garden, 12 year-old Amir Washington picks a jalapeño. He takes a bite and passes it around to his friends.
“It’s not that spicy,” he declares just as the heat kicks in.
After the spiciness subsides, Washington bounces around the garden taking on different jobs. He acts as a tour guide, showing off everything the farmers have grown this year: beets, lettuce, tomatoes, collard greens, mint, and more.
“The first thing we work on is pulling the weeds out,” said Washington. “Sometimes we harvest if something is ready. The first thing we come for is the strawberries, especially since they’re nice and sweet.”
Gigantic sunflowers tower over him as he talks about how the flowers attract bees to help pollinate the garden.
“I like being in the garden,” added Washington. “I like making food, natural food instead of sugary food.”
When the garden tour is over, Washington helps 13 year-old Cozinae “Coco” Battie fill watering cans to water the garden.
“I like to give back by growing plants and giving it to homeless people,” said Battie.
She’s been a regular at the garden this summer and she comes with experience. “My mom has a mini-farm with potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes.”
Battie, Washington, and others spend a lot of time hauling watering cans to and from the garden. Hagler says this is part of the learning experience.
“The act of gardening is a physical activity. We’re trying to get them physically active early on so they can have these skills throughout their lives.”
Plus, being in the garden gets the kids outside and in nature, something 12 year-old Anija Howard appreciates.
“My mom said that this will be good for me instead of being on my phone all day,” said Howard. “Sometimes I like to get dirty. I like to dig for stuff and put stuff in [the soil]. I like to pull stuff out and harvest plants and water stuff. When we water the big green leaves and the water gathers, it’s very pretty.”
Thirteen year-old Mikayla Korman also loves watering the plants. But today, she’s designing the chalkboard sign for the Farm Stand, where the Young Farmers sell their produce.
Reflecting on her summer at the garden, Korman says, “It helps me realize how much farmers do for us.”
She also loves the learning aspect of the Young Farmers program.
Each week after the tasks are finished, the kids circle up as Hagler passes out an article. This week, they take turns reading about protein sources in food.
Groundwork Milwaukee Food Systems Director Nick DeMarsh, who helped start the Young Farmer program, joins the circle. He says the literacy element helps prevent the “summer slump,” a time when kids can fall behind on reading skills. But to DeMarsh, that’s only a piece of the program’s benefits.
“The garden also offers an opportunity for young people to not only explore the natural world, but also explore themselves,” said DeMarsh. “One of the things I think gardening provides for people is the opportunity to develop the skill of patience. I think a lot of older people, like us, talk about this generation and how smart phones surround them. They have very little opportunity to pause and reflect. Gardening provides that.”
This garden is also teaching the Young Farmers how to become entrepreneurs. When the produce is ready for harvest, it’s sold at the Farm Stand outside the Boys & Girls Club. The hope is that parents picking up their kids will also purchase some fruits and veggies before heading home.
While the Young Farmers set the price and are insistent on low prices, Hagler suggests they consider “pay what you can.” They talk among themselves and decide it’s not a bad idea.
“Rather than the proverbial parent telling the kid what to do and telling them to eat healthy food before they leave the dinner table, it’s more letting them take ownership of it and let them experience it themselves,” said DeMarsh.
If the Young Farmers do fall for gardening once they move on from middle school, they can join the Green Team program in high school.
“We’re training them to be agents of change in their own communities,” Hagler said. “I hope that they start being leaders within their own family, like trying to change habits of people they know intimately in their lives. But also, ultimately in their own neighborhoods.”
Song: “Keep On Growing” by Derek and the Dominos