Twice a week, a team of teenagers fans out across six acres of southwest Raleigh, pulling weeds and harvesting seeds and monitoring the growth of the lettuce and other crops they’ve spent the spring cultivating.
Sometimes it’s hard work. But the student farmers in the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Young Farmer Training Program say it’s worth it.
“It’s not a chore to come out here,” said Enloe High School freshman Anna Ahlers, 14.
The program is a paid, multiyear apprenticeship for teens ages 15 to 18 that teaches the ins and outs of sustainable farming, from growing seasons and planting practices to record-keeping and marketing. Started in 2010, the program received a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month.
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Students in the program work at the Food Shuttle’s farm off Tryon Road just outside the Beltline in southwest Raleigh. Under the tutelage of Food Shuttle staff, they plant, tend and harvest vegetables, mushrooms, herbs and flowers without the use of pesticides. In return, students receive a $25 stipend per week and a percentage of proceeds when they help with the Young Farmer produce stand. The program’s three sessions run from April through October.
The idea is to give urban kids a chance to learn the principles of farming and gardening, and take that knowledge back to their communities.
The side benefit is to making sure there are young farmers to replace older farmers as they age out. The average age of North Carolina’s farmers is 57, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We need to replace them with young people who know heat, who understand wet, who know the growing cycles,” said Maurice Small, Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Director of Urban Agriculture.
‘Bugs and sweat’
In addition to planting, weeding and harvesting, students feed the chickens and herd the goats if they get loose.
Of course, some of those skills take a while to learn.
“We get some of them out here who have never held a hoe or a shovel in their hands before,” said Sun Butler, farm educator with the program.
That’s why there’s an initial probationary period, for students to adjust to the bugs and the sometimes difficult labor, performed rain or shine.
“It’s hard work if you get out there in 85- to 90-degree weather, toting around 30- to 40-pound boxes, bent over double, with bugs and sweat in your face...a lot of kids aren’t used to that,” Butler said.
Connection to nature
About 16 students are currently signed up, all voluntarily. Attendance is required, Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Students say they enjoy the chance to understand where their food comes from, to learn the land and how to make it work for them. Broughton High School junior Jazmine Chesson, 16, grew up in urban south Raleigh. She has gardened before but wanted something deeper.
“There’s so much farmers know off the top of their head about plants and soil,” Jazmine said. “Since joining, I’ve felt more connected with nature, and I feel it’s even more important to keep learning and change the way America and the world feed themselves.”
For Broughton junior Neil Savage, 16, the program was a vivid replacement for his previous boring, fluorescent-lit office job filing papers for a lawyer. He hopes farming knowledge will help him achieve his goal of being chef of his own restaurant someday.
“It’s so hard to find jobs in restaurants right now, so I figured, why not learn to farm and form a more personal connection with the food?” Neil said.
A few students, including Wake Forest-Rolesville High School senior Carol Lassiter or Broughton junior Xena Erikson, have some farming experience picking cotton or tobacco. Most do not.
During students’ time at the farm, Small sees a shift in their self-perception.
“They’re seeing themselves not just as a kid or a student, but as a valuable tool for society to use,” Small said. “That’s maturity some people don’t have until they’re 40.”