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Teens tackle urban farming experience

New City Urban Farm gives students an opportunity to learn basic job skills for future employment.

April 28, 2017
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New City Urban Farm
Students helped New City Urban Farm bring in $84,000 last year, and organizers are expecting a similar revenue stream this season. Courtesy New City Urban Farm

First jobs for teenagers are important in helping them gain skills they need for future work, but they can be hard to come by.

New City Neighbors recognized the importance of providing teens with meaningful work experiences and, in 2012, launched New City Urban Farm, a three-acre produce farm that employs up to 12 teenagers during peak season.

The teens handle all of the farm’s operations, including fieldwork, customer service, marketing and social media, and publishing a newsletter.

New City Neighbors is a 10-year-old nonprofit that previously has offered students in the Creston neighborhood — where it’s based — opportunities for empowerment.

Elementary-aged children participate in tutoring programs, while middle school students run a bakery for seven weeks over the summer and learn basic job skills such as “showing up on time, having good hygiene, maintaining the supplies needed to run a business, and people skills.”

Lance Kraai, farm director for New City Urban Farm, said the farm program is the nonprofit’s most recent addition and builds on the earlier programs.

“Our idea is to work with the same youth, but that doesn’t always happen,” he said. “There is a lot of synergy between the elementary and middle school program, and about half of the high school staff has done the elementary or middle school program.”

Students interested in working on the farm apply and go through an interview process. Those hired commit to working 18 hours per week, with 10 of those hours spent doing fieldwork and the rest spent on other assigned tasks.

The high school program is tiered, with first-year students starting out as interns that receive a stipend for their work; second-year students become hourly employees and receive specific responsibilities, as well as oversight of first-year students; and third-year students become managers of the farm’s different operations.

“This coming season, we will have four managers: a customer service manager, kitchen manager, field manager, and produce customer service manager for the farm that manages CSA pickups and quality control,” Kraai said.

New City Urban Farm offers a Community Supported Agriculture program, which means customers purchase a share of the farm rather than individual vegetables. The price of each share is paid at the beginning of the season, with the farm agreeing to provide the shareholders their portion of the farm’s produce every week throughout the growing season. Approximately 200 families participate in the CSA program, which begins the first week of May and ends after the third week of December.

Kraai said last year the farm brought in $84,000, and he expects revenue this year to be about the same.

This year, New City Urban Farm is adding a pop-up café, which will operate every Thursday in July and August during CSA pickup times.

“It will feature baked goods, soups, salads and wood-fired pizzas,” Kraai said.

Last year, New City Neighborhoods built a wood-fired pizza oven to support the café, and this spring, it built an outdoor patio.

Kraai said since the farm program has been in operation, he is seeing a positive impact on the teens who have participated.

“We definitely see youth resonate with the program and get excited about what work can look like,” he said. “If you go to high school and you don’t think work will be meaningful, you won’t apply yourself.

“We are a new program, only five years old, so we are just starting to see youth going out the other side, but anecdotally, all of them are working or in college now.”

He said for some students who don’t perform well in the classroom, work opportunities can help build confidence and show them even if they aren’t successful in school, they can still be successful in work environments.

“We have our customer service manager student who will be graduating in the fall and who doesn’t perform well academically, but she is so good at customer service. She is that type of person who makes a customer feel good,” he said. “High school doesn’t test for that. You experience real-world work and that interpersonal skill is much more valuable than other skills you test for.”

He said another student used the program as a launching pad to land a job with restaurant Graydon’s Crossing for her senior year of high school.

“We have a partnership with Graydon’s Crossing, and she was familiar with that restaurant and saw herself working there for her senior year and we could call and recommend her,” Kraai said.

He said many of the students who take part in the farm program don’t have families who can help them find summer jobs, making the program especially important.

“So many youth opportunities are through networks your parents have,” he said.

Kraai said unlike typical first jobs for teenagers, the farm offers its employees more responsibilities and includes a strong mentorship component, as well as real-world applications for the job skills they are learning.

For example, Kraai said if a student is experiencing a work conflict, he or she will be listening intently during the conflict resolution session and learn how to handle the issue.

“We are teaching them skills they are using right then and there. It immediately resonates,” he said.

Kraai said New City Urban Farm is the first step for its employees in building a résumé and creating a foundation for future education and job opportunities.

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