Use Agriculture in Youth Development

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Farming at The Food Project in Massachusetts provides ample hands-on learning opportunities.

Photo: The Food Project

While agriculture-based youth development programs are often associated with rural areas and programs such as 4-H and National FFA Organization, the last decade has seen an increasing emphasis on agriculture-themed youth development programs in all sorts of places, including cities.

For example, 30 percent of the youth 4-H serves are located in central cities, according to Jo Turner, foundation relations specialist with the National 4-H Council.

On a simple level, such programs can be an easy sell for youths. “Agriculture provides a real hands-on, learn-by-doing experience,” Turner says. “Kids can see results, and they get to do something physical.”

Individual program evaluations and anecdotal evidence suggest that teaching children and youth how to cultivate the soil, learn where food comes from and help run agriculture-based businesses produces observable benefits – from leadership and job skills development to better nutritional habits and less obesity.

Successful projects share some components.

Focus on Life Skills

Turner stresses that agricultural projects need to be combined with other life skills to play a truly effective role in youth development.

Civic Engagement: Agriculture programs typically include community service. In Lincoln, Mass., The Food Project supplies fresh produce free to shelters and soup kitchens, at discounted rates to low-income families and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) payment recipients, as well as at full price through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSAs allow individual consumers to buy shares in a local farm’s harvest, and they receive a portion of that harvest throughout the growing season.

“In gardening, you produce something to help your family and those around you,” Turner says. “That’s a profound experience for a kid.”

For the community service aspect to really hit home, the project needs to have visible local impact. “Put it in the kids’ neighborhood where they can see it and touch it,” Turner says. “They have to own it.”

Leadership Skills: It can be hard to get teenagers interested in agriculture-based programs. “One strategy to get teenagers involved is to have them be peer teachers,” Turner says.

A key component of The Food Project in Massachusetts is putting youths in leadership positions. “If you want to retain teenagers,” Gayle says, “you need to give them constant opportunities for growth and development.”

Meaningful Responsibilities: The Food Project “was not started as a garden education project,” Gayle says. “These are production farms producing 31,000 pounds of food a year.” Each crew has a harvest quota. “It creates a reality and intensity for them.”

Diversity: The Food Project purposefully brings together kids from different backgrounds. “Boston is a very segregated city,” Gayle says. “We try to confound everyone’s stereotypes” by, for instance, bringing white kids from the inner city to work alongside well-to-do African-Americans from the suburbs.

Jobs Skills: At Seeds to Success in Clayton, N.J., a 4-H program for special needs and at-risk kids, youths are paid minimum wage to operate the program’s farmstands in the summer. “For many, it’s their first job, and these are skills they can use in their lives,” says Luanne Hughes, the family and community health science educator for Rutgers Cooperative Extension, which runs Seeds.

Selling the Concept

If you’re not part of a larger framework like 4-H, it can be difficult to start an agriculture-based youth program. Gayle says that when The Food Project began, its founders had a tough time selling the concept to funders. “Foundations rejected it as too unusual,” he says.

Partners that can help:

Business and Government: “Find local resources like a gardening club, Master Gardener program [at a local Cooperative Extension], or local business [that] can help with supplies and are passionate about gardening already,” Turner suggests.

The Food Project gets land and operational support from the city of Boston and from neighborhood organizations, including the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and the Boston Area Health Education Center.

Schools: Schools are more likely to buy in if the program supports the science curriculum. Several studies, including the recently published “Impacts of Hands-on Science through School Gardening in Louisiana Elementary Schools” by Louisiana State University’s Department of Horticulture, show that when elementary school teachers combine traditional classroom instruction with hands-on gardening activities, their students’ science achievement test scores are significantly higher than those of students undergoing only traditional science instruction.

Schools can also help to recruit participants through teachers and guidance counselors. Gayle says schools and churches provide a lot of recruits for The Food Project.

Groups Already Doing It: Youth workers shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Plenty of resources are available for program directors looking to add an agricultural component to their youth development curricula.

The Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., offers summer academies to teach youth workers and teachers how to create and use school gardens. It offers links to a host of helpful websites at Another free resource for those involved in gardening and agricultural activities for kids is