City Seeds is an innovative program directly addressing the interconnected agricultural issues of a loss of agricultural skills and knowledge, declining availability of locally adapted seed, and urban food insecurity in the Mid-Hudson Valley region of New York.
Our local food system is challenged by a loss of farmland, agricultural skills, and infrastructure. Farmers face many barriers, including limited opportunities for training and technical assistance, access to land, capital, markets, and regionally-adapted, open-pollinated seed. Furthermore, in urban areas such as Poughkeepsie and Beacon, New York, economic and social disadvantage is increasingly concentrated, and youth have limited access to healthy food and opportunities for employment.
City Seeds aims to increase awareness of, participation in, and capacity for a healthy and just food system by combining efforts of community-based food projects in the Mid-Hudson Valley. City Seeds engages limited resource young adults (ages 14-24 years old) living in the cities of Beacon and Poughkeepsie in a project that combines urban farming and gardening, food policy, farm marketing, community education, and seed saving.
City Seeds provides four types of paid internships for 22 youth, facilitating opportunities for youth to “graduate” to increasing levels of responsibility. In hands-on experiential learning projects, young people learn about the food system and make a difference in their communities. City Seeds participants engage in meaningful activities which improve local food access, particularly for low-income residents, and build awareness and knowledge about food and farming in their local communities.
City Seeds revolves around two central concepts: 1.) a program that guides youth through learning about and experiencing urban farming, marketing, and 2.) seed saving, and the creation of a seed bank of regionally adapted seed stock.
Young adults from neighborhoods in which food access is limited will learn the connections between food, farming, and their communities. Youth have opportunities to farm and garden, growing vegetables to nourish themselves and their communities. They also contribute to strengthening their local food systems by planning and carrying out action projects to reach out to the community, serving as advocates and educators for sustainable agriculture and local, nutritious food. Various ages and levels of interns will work together to organize events, support downtown farmers’ markets, and advocate for local and regional policies to promote community food security.
There are four types of positions for program participants, providing opportunities for advancement within the program. By attending conferences, collaborating with organizations, and participating in farming networks and meetings, our participants are given opportunities to connect with others involved in agriculture and community food security work, providing them with resources to continue their careers.
Creating a locally based seed bank where project participants and other local growers can receive seed for future growing out and passing on is an integral part of the project that addresses the control exerted on the food system by a few corporations, and promotes local self-sufficiency.
Building on the success and energy around our first year of the program, the second year of City Seeds attained success with improvements made based on what we had learned. During our second year, youth had an opportunity to advance in the program, apply what they have learned, mentor new participants, and take more ownership of the program. Our first generation of seed was saved in 2006, and in 2007, it was grown out, building the seed bank to a level ready for our first “pass-on” of seed to participants.
City Seeds is run collaboratively between the Poughkeepsie Farm Project (PFP) and Cornell Cooperative Extension Green Teen. In this way, City Seeds is able to provide four kinds of opportunities for limited-resource young adults, each with increasing levels of responsibility. Sixteen first year youth are involved for 6 weeks in an intensive summer program. A weekly after school project is also offered on the farm April-June and September-November. Young people who have been involved at this first level can apply to become “Junior Interns” who then serve as mentors and team leaders for the next group of first year students. Third year, or “Community Food Fellows” assume even more responsibility in the day-to-day work of production-scale urban farming, working full time for eleven weeks and serving as educators for the first year youth. The fourth form of involvement is as “Full-Season Farm Intern.” The full-season intern gains extensive farm training and assume significant leadership within the program; it is designed for those interested in exploring community-based farming as a vocation.
During the program, the participants experience a curriculum that includes farmers’ market training, concepts of sustainable farming, plants and insects, soil and tools, nutrition, and seed saving, in addition to hands-on farm work. The project participants also play an active role in promotion and support of the City of Poughkeepsie Farmers’ Market and Beacon Farmers’ Market and planning and participating in community events which educate the public about food and farming. In addition, each week throughout the growing season, homeless youth staying at the Riverhaven shelter visit the farm. Interns are involved in planning and leading activities for these youth. In July, youth host a large public community meal, to share what they have learned. Youth participating in the program – whether in the spring, summer or fall – receive a “pass-on” of seeds they have saved after making a commitment to use the seeds to grow plants and share the knowledge they gained.
Seed saving is an integral part of the education curriculum, with an emphasis on the importance of a regionally adapted seed stock. Participants have the opportunity to be involved in garden work and learn and share techniques for seed saving. We built up skills and seed stock in 2007, towards our ultimate goal of a community seed bank to be launched in 2008. The creation of a locally based seed bank in the third year of our program will serve as a resource for participants and the broader community of vegetable growers and gardeners, who will receive seed to grow out and pass on to others.
The project participants will grow seed at the farm and gardens each year, contributing to the seed bank. In 2007, our second year of the program, all participants received a seed packet to plant on their own the following season. In return, participants commit to saving a portion of their seed to pass on to another person, along with seed saving training. Participants will continue to have access to seed resources in the year following their internship even if they do not continue in the program. These resources will include a seed saving library, consultations with staff or knowledgeable project participants, and access to seed cleaning equipment. By 2008, other local growers may also participate in the seed bank by applying to receive seed and seed-saving training, and agreeing to pass on seed and training to another person.
In 2007, our second year of City Seeds, the number of youth participating in the program increased. Spring of 2007 was the first time that stipends were offered to youth from Beacon and Poughkeepsie for an 8-10 week after-school program. Attendance improved as our programming became a “job” rather than a voluntary program. With consistent attendance of 15 teens, we made full use of a co-planned and co-taught curriculum series, teaching about food systems, seed saving, food justice, soil, and food policy.
Twenty two teenagers ages 14-19 participated in and completed the Green Teen portion of the City Seeds summer program. Seven young adults ages 16-22 completed City Seeds internships and fellowships at PFP. All participants learned through hands on farm work and worked in the City Seeds seed garden each week learning directly to grow and save seeds. They helped maintain the seed garden at the PFP and worked in the fields. Each week during the summer, the teens came to the farm and the interns led activities and taught a different lesson about farming, the food system, or seed saving. Lessons covered a wide range of topics such as; where food originated, how to build a compost pile, how to save seeds, why we would want to save seeds, and how to prepare various vegetables to eat. The youth and the interns also participated in a wide variety of learning opportunities at other times including field trips, workshops and lessons, involvement at farmers’ markets, the creation of the Green Teen’s salsa, and visiting and working in other gardens and farms.
PFP interns led educational activities with a number of youth groups in addition to the Green Teen youth. Two to five teenagers from Riverhaven, a shelter for homeless teenagers, visited the PFP farm each week (approximately 30 youth participating from July through November) learning about the farm and doing hands-on farming and seed saving projects. Interns also led youth groups from the White Plains Greening Project, Grace Smith House, Sprout Creek Farm, and the Girl Scouts.
In the fall program, 19 teenagers came to the farm each week for farm and food related lessons and participated in hands on projects, including cleaning and saving the seed that was collected over the summer.
Pre- and post-test results demonstrate that participants increased knowledge of food systems, sustainability, and healthy foods. In comparing pre- and post-tests, 100 percent of the Green Teens in Beacon who participated in the spring and summer programs and 7 out of 9 who participated in the fall program increased their knowledge regarding seed saving, growing food, and working on a farm. Eleven out of 12 of the summer Poughkeepsie Green Teen participants showed an overall improvement in their post-tests and 100 percent of the spring and fall participants showed improvement in their post-tests.
PFP interns and fellows participated in workshops or field trips at least once a week in the summer in addition to their hands on learning on the farm, in the seed garden and time spent helping to implement education and outreach projects. In their evaluations, all interns and fellows said they significantly increased their knowledge and skills in farming, seed saving, food preparation, and local food systems and all said they significantly increased their interest and knowledge in cooking and eating local food.
The project held a second annual Community Meal in July 2007. Over 100 people were fed food that the City Seeds participants grew, planned, prepared and served. In preparation for the big event everyone involved in the project wrote about why they thought City Seed and our actions were important. Each person had their photograph taken and their words and portraits were paired together and displayed along the buffet line. It was a really nice way to show off what the youth and staff were thinking and feeling. The Community Meal was a great opportunity to bring many different people together around City Seeds.
The seed garden was a big success in 2007, the first year we grew seed from seed we saved ourselves. Participants produced 42 pounds of two varieties of garlic and 3 lbs of 12 other varieties of seeds. Varieties include: Prudence Purple tomato, Rattlesnake pole beans, cilantro, dill, sweet basil, calendula, arugula, Esmeralda lettuce, and Magenta lettuce. City Seeds youth participated in a “seed pass-on” for the first time, receiving seeds they grew in the garden to plant in their own plots and pass on to others next year.
The City of Poughkeepsie Farmers’ Market grew to include 7 vendors (3 of them new in 2007), including 3 farms and 1 beekeeper. Net market sales increased and food stamp sales were over $500. The City of Poughkeepsie Farmers’ Market hosted community events and local non-profits who tabled almost every week. The Friends of the (Poughkeepsie) Market Committee (with leadership from PFP and GT) put together an exciting calendar of events including a Kid’s Day, a Senior Appreciation Day and several concerts. Two interns and eleven Green Teen youth were a solid presence at the market in the summer selling vegetables at the PFP stand, selling the teen salsa product, doing market surveys, and doing education and outreach for the community about local foods. Poughkeepsie Green Teens also collected information for market surveys at the Poughkeepsie market.
Our staff have also became more active in community organizations. Green Teen and PFP staff sat on a newly formed City of Poughkeepsie Farmers’ Market Committee, and youth attended planning meetings. Green Teen and PFP staff also sat on the Nutrition Advisory Committee of Dutchess County, as well as the Beacon We Can! Committee, and the Board of Common Ground Farm. These connections increase the visibility of our programs and help us to find new ways to work with our communities.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The 2007 season brought increased visibility in the form of new media. We created a new brochure panel about City Seeds that was added to the Green Teen and PFP brochures. We also developed a website devoted to the project – www.cityseeds.org.
City Seeds participants also recorded a PSA highlighting the City of Poughkeepsie farmers’ market, which was aired on local radio stations.
Program participants educated community members on the use of locally available food by speaking at community events such as health fairs and at the community dinner. The Farmer’s Market held an Eat-In Act-Out event where the youth held food demonstrations, worm compost information sessions, and informed the public why they should eat local food. Interns, fellows, and junior interns took turns helping at CSA distributions and farmers market and led work projects several times each week for visiting youth, CSA members, and visiting volunteers.
Several participants progressed into leadership positions in the 2007 season. Three youth from the Poughkeepsie program – Brian Rodriguez, Lizzie Ochieng, and Jon Quinones – worked as interns in the after-school programs, providing leadership in gardening, cooking, and community outreach. Megan Allen, a community food fellow from the summer of 2006, was the full season intern at the PFP in 2007 (and became assistant farm manager in 2008).
In the second year of City Seeds, we have collected and created curriculum that teaches teenagers and young adults about seed saving, community food systems, farming, and marketing. Curriculum includes activity- and discussion-based workshops as well as field trips and hands-on experience growing food.
City Seeds benefits the community in a number of ways. It gives young people a chance to learn about and appreciate farms and local food. Teenagers become aware of the importance of growing and eating local food and learn gardening, cooking, and leadership skills. Teenagers also engage in meaningful, skill-building employment at the farm, farmers’ market and in the community. They describe their job as a way of both doing and learning things, contrasting it with what is often their only other choice – working at a fast food restaurant “flipping burgers.” Young adults explore the vocation of farming and community food advocacy and some of them go on to work in these fields.
The work that the youth in City Seeds do also has a direct positive effect on the community. By promoting the City of Poughkeepsie Farmers’ Market in a low-income area, the market becomes a strong community resource, a more profitable market for its farmers and an important non-emergency source of fresh food. The ability of the farmers’ market to accept food stamps serves as a resource to low-income customers. By contributing to a working farm that grows food for a CSA, farmers’ market, and emergency food providers, youth help to increase local food access. By putting on a community meal that celebrates the importance of healthy, local food, youth bring awareness of local food production to their local community. By implementing action projects around food policy advocacy and community education, youth pass on what they have learned and build awareness of the importance of local food in the wider community. In learning to save seeds from plants they have helped grow, young people learn a skill that is almost forgotten in our modern age, even though it remains at the heart of the sustainability and the future of our food.
After 3 years, we feel our seed project is just getting going and we have much to do to make this resource an asset not only to the youth participating in City Seeds but to farmers and gardeners in our region. At the same time, we have established our baseline systems for growing and processing seeds. In 2008 we held a workshop for 20 community members, 13 of which agreed to save seeds from seeds we gave them. In 2009, we would like to expand seed education and resources to the wider community, while continuing to involve youth and young adults. This includes using our now-established seed garden as a site for learning for more community groups and current or future gardeners and opening up to the community our seed library, seed saving equipment and seek bank. To accomplish these objectives, we plan to hold two seed saving workshops for the community, providing an opportunity to distribute a larger amount of seed and to spread awareness about the resources and learning experiences we can offer.
We continued City Seeds education for youth and young adults in 2008. Training of future farmers and community food advocates and opportunities for youth to learn about and participate in improving their local food system are ongoing needs. There is also great demand amongst teenagers for meaningful “jobs that teach” such as the ones that City Seeds provides. In the fall of 2008, 80 teenagers in Poughkeepsie applied for 8 positions in the Green Teen fall after-school program. The demand for local food in our region is growing and there are not enough farms and farmers to fill this demand. The PFP has an extremely long waiting list of families who would like to join the CSA, additional inquiries each week, if not daily, and regular requests from restaurants and institutions to purchase local food. The PFP also receives regular requests from landowners or community members to help facilitate new local food production, whether by assisting in the set up of a new CSA or helping to locate farmers. Responding to these demands requires more people who are skilled, trained and qualified than are currently available. Ideally, local farmers would be both technically competent and socially engaged – aware of how healthy food access is unequal due to economic, informational or other barriers. The PFP – with significant commitments to the community and of a scale that provides a breadth of opportunities – is uniquely situated to provide apprenticeships that offer well-rounded training for future farmers, including equipment operation, alongside opportunities to engage with the community. Alumni of the PFP gain the experience to fill management and education roles that can and do make a significant difference in access to local food.
The result of these efforts can be a better food system, directly responding to the problems related to the existing food system, including over-reliance on scarce energy resources, nutrition- and diet-related health crises, harm to the environment and disintegrating communities.