Creating Youth Leaders Using Sustainable Urban Agricultural Practices

Final report for YENC20-152

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2020: $3,828.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Purdue Extension
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Manager:
Alexandria Pettigrew
Purdue Extension
Project Co-Managers:
Nathan Shoaf
Purdue Extension
Beth Siple
Purdue University
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Project Information


Over 200 youth participate in urban farming summer programs in Indianapolis, IN with the opportunity to manage their own sites and sell produce at farmer’s markets. Purdue Extension, in partnership with the Felege Hiywot Center (FHC), will develop a youth leadership program around urban farming. The program will provide attendees of the FHC an opportunity to teach neighboring youth organizations urban farming and compost management, as well as how to manage backyard chickens. This will offer leadership development for youth at the FHC, share growing practices with youth throughout the Indianapolis area and create future leaders in urban farming.

Project Objectives:
  1. Create a mentoring system where students are trained to teach their peers on sustainable agriculture practices using Purdue Extension curriculum.
  2. Increase sustainable farming skills of students through hands-on work sessions with farmers, a farm manager, Purdue Extension and the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) reinforced by farming at school in existing farm plots.
  3. Youth will gain knowledge on small flock poultry management, composting production and learn how compost application impacts soil health. Provide youth hands-on soil sampling techniques and knowledge on sustainable soil management practices.
  4. Share project results through social media and conference presentations.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Aster Bekele

Educational & Outreach Activities

20 Consultations
9 On-farm demonstrations
4 Online trainings
5 Webinars / talks / presentations
8 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

6 Farmers/ranchers
29 Youth
7 Parents
4 Educators
2 Other adults
2 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Train the trainer presentation from Texas A&M for youth leaders to learn curriculum


Presentation from Purdue Extension Urban Agriculture State Coordinator describing soil in urban areas

UA Soil Health_SARE Youth Ed_FHC

Presentation from Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District on soil health and analysis

Marion County SWCD - FH June 2020

Results from our Focus Group Discussion and activities to date from 2020:

YENC20-152 Creating Youth Leaders Using Sustainable Urban Agricultural Practices_Focus Group Report

No youth educational events or activities occurred in 2021 because of lack of staff and volunteer support due to COVID-19. One site visit was scheduled with our project partner, Aster Bekele, at Felege Hiywot Center to discuss potential educational events and activities in 2022. One additional visit was scheduled in Indianapolis near the project partner site with our conservation partner, Kevin Allison (SWCD), to discuss and plan potential off-site educational activities with youth in 2022. We assessed several local businesses that were involved in various state environmental cleanup and remediation programs in the community as potential learning opportunities for students who might be interested in environmental remediation careers in addition to agriculture careers. 

Several educational events occurred in 2022, but staff and volunteer support was still lacking due to COVID-19. Although staffing shortages presented challenges for engage with youth leaders, we managed to engage with some youth working/volunteering on-site. There were opportunities to engage with parents of youth who have participated in this project, as well as other parents affiliated with FHC who expressed interest in the project. One site visit was scheduled with Nathan Shoaf and our project partner, Aster Bekele, at Felege Hiywot Center to discuss events and activities for 2022 including technical sessions regarding soil health, conservation practices, and integrated pest management as a more holistic approach to small-scale urban farm production. Several sections of the Junior Master Gardener Learn Grow Eat Go were used in addition to using material on soil contamination from Purdue Extension's Urban Farming Signature Program as supplemental material to make the information more approachable for teenage youth. We scheduled several site visits throughout 2022 and one presentation on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Youth Engagement in Urban Food Systems. 

Presentation from Purdue Extension Urban Agriculture State Coordinator on IPM and Youth Engagement in Urban Food Systems

IPM Youth Engagement_SARE Youth May 2022

In 2023, three small group (1-3 youth participants) soil health training events occurred between PI, Nathan Shoaf, and students from Felege Hiywot Center. Staffing shortages again presented challenges for engagement and identifying youth leaders. Meetings and virtual conversations with students focused on on-farm assets, local knowledge, science communication, and potential knowledge gaps in addressing soil health and plant productivity in organic management systems. Based on student interest, small group soil health training events focused on aspects of integrated pest management related to identification and monitoring of plant diseases such as Phytophthora in pepper plants. Shoaf borrowed microscopes from Purdue University's Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory along with slides with samples of these plant diseases to demonstrate to students differences between nutrient deficiencies and plant pathogen impacts. 

Shoaf invited several urban farmers and educators from the Indianapolis area and surrounding counties to participate in training events, and worked in collaboration with our project partner, Aster Bekele, at Felege Hiywot Center to host several training events between July and September 2023. 14 high school students from Felege Hiywot Center trained 2nd-6th grade students at Edna Martin Christian Center in Indianapolis, IN using materials from the Junior Master Gardener Learn Grow Eat Go curriculum, which also included identification of differences between plant nutrient deficiencies and plant diseases in specialty crops. 

Learning Outcomes

8 Youth reporting change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness
Key changes:
  • Communication

  • Mentoring youth

  • Soil health

  • Backyard chickens

  • Urban agriculture

Results and discussion:

The first time delivering “Creating Youth Leaders Using Sustainable Urban Agricultural Practices” was a great success. The partnerships formed with the Felege Hiywot Center (FHC), SWCD, and Purdue Extension resulted in complementary roles, tasks, and resources for the program and the students.

A positive, inspiring program emerged in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic as the instructors and students were flexible and adapted to delayed and changing schedules and varied delivery from in-person to technology and back. High school age students at FHC participated in a train-the-trainer program for the Learn, Grow, Eat & Go! Jr. Master Gardener program led by Purdue Extension Marion County. This training prepared the students to teach elementary aged students at the neighboring community center. Students at FHC were also taught soil health, to compliment their curriculum training, by Kevin Allision of the Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District. Having a science-based soil presentation alone first, then a follow-up discussion about soil was beneficial, and led to the students asking many kinds of questions. Starting discussion high level, then getting in soil specifics was a good progression. Students were able to dig into topics and did. Finally, to increase knowledge of various urban agriculture practices, students at FHC also participated in an online poultry course created by Dr. Elizabeth Karcher, Animal Sciences Professor at Purdue University. The training and resources shared prepared the students to teach Jr. Master Gardener throughout the summer and also to engage in local discussions about small scale gardening and urban agriculture. 

Instructors were impressed with and saw growth in the students going from learning to practicing, to the actual teaching of children. Aster, Director of Felege Hiywot Center, saw students taking their understanding of children and adapting what they did and said and taught to match/fit. Students were able to express how and why they did these changes. They owned it.

All are looking forward to next year (2021), but also other opportunities for the students in other Purdue Extension programs during the year and program involvement with other classes at the Felege Hiywot Center. 

As stated above, 2021 educational events and activities were paused until 2022 due to a lack of staff and volunteer support related to COVID19. 

As stated above, we planned several educational events and activities in 2022 that were minimally attended or rescheduled due to staffing shortages at Felege Hiywot Center related to COVID-19. Additionally, Purdue Extension faced staffing shortages and our Project Manager, Alexandria Pettigrew, left Extension for a different role at Purdue University. Nathan Shoaf coordinated several educational events that included discussions with youth/parents on topics such as soil health, remediation, integrated pest management, and youth engagement. Students expressed interest in applying soil health principles in a more "holistic, ecological-based approach," so we focused more on teaching these principles within the broader scope of food production, conservation, and sustainability. Our discussions and presentations focused more on broader impacts to urban food systems and potential careers for youth to consider.  Nathan Shoaf coordinated a site visit at Felege Hiywot Center with a project manager from a local environmental consulting firm to explain to youth remediation processes, site management, and how contaminated sites can be redeveloped for future green spaces. We plan to meet with Felege Hiywot Center in early 2023 to determine if they have optimal staff to consider extending this project throughout 2023. 

Although there were many challenges associated with COVID and staffing shortages during the entirety of the project, I think we managed to exceed our expectations in many ways by leveraging available technology (e.g., virtual meetings and microscopes) to enhance the Learn Grow Eat Go curriculum based on student interests. Student meetings were informal and functioned like a focus group meeting with Shoaf asking questions and encouraging storytelling among students to identify common interests among students so that they would be excited and engaged when teaching material to youth.

Felege Hiywot Center offers many different hands-on, experiential learning opportunities between raised bed gardens, a high tunnel, chicken coop, compost staging area, and an upcoming hydroponics demonstration area. Topics of interest among students was diverse; however, a common thread during discussions focused on "feeding the soil to feed the plants" and wanting to "grow healthy plants to feed their community." As mentioned above, students identified the assessment of plant nutrient deficiencies and plant disease as a barrier to optimal soil health because "managing soil health depends on crop planning and nutrients requirements." Additionally, incorrectly assessing plants diseases by assuming nutrient deficiencies are present can lead to excessive fertilizer application and irrigation, which increases costs and can negatively impact sustainability goals. 

We lacked opportunities to measure changes in knowledge, attitude, skills, or awareness due to staffing shortages or inconsistent survey/assessment methods with youth participants. Many participating youth mentioned they were "uncomfortable" with surveys and did not complete them. Most all participating youth experienced family obligations or schedule conflicts that prevented consistent participation in multiple training events. Our experiences with this project have influenced data collection methods for new/current projects working with youth at Felege Hiywot Center and other schools/facilities throughout Indiana. 

Project Outcomes

25 Number of youth considering a career in sustainable agriculture
3 Grants received that built upon this project
6 New working collaborations
Increased organizational support to explore and teach sustainable ag:
Explanation for change in organizational support to explore and teach sustainable ag:

To expand the lessons being taught to youth, in the following years we will also teach families. Felege Hiywot Center has applied and received funding for youth to gain continued leadership related to small scale gardening and urban agriculture, and will begin to also support families in the community.

As mentioned above, lack of supporting staff coupled with inconsistent data collection of changes in knowledge, skills, attitudes, etc. However, COVID forced us to pivot multiple times and this provided multiple learning opportunities for students and project participants to improve upon this in future projects.

Parents adopting sustainable agriculture practices:
Sustainable Agriculture practices parents adopted:

Many parents of youth participating in the program or affiliated with Felege Hiywot Center mentioned that they learned the importance of soil health conservation principles: minimizing disturbance (limit tillage), maximize soil cover (cover crops/mulch), maximize biodiversity (crop diversity), and maximize presence of living roots (cover crops and diverse crop rotations). This led to discussions of cover crop planning/rotations, planning diverse crop rotations, and incorporating more organic amendments such as compost into their home gardens. Many parents either began composting or expressed interest in composting at home after discussing the project with youth and observing composting and applications at Felege Hiywot Center. 

These topics led to discussions of sustainability in regard to reducing fertilizer applications to protect local watersheds and groundwater from runoff and leaching. Aspects of this were emphasized early on in this project in collaboration our local Soil Water Conservation District partner, Kevin Allison. Youth and parents expressed interest in learning about these topics in a more holistic, ecological-based format rather than single topic discussions related to soil health alone. We discussed broader impacts of soil health, integrated pest management, and youth engagement on urban food systems. 

Several youth participants embraced, and routinely discussed, the topic of sustainable agriculture and the importance of science communication in that many students would be able to better understand how to sustainably grow their own food if training/education was simplified and approachable. Several youth participants mentioned the lack of green space and time were barriers for them and their family to grow their own food; however, many students expressed interest in knowing where their food comes from and whether it was produced "sustainably." Youth participants had diverse perspectives on sustainability, but some of the common themes were lack of chemical inputs, no environmental contaminants, organic inputs (e.g., compost), and maintaining soil biology (e.g., earthworms and beneficial insects).

Having youth teach other youth at various training events provided an opportunity for youth to learn from "youth leaders" in their community who were able to train 2nd-6th grade students in a succinct, hands-on manner. Increasing opportunities for discussion and storytelling allowed for identification of common topics/themes among the diverse farming practices at Felege Hiywot Center. This created an opportunity to build upon foundational aspects of soil health, integrated pest management, and youth engagement and instead focus on holistic, sustainable approaches to soil and plant management in urban food systems. It was impressive to watch students make the connections between soil health, plant health, and human health throughout discussions, meetings, and training events. 

Success stories:

Nathan Shoaf has presented this project to groups of Purdue Extension Educators from all four Extension pillars to encourage new Extension staff to apply for more SARE Youth Education grants. He has presented this material to over 40 Extension Educators on several occasions in 2021 and 2022. 

Nathan Shoaf presented information from this project at the Wesselman Woods Night Owl event on October 16, 2022 to a group of parents/teachers in Evansville, IN interested in this project after communicating with a parent affiliated with Felege Hiywot Center. This led to several additional online meetings and one of the parents connecting Nathan with a relative who teaches at Boone Meadow Elementary School in Whitestown, IN. This led to additional meetings with the school principal and community leaders to plan new curriculum using similar educational materials used on this project to engage elementary-aged youth at their school as they plan a new school garden and landscape features. Several community members expressed interest in applying for SARE grants in the future in collaboration with Purdue Extension. 

In addition, discussions with our project partner, Aster Bekele, from Felege Hiywot Center and other Purdue Extension faculty and specialists led to the development of a new SARE grant: Urban Farming Entrepreneurship Program: Providing minority youth entrepreneurship training to increase employment and food access for the 2022 North Central Research and Education Grant (Project Number: LNC22-470). We are excited to start this project in 2023. 

As mentioned earlier, we held several small group meetings with youth participants to identify common themes topics they would like to explore and teach/train others. Training events hosted July-September 2023 provided a nice ending to this project through all of the challenges associated with COVID and staffing shortages. 14 high school age youth from Felege Hiywot Center trained 2nd-6th grade students during these events and covered various aspects of soil health, integrated pest management, and youth engagement. There were several hands-on, experiential demonstrations using posters to illustrate how soil-plant interactions and how to sustainably grow plants. Other demonstrations included container growing using soil-based media. 

Nathan Shoaf plans to discuss the project with the project partner, Aster Bekele, along with other Indiana urban farmers who have youth programs during a panel discussion at the Indiana Small Farm Conference in Danville, IN on February 29-March 1, 2024. Attendees of the 2023 conference mentioned that they want more information about SARE Farmer/Rancher and Youth Education grants from past recipients and project partners. We hope to provide helpful information and lessons learned from the project, and how this project provided a foundation for additional projects mentioned above.             


No recommendations. Considering this was a relatively small funding amount, it provided a lot of educational opportunities between all participants. We valued SARE's involvement and flexility throughout the pandemic to allow extensions for completion in 2023. 

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.