YFS Sowing Opportunities for Youth Leadership (SOYL)

Progress report for YENC23-199

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2023: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Youth & Family Services, Inc.
Region: North Central
State: South Dakota
Project Manager:
Sharon Oney
Youth & Family Services, Inc.
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Project Information


The Youth Educator will implement Sowing Opportunities for Youth Leadership (SOYL) with at least 15 youth, ages 12-18. Participants will learn about sustainable agriculture through hands-on activities, visits with area producers who implement sustainable practices, and by developing their own projects. This approach will help them comprehend and recognize ecologically sound, economically viable, socially responsible agriculture. They will also explore the links between food justice, localized food systems, and sustainability. Our goal is to empower these youth to be change makers in the community and to consider careers in sustainable agriculture to help address critically important environmental and social issues.

Project Objectives:
  1. At least 15 middle and high school youth will participate in ten 1-hour lessons/activities about soil health, organic gardening practices, the food system, food justice, composting/vermicomposting, pollinators, soil-less alternatives, and permaculture.
  2. The youth will explore sustainable agriculture career options through field trips to 3-4 local farms/ranching operations and one visit to the Black Hills Farmers’ Market.
  3. The youth will showcase their learning through facilitating a garden class with a group of younger kids to teach a sustainable agriculture practice or creating and presenting a group project on a sustainable agriculture practice to the larger group of participants.

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations
5 On-farm demonstrations
7 Other educational activities: Greenhouse classroom activities to learn about and discuss soil health, sustainable agriculture, food systems, and food justice.

Participation Summary:

11 Farmers/ranchers
24 Youth
1 Educators
2 Other adults
Education/outreach description:

The SOYL project targets middle school students enrolled in Youth and Family Services’ after-school and summer program. Activities during the summer involved field trips to four area farms/ranches, including YFS’ Fullerton Farm in Box Elder, and a field trip to the Black Hills Farmers Market. The students also tended on-site raised bed gardens at YFS’ Adams Street facility and at General Beadle Elementary School, both in North Rapid City. During the school year, students participated in learning activities in the Greenhouse Classroom twice each month to discuss and learn more about sustainable agriculture, soil health, food systems, and food justice.

Destiny Durham, the Youth Educator, prepares program updates for the monthly Board of Directors meeting and reports that the Middle School Program teacher has become quite interested in the project. "She has been very supportive of this project and has an interest in the area herself. When the project results are released to our organization and the public we hope other educators will also learn about SARE."

"We worked with Bear Butte Gardens, Cycle Farm, and Dry Creek Farm & Ranch to host field trips at their local farms and ranches. We are currently working with Michelle Grosek, co-owner of Bear Butte Gardens. She is part of our Garden Advisory Group. We have collaborated with Michelle in the past and are fortunate to continue to work with her. She is an expert in organic gardening practices in Western South Dakota. Bear Butte Gardens is a USDA certified organic farm that features a farm stand and a commercial kitchen. They host events, education classes, and more. We will continue to collaborate with Bear Butte Gardens in the future. We still hope to get to tour Wild Idea Buffalo Co. in the summer of 2024. Our field trip to their ranch was cancelled due to weather last spring. In the coming months, Youth and Family Services will work on a local procurement plant to increase local products used in meals at our facilities. For this we hope to work with the new manager of the Black Hills Farmers Market."

Learning Outcomes

12 Youth reporting change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness
Key changes:
  • Our food system

  • Food processing

  • Farmer's markets

  • Pollinator habitats

Results and discussion:

Destiny Durham, Youth Educator: Our SARE grant project is well under way. Middle School Program youth come to gardening classes once every two weeks for one hour.  As an after school drop-in program, the groups vary from session to session. These changes in youth attendance have affected the learning outcomes of our Sowing Opportunities for Youth Leadership project, though the project is not finished and we still have time! Another hurdle we’ve overcome was hiring a new Garden Education Specialist. Gabriella DeMarce left Youth and Family Services in January 2023.  We have since hired Destiny Durham to manage this grant and garden education classes. The new educator has set the activities timeline back (see revised timeline). Additionally, student groups at our facility change drastically from the school year to the summer. Most students that took field trips to local farms and ranches this summer to learn about career options, sustainable agriculture, and organic gardening practices are no longer in the Middle School Program. Even so, the youth have certainly had changes in knowledge, attitude, and skills throughout this project thus far.

The SOYL (Sowing Opportunities for Youth Leadership) project at YFS’ has given students enriching experiences that have built their foundation of knowledge on organic gardening practices, sustainable agriculture, our food system, and food justice. From March to May the group had four lessons focused on organic gardening practices, pollinators, and soil health. Students began their summer group sessions with an introductory Group Bingo. The exercise was to match a statement on their bingo card such as “composts at home” or “has given a speech before” to a student in the group. This created a sense of community and connection from the start of our summer classes and field trips together. We then focused on planning and planting the raised bed gardens at General Beadle Elementary school near the YFS facility. It was exciting to see the youth taking ownership over the space and working as a team. They were eager to transplant the plants that were started in the classroom in March.  Students were also able to visit YFS’ Fullerton Farm where they had the opportunity to suit up and see our beehives up-close while learning about pollinators.

The summer field trips proved to be a success. While visiting Dry Creek Farm and Ranch in June 2023, the students were introduced to regenerative agriculture. Owners Kristy and Shawn Freeland took us on a tractor ride (with their friendliest goat) around their property. They stopped to talk about the conditions of their fields now versus when they farmed the property years earlier. Their crop management system had previously been using traditional agriculture methods, but in recent years they transitioned to regenerative agriculture methods. They noted how the health of their grass/alfalfa fields has improved after not spraying for weeds, not allowing their cattle to eat the grass down to the soil and not working their fields.

They explained how the livestock would eat their field down and they would need to buy hay to get them through the winter. Now they only allow the herd to eat a small line of grass, moving an electric fence several times daily. The combination of letting the land rest instead of being chewed down, and not working their field has led to healthier animals, vegetation, soil, water, and in turn the people. They don’t even have to buy hay anymore and they save fuel. The kids were in love with all the animals (pigs, goats, chickens, cows, a guard dog, one ranch dog, and a couple of horses). I believe it changed some of their perspectives about farming. Some had never even been in grass taller than their ankles. This grass was above our waist at times when we got off the tractor and walked about the field.

In July we took our second field trip to Spearfish and Sturgis. At Cycle Farm students learned about pollinators, pollinator habitats, permaculture, and regenerative agriculture. Cycle Farm grows vegetables to sell at a small farm stand on the property and several places in the Spearfish community. Jeremy Smith spoke about the importance of a healthy farm ecosystem and how each bug, plant, and animal had a specific role. He was kind enough to let each of us hold a baby chicken. The students’ faces lit up while holding them. Then we walked out to see the gardens and some small greenhouses. Jeremy highlighted how they rarely weed. Looking down the rows it was a bit harder to see the vegetables but everything was vibrant and green. We learned that the plants communicate through their roots, and by allowing nature to flourish in the space, over time it made their gardens healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases. This is because they have a communication system through their roots underground that has not been disturbed. They also use cover cropping to preserve the soil when vegetables are not growing.

Our next stop that day was to Bear Butte Gardens. Owners Michelle and Rick Grosek met us at their farm store and then gave us a tour of their farm. We learned about composting, farm animals, guard dogs, organic gardening, pollinators, and working as a farmer and business owner. Michelle steered the conversations to careers. She asked how many people think they would like to do something in agriculture. Some students raised their hands. Then she enlightened us on how she started working in this field, growing her own vegetables and selling at farmers markets locally until eventually they built their own farm store and got certified to be organic producers.

Our last summer field trip was to the Black Hills Farmers Market (BHFM) on Wednesday, August 9. Barb Cromwell of BHFM hosted a group of 24 youth. Youth were able to bring money to shop and also given a questionnaire. The task was to visit five vendors with their partner and ask them questions such as, “How did you start selling your own product?” and “Why do you think it’s important to shop locally?” It was a small market that day so students were able to visit all the booths. When they returned some had whole cucumbers and tomatoes and were taking bites just as they were. Others bought jerky and baked goods and were sharing with the whole group, and some even bought produce to take home to their family. This field trip was unique because youth were actually participating in our local food system and talking with the farmers on their own.

From September to mid-January, students have been participating in lessons on soil, our food system, and food justice. This fall one of the lessons in the Cornell S.O.W. curriculum was to come up with a list of community agreements that would serve as the rules for all of the younger classes and themselves. Students demonstrated communication, social skills, and teamwork to create these. Now they are displayed in the Greenhouse Classroom for every class to reference. Recently the students have been studying food justice. In the coming weeks classes will be focused on systems thinking, hydroponics and aquaponics growing systems, and re-imagining the food system for a positive change.

Project Outcomes

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

YFS has been very supportive of garden education and sustainable agriculture for more than a decade. The CEO serves on our Garden Advisory Group, and a Board member and his family have established an endowed fund for YFS Fullerton Farm. (The land for the farm was donated by the Board member's parents in 2014.) This project has elicited the interest of staff members and more.

Sustainable Agriculture practices parents adopted:
Success stories:

Destiny Durham, Youth Educator: There have been many successes throughout this project. At least 24 students were able to experience field trips to local farms and were engaged even if they didn’t want to work in a related field or weren’t interested in the topic. The biggest success of the project so far is simply increasing awareness. Most young people spend most of their time on computers, their phones, and in man-made environments. This project gives them the opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and familiar ways of thinking. An example of this is when we were at Dry Creek Farm & Ranch this summer, students were asking questions like, “What happens if the cow touches the fence?”, “What would happen if I touched the fence?”, “What do the pigs eat?”, “Aw, why can’t the dog come with?” and “Oh, no! You people eat these cows!” I overheard a student say to other members of the group that she “would love to live here and get to come outside in the morning to do this for work.” It was refreshing to witness the students’ reactions to this environment versus learning about it in the classroom. After the second field trip, on the bus ride back students were asked which place we visited today was their favorite and why. About half wrote “Barbacoa’s”, a local restaurant we went to for lunch earlier, but most of the others wrote Bear Butte Gardens. Recently when studying food justice and our food system, we watched The 7Gen Food System Vision video. This video highlights the food system the Lakota people had before the settlers arrived and how they are working to transform it today. When asked how this topic made them feel, one student responded with, “I feel shocked.”  I hope these awarenesses will hold value in their futures. Moving forward we are focusing on things we can do to change this system and recognizing our own strengths. In this part of the project and by teaching younger students through their project, I expect there will be more success stories.


Destiny Durham, Youth Educator: I love that SARE is giving youth the opportunity to learn about sustainable agriculture. It will likely be a part of their livelihoods and future. Opening the door to learn about sustainable agriculture at this age will influence the students’ futures. If they know the dangers of industrial agriculture and our current system, they can work with us to change it. We need a system that is not harmful to society and our environment. This project has helped them come to an awareness and understanding that would not have been possible in the classroom alone.

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.