Mentoring At Risk Students in Sustainable Fruit and Vegetable Production
Grant funds were primarily used to pay wages for our mentors. This allowed extra time for us to provide training and give them increased opportunities to understand all aspects of our operation. Mentors were allowed to help with planning, ordering, and day to day operations of the fruit and vegetable production.
Mentors and Steve and I attended a mentor training workshop that addressed leadership styles and discussed the benefits and downfalls of each style. We learned the importance of building each member of a team up instead of tearing them down. We learned the importance of communication and clear instructions and demonstration. The basis of a good working team is communication and the ability of each individual to see their importance in the task at hand.
Mentors also attended a food safety workshop. This workshop addresses the importance of good farming practices concerning water, fertilizers, and handling of fruits and vegetables. It also addresses the importance of cleanliness in all aspects including the marketing and selling of produce.
We also purchased new farm t-shirts and sweatshirts for our mentors and interns with the grant funds received this year. This is a wonderful asset for our mentors and interns since we do not have to criticize their attire at the farmers market and events that we attend. It provides customers and other farmer’s easy access to our employees. They are easily identified by the attire they are wearing.
Mentors were also able to interview all of our applicants to the program. I conducted the initial interviews of each applicant and then allowed our mentors to come up with their own interview for each of the applicants. We decided that it was important for them to ask questions and get a feel for each of the applicants since they would be working so closely with each of them. This was a wonderful opportunity for our mentors to not only experience and interview, but to also see what potential employers are seeing and looking for when they conduct interviews.
This was a very difficult year for our production and the grant funds were very helpful in keeping our mentors working this year. In June we experienced a hail storm that cut our production in half. We were only 2 weeks away from selling tomatoes at the farmers market when the hail storm struck. The grant funds allowed us to keep these young people working when normally we would have had to shut down the program because of the loss of income. The mentors and interns learned the hard way how to salvage and tend for a crop that required even more labor to bring to market. It was a very trying and difficult time throwing out spoiled and damaged fruit, but due to their hard work we did have a successful year.
I have learned some very valuable lessons through this experiment this year. First and foremost not all young people are cut out for the rigors and trials of working outside in all types of conditions. We carefully interviewed each applicant and thought that we had made the best choice, but one individual just did not set well with the work that was required of him. When things got difficult there was always an excuse that he had to leave for some reason or another. This caused considerable friction between our workers and did not lead to a smooth working team.
I also think that having mentors that are so close in age to the interns is positive at times, but can also hinder the ability to form a cohesive team. When problems arose sometimes they were settled easily and other times they formed bigger problems because they were not addressed at all just dismissed with sarcasm or a negative comment that was destructive. Most of this was my fault because I thought that allowing them to work out the small problems on their own would give them the ability to gel and form a good team. On hindsight I needed to be much more hands on than I was since some individuals thought they were being bullied. I also expected quite a lot from our mentors and at times I think that I was entirely too hard on them. I expected them to stand out and be an example and at times that was too much for them to handle.
Farming is a difficult job for most people. The time involved is different that a nine to five job that happens five days a week. When we interviewed the applicants we stressed that the times we work are determined by the work to be done and also the weather. This creates an unusual schedule for workers when their schedule is determined day to day. We really try and keep things as uniform as we can, but there are times when we require longer days or early morning and late night days depending on the weather. For example when we were experiencing 100 degree days we would work from 7am to 10am and then break and work from 6pm to 9pm or later depending on if we were getting ready for market or had straw to put up in the barn. This created a difficult schedule for our employees and it was difficult for them to meet up with friends when they were not working. I think our young interns and mentors felt as if they were missing out on their summer fun at times and this is something that I feel we need to address next year for better morale.
This year we plan to have some retired adults come in and work in our operation. I think that this will be a valuable asset to not only our young workers, but also to some of the retired adults in our area. I always enjoy listening to stories from my grandparents and other older individuals about the ways of the past and I believe that our young employees will gain valuable insight and information from these folks as well. I also believe that some older adults can better diffuse problems that arise in day to day operations than the mentors that are so close in age.
We are happy and sad to be losing our mentors to college and other employment opportunities that are more specific to their planned career choices. This puts us in a situation that we were expecting but hoping not to experience for a couple of more years. Our interns from last year are not suitable candidates for the mentor position so we will utilize the retired adults from our community as our mentors for this year. We will also be employing employees that we utilized last year in our operation to begin the mentoring process for our interns this year.
We are also in the process of developing and launching our web site for the farm. This has been an extremely difficult project to complete because it seems that we are always putting it off because something more pressing must be done. We hope to have it completed before we begin peak season in the vegetable season.
New to us this year is a high tunnel! We will be studying the pros and cons of high tunnel production!!!!! Not only are we going to study the high tunnel itself but we are also transitioning to organic in the high tunnel so there is a whole new learning opportunity for myself and the youngsters!!!!
We will continue to develop and produce our marketing materials for the farmers’ market. We had lots of success in developing and handing out recipes from the dishes we made for our Wednesday Night Dinners! We definitely sold more of our produce when we featured it in our recipes that we handed out!!!! People were tickled to have a new dish to try for their picnics and get togethers.
We had a field day in conjunction with the Webb City Farmers’ Market Kids Garden Project. The mentors and interns each prepared a ten to fifteen minute presentation. Topics included irrigation, attitude, planting techniques, and general information about our farm. Eileen Nichols was in attendance and no one else attended.
We combined a field day with a service project and planned and prepared a Mexican Feast at the Ronald McDonald House in Joplin, MO. We used all of our fresh produce in the preparation of the luncheon. We spoke with volunteers and families staying at the RMH about our program and the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet of young children and families. We talked with five families staying at the house and a dozen volunteers that were working at the house.
In 2011 we plan to have a field day in conjunction with the Webb City Farmers’ Market including the general public and vendors at the market. Topics will include general growing guidelines, high tunnel production, and the progress of our experiment in our mentoring program.