Garden and farm aficionados in Detroit

DETROIT — On a scorcher of a day in June, students in the EarthWorks Agricultural Training Program are loading up tools to haul down to the EarthWorks Urban Farm two blocks north on Meldrum Ave. behind Gleaners Community Food Bank on Detroit’s near-east side. Others are gathering small hand tools to harvest vegetables in a hoop house across the street.

It has already shot past 90 degrees, and it’s only 9:30 in the morning. As the students throw hoes, shovels, knives and other tools into carts, Patrick Crouch, who coordinates this training program and manages EarthWorks Urban Farm, EarthWorks Hoop House and Capuchin Farm, warns the students about dehydration and drinking enough water.

The program is much more than horticulture training; participants uncover a belief in themselves, and with that are able to fine-tune their personal goals and career direction over the nine months.

E.A.T., a collaboration between Capuchin Soup Kitchen and Gleaners, offers a small, intimate training setting to increase students’ agricultural skills and their grasp of revenue-generating agriculture activities – improving their employability along the way. The 2012 class of students who began in March and will complete the program in December is made up of 11 new students and three second-year interns.

The program remains small for good reason. It targets the chronically unemployed or underemployed, so participants need individual attention in a setting that is more comfortable, less overwhelming. And, E.A.T. is discussion based, so the smaller size is conducive to allowing time for everyone to talk and share, find his or her personal footing, and start establishing career goals (resume writing, computer literacy work, and job hunting and job retention skills training are part of the program).

Students are paid to attend the program (hourly wage of $6.50 for first-year participants and $6.75 for second-year interns) so it feels much like a real job. But the job here is learning, and rigorous learning at that. Many students enter the program knowing nothing about gardening and leave the program knowing how to assess a plot of land and prepare it for serious farming.

They learn about transplant production, soil mixing, hoop house construction, composting, harvesting, post-harvest handling and marketing, aquaponics (growing crops and fish together in a re-circulating system) – even volunteer management and public speaking.

Asparagus growing at Earthworks Urban Farm

Former students have gone on to agricultural-based jobs or followed more entrepreneurial paths after their initial involvement in E.A.T. Graduates have started transplant, vermicomposting, and tea businesses. One woman earns money by helping older neighbors care for their gardens. Another graduate manages two community gardens for pay.

Still others, who were trying to get small businesses going when they started the program, made notable steps forward with lots of personal determination, along with support, encouragement and networking help from E.A.T.

Last year, one participant had a small gluten-free baked goods business; she tweaked her recipe by the end of the program and worked diligently on marketing her product.  Another received help in marketing and networking through E.A.T. and is selling her ginger beverage to Whole Foods and Hillard’s Market.

On this June day, students dig in with confidence, weeding and tilling at the EarthWorks Urban Farm while others show volunteers how to harvest and sort zucchini, cucumbers and pattypan squash under the hoop house’s heavy blanket of heat. Yet, underneath the obvious mastery of tools and gardening, there is much more happening in the E.A.T. Program.

First, the program makes a huge impact on the folks going through it. Many E.A.T. participants face a number of life obstacles; overcoming them and working through the challenges of poverty with support from E.A.T. staff and fellow participants is part of the growth that takes place in this program.

For example, a 2011 participant celebrated her first year of being “clean” while in the program after using drugs for 20 years; E.A.T. was a supportive place to come to every day, helping in her recovery. Other participants faced housing issues and were temporarily homeless; they secured housing and found places to stay and were able to continue in the program.

Eating and lifestyle behaviors also evolve during the program. Participants become more interested in eating a vegetable-heavy diet and have experienced improved health and positive lifestyle changes (someone even quit smoking).

Students have lost weight because they are more physically active and eating better. And it tends to have a cumulative effect on the neighborhood, as they share healthier habits with family members, neighbors and friends.

The program is much more than horticulture training; participants uncover a belief in themselves, and with that are able to fine-tune their personal goals and career direction over the nine months.

Second, the greater community benefits. The program increases accessibility of produce for residents of Detroit’s near-east side through selling produce at community farm stands. It also filters part of the bounty into the emergency food system for use in prepared meals at Capuchin Soup Kitchen or at community pantries via Gleaners Community Food Bank.

Lastly, E.A.T. promotes the preservation of Detroit’s agricultural heritage through wise use of otherwise abandoned, unused or underutilized land. The EarthWorks properties and other newly farmed properties that the participants work on help to maintain and grow Detroit’s urban agriculture movement. Additionally, E.A.T. is filtering educated, skilled workers and leaders into the community by training folks who are ready for employment in Detroit’s burgeoning local food movement.

In its third programming year, E.A.T. has emerged as the premiere organization for agricultural training – a shining star in Detroit’s food system overhaul.

 

The training program is funded in part by the Americana and W.K. Kellogg Foundations, but support is always needed. Visit www.cskdetroit.org or www.gcfb.org to donate or volunteer.

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