Nick DeMarsh is the co-founder of the Young Farmers program in Milwaukee, WI. The Young Farmers is an educational program that offers elementary and middle school aged youth an opportunity to learn about urban agriculture through experience based learning. Young Farmers grow and sell their produce at a weekly farm stand, which plays a critical role in improving access to healthy foods in the Metcalfe Park, Sherman Park, and Harambee neighborhoods, while learning about farming techniques, entrepreneurship, and the ecosystem.The Young Farmers Program was started in 2012. Since then they have had over 60 youth in the program. Young Farmers is a program of Groundwork Milwaukee a local environmental justice non-profit. I sat down to have a conversation about the program with Nick DeMarsh, one of the minds behind Young Farmers.
Madison: Let’s jump right in, what was life like growing up for you?
Nick: Growing up I guess I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship. We had a crab apple tree behind my house. When I was a kid I had the idea of cutting up apple slices and selling them like a lemonade stand in front of my house. I hadn’t remembered that memory until years after the Young Farmers Program was started, but in retrospect I’ve realized that it’s a program that a younger version of myself would have really liked.
The area of concern that guided me to getting involved with urban agriculture started with my awareness about the importance of protecting the environment. I’ve been struck by how our daily lives take a toll on the environment.
I’ve felt there must be another way. The idea of young people growing and selling produce in their community seems simple but to think about this being scaled out across more neighborhoods could have a subtle but important change – creating a way where we, humans, benefit the environment through our daily activities. Be it through storm water retention for gardens, eliminating the need for the use of cars in transporting produce, reusing food waste as compost – the list goes on. Equally important, this program can play an important role in growing the type of cohesive, caring communities we all want live.
M: Who have you been influenced by?
N: Over the past 5-10 years I have really learned so much from some amazing people. These influences include people who do this work here in Milwaukee such as Will Allen – with whom I was able to work for several years and people doing this work in other cities such as Greg Willerer in Detroit, Ngugi Ndungi in Nairobi. Philosophically, I have been very influenced by the late scholar, activist, and visionary Grace Lee Boggs who helped to contextualize the need for change in society, including urban agriculture and how, as she states, our work is situated on the “clock of the planet.”
M: Those are some pretty note-worthy people. What was the inspiration behind young farmers?
N: The Young Farmers Program was inspired by middle and high school students that I worked with for several years in a year-round greenhouse at Silver Spring Neighborhood Center and at a garden, which has now been converted to parking lot, on 24th and Scott. I found that the young people I was working with were interested in selling the produce that they grew. Generally speaking, I found that the young people I was working with were interested in entrepreneurship, as one young man put it when I asked him what he wanted to do in the future, he wanted to own his own business, so he could “be his own boss.” This is an important piece for me in the work that I do, listening to participants, which in this case is youth, to find out what it is that they want, what they are most interested in, and what their dreams and aspirations are.
I knew that there were people interested in buying organic and locally grown produce, I knew there was a market for what these young people were growing. So I wondered, how can we help to make the dreams of these young people come true? Or at least, how can I help them proactively create a world that they can enjoy, a world that they want to live in and a world that represents their personal dreams. I started to piece together the fact that these youth from these sites had plenty of farming talent after their dedicated work in these gardens for several years and that my neighborhood, Riverwest, had a lot of community minded people who would likely support these young people. Both because they too would believe in these young people, but also because they like understand the value of buying quality produce grown by good, organic, local farmers. So my hope was really to provide a platform for a group of young people to open pathways of opportunity for themselves, utilizing their talents, and that this would lead to much needed changes in our city and neighborhood food systems.
M: How did Young Farmers come to fruition?
N: As I began working to put the program into place, I met Jan Christensen, a longtime Riverwest organizer, who was already working on a similar program. She already had many of the pieces in place and just needed someone to take on the leadership of the program and a new cohort of youth. I told her I could lead it and I knew just the youth who I would plan to recruit.
At the time the Riverwest Neighborhood Association was the fiscal agent for Jan’s Young Farmers of Kilbourn Garden. When I proposed recruiting youth from across the city and remaking it into the Young Farmers of Milwaukee – the Riverwest Neighborhood Association felt that the program was getting beyond the reach of just the neighborhood. Jan recommended approaching Groundwork Milwaukee to be the program’s fiscal sponsor. Groundwork agreed and the first year, 2012, Groundwork was the fiscal agent. The following year, I was hired by Groundwork Milwaukee, where the Young Farmers became one of the programs that I oversaw.
M: What is Groundwork Milwaukee and how does the relationship between Groundwork Milwaukee and Young Farmers work?
N: Groundwork Milwaukee was formed as part of national network of Groundwork trusts across the US. Groundwork was actually originally formed in the UK, as an effort to establish community-based efforts to address the combined unemployment and vacant lots created as the UK shifted away from its industrial manufacturing base. Groundwork started in the US in the late 1990’s. Groundwork Milwaukee was started in 2007, for similar reasons that Groundwork was started in the first place – to create job opportunities for young people to take an active role in improving the urban environment. Each Groundwork trust within the US approaches their work differently based on the local context. The incorporation of the Young Farmers Program into Groundwork Milwaukee is a great example of how collaborative the Groundwork model is. The Young Farmers Program has now become a feeder program for Groundwork Milwaukee, engaging Middle School youth, who can become a part of other Groundwork programming once they enter High School.
M: That makes total sense. How do you think the program can affect the community as a whole or a participant?
N: The Young Farmers Program provides numerous opportunities for our participants. The question in large part is what our participants grasp onto and what’s most meaningful to them. It is an entrepreneurship program focused on literacy and healthy lifestyles. This illustrates the 3 primary benefits for our participants who learn about business & sales, while maintaining and improving their reading skills throughout the summer.
Additionally, the healthy lifestyle component is broad but so important. We support healthy lifestyles in numerous ways, from being active outdoors, to learning about the importance of fresh fruit and vegetables in a healthy diet and experiencing how good fresh vegetables taste. However, healthy lifestyles are much broader than this, it also relates to how our participants work with each other, learning teamwork, how they see their community, and how they see themselves.
They get to know their neighbors as they sell their produce, which illustrates the importance of entrepreneurship as a means for community building in our program. Often times the neighborhoods where we work are stigmatized as “bad” or “dangerous,” but these are some of the strongest most caring communities I’ve seen in Milwaukee or anywhere. The program provides a platform for young people to see this and be a part of the positive and good things happening in their neighborhood. This may even affect how they see themselves. The program offers an opportunity for our Young Farmers to see the best in their neighbors, see that they are from a good and caring neighborhood.
Equally so, the fact that our program offers participants the opportunity to feed their family and their neighbors as they both sell produce and take produce home. This creates a rare and unique place of connection with others and pride in one’s work. When Young Farmers receive compliments from their parents or their neighbors about the high quality, delicious taste of their produce, they beam with pride. That’s what this program can be for our participants.
Want to get involved?
Nick DeMarsh at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex at email@example.com