Green thumbs

Lyndale Youth Farm and Market Project gears up for another gardening season

In the Lyndale neighborhood, it’s not hard to find a 10-year-old boy who can identify chives with a quick taste, a 13-year-old girl who knows how to compost or a 16-year-old boy who prefers to spend his summer days seeding and watering plants.  

Just stop by the Lyndale Youth Farm and Market Project’s half-acre garden at 31st Street and Blaisdell Avenue. The nonprofit organization works with about 50 kids age 9–18 each year, not only to hone their gardening skills, but to mold them into young leaders, healthy citizens and neighborhood contributors.

“We exist to give youth a place to learn how to be the best versions of themselves they can,” said program director Rina Rossi. “And we’re using food and gardening as a tool for that. And it’s a great, great tool.”

The Lyndale group is one of three throughout the city — the others are in Powderhorn and St. Paul. Former Lyndale Neighborhood Association member David Brandt started the program in 1995 after a group of neighborhood children took an interest in his garden. The group went solo a couple years later and has been expanding since. The two other garden locations were added in 2000.

Children age 9–13 are the Youth Farm’s primary participants. Older teens stay involved as paid staff and mentors after completing the program, which gets kids into in every aspect of running a community garden, from planting and weeding to harvesting and delivering.

In Lyndale, produce from the garden is delivered to 20 families — who buy shares in the project — once a week after harvest until the vegetables are gone. The crops include potatoes, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, hot peppers, onions, green beans and cabbage. Each vegetable was chosen for a reason.

“We’re focusing on what does the neighborhood want, what are really commonly eaten vegetables in the cultures we have in our neighborhoods and what does well in urban gardens, because not everything does,” Rossi said.

Lucia Watson, who was involved with the Youth Farm board of directors for many years, said she uses Youth Farm vegetables in meals at her restaurant, Lucia’s, at 31st Street and Hennepin Avenue, every year. The naturally grown urban produce is always good, she said, and for good reason.

“You’ve got this herd of kids tending to it lovingly every day,” she said.

Young green thumbs got their hands dirty in the Lyndale garden for the first time this year in early April, cleaning up litter and prepping beds for carrots.  

They worked a couple days earlier at a small greenhouse in St. Paul. Rossi said the Youth Farm would like to eventually get a greenhouse built in Lyndale.

Most Lyndale Youth Farm participants are from the neighborhood. It’s not mandatory, but priority is given to those children, Rossi said. Participation is free.  

“We’re really trying to get kids from the specific communities to be involved so that we’re growing vegetables in their neighborhood and also, one thing that I think is really neat, is they can get to know kids in their neighborhood,” Rossi said.

Lyndale Youth Farm participant Yanelli Rojas, 12, said the social aspect is one of her favorite parts of the program.

“We see a lot of our friends from school and we get to meet new people,” she said, taking a break from turning up dirt in the Lyndale garden.

Liban Mahamoud, 14, completed the program and is participating as a paid staff member this year. His younger brother is also involved. Mahamoud said he’s met many of his friends through Youth Farm and staying on was a no-brainer.

“What’s better than doing something that you get paid for that you like,” he said. “It’s fun just being out here gardening and stuff and hanging out with the kids.”

But Youth Farm is more than socializing and hanging out.   

In the St. Paul greenhouse earlier this month, children started the day by forming teams of three and eagerly blasting off on a scavenger hunt for the types of plants that were growing. Then Rossi took them through the steps of planting marigold seeds and had the groups bury their own. The kids took to the soil with surprising excitement.

 “Here, you learn lessons you can use your whole life,” said 13-year old Deqa Mahamoud as she made holes in little dirt squares on a plastic tray.

Mahamoud, in her fifth year with Youth Farm, said she’s learned “how to plant and go green and be good to the environment.”

“When you learn it, you can do it yourself,” added her teammate Jason Rodriguez, 10.  

During the school year, youth work the gardens one or two days a week for a couple days each week, Rossi said. In the summer, children spend three full days a week for eight weeks with the project.

At the end of each season, participants get the opportunity to vote on how the project should use a portion of the income collected through shares. It is usually put toward a field trip — Rossi said water parks are popular.  

Citywide, Youth Farm is reaching the capacity of children the five full-time staff members, 24 high school employees and handful of part-time staff and volunteers can serve, Rossi said. Program expansion is undoubtedly in the future, but creating another farm site isn’t planned yet.

“It’s our intention not to just plop ourselves down,” Rossi said. “But to go where we’re needed.”