Garden of plenty

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Larsons foster skills,
life lessons

By Sarah Colburn

WILLMAR— Each week teens and young adults gather around a table with their mentors to share in a meal with food they grew, harvested and cooked themselves.

The MNyou Youth Garden serves as a training ground for young people to learn skills, make money and help diminish food insecurity throughout the region.

The thousands of pounds of vegetables produced in the garden each year do not go to waste. The food fulfills the demand of 30 to 60 paying customers who annually participate in MNyou Youth Garden’s Community Supported Agriculture program and receive weekly shares of produce. Those CSA shares cost more than traditional shares because each provides a matching CSA share to be given to a family in need.

Brent and Deb Larson oversee the program, which was started by their son Ben and co-founder Nate Erickson in 2016.

“We always find an outlet for everything we grow, so the kids have an understanding we’re not just picking weeds; we’re actually making a difference in people’s lives,” Brent said.   

This year the Larsons’ efforts were recognized as they were named the Kandiyohi Farm Family of the Year.
In addition to running the CSA program, the Larsons and their student crew sell produce at a farmers market. Any additional produce is donated to Hope for Our City, the food shelf and a church in town that distributes food.

Through the program, the young adults learn seedling management, pest management, transplant and harvesting skills, greenhouse and hoop house management, marketing skills and customer service, among other things.

The garden itself touts a plethora of produce. There are more than 20 vegetables grown — everything from tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, carrots and beans to radishes, rutabaga, turnips and potatoes. In between the rows of veggies, they also grow flowers for cutting.

The three-quarter acre plot of land just outside the Larsons’ home is turned over three times a year, so there is a constant influx of food being grown and harvested. Four years ago, the family moved a greenhouse to their property from the Minnesota West Community and Technical College to support the program. The greenhouse allows them to extend their food-growing season as do the two hoop houses on the property.

Ben still serves as the manager of the farm, and Erickson helps with CSA deliveries. Ben begins seedlings in March. Young plants hit the ground May 1, and teams plant all the way through August. Weekly, from mid-June to mid-October, youth harvest, package and sell the produce. Brent oversees the market management and youth training while Deb does youth training and manages the farm’s product packaging.

At any given time, 15 to 20 students ranging in age from 12 to 21 may be working on the farm. In addition to students who are referred to the program and those who hear about it by word of mouth, the Larsons also work with students with special needs from the Willmar Public School District and West Central Industries.

The produce and the flowers, Brent said, are the byproduct of helping kids learn responsibility and skills.

“Our main goal is to get to know the kids — know how they tick, how they work — and encourage them in their life goals, spiritually, how to show up on time, staying on task, being a man of your word,” he said. “They also learn how to count back change, customer service, how to explain the vegetables. … It opens up a whole other avenue.”

They try to place kids in positions where they can be successful and use their natural talents.

“We just have a real passion for finding people’s skills and loving that we can work together with our team and find different things for people to do that they can’t find for themselves,” Brent said.

Deb said there are jobs for kids with all ability levels.

“We’re finding we can create jobs for some of these kids with special needs,” she said.

They also work with families who have lost funding for care for their adult children. The farm, she said, gives them an outlet and allows them to work with a job coach.

“It’s such a diverse group of kids out here,” Deb said.

Participants include a number of students who are from Myanmar. Those students, she said, often send at least one-third of what they make on-site to their relatives overseas.

To bring all the students together, the Larsons started coordinating Friday farm-to-table meals for the group. During that time, they teach kids how to process and cook the vegetables they grew. They teach them how to pickle foods, how to freeze corn and other skills they could bring home to their families.

As the kids work together to create the meals, Deb said, they come together as a group.

The program has attracted help from the outside as well. Through the years, it has received a number of grants, but those dollars have since run out. For some time now, the program has been operating off funds from the CSA program, the dollars from the farmers market sales and donations from the community, which Deb said always seem to come at just the right time.

The program also benefits from volunteers who have begun working with the students, teaching them different recipes and cooking or preparation tips.

“Every retired mama has some,” Deb said. “It’s been a fun, unexpected thing that’s happened.”

Deb and Brent themselves are retired but said the farm venture is an opportunity to help young people to continue to grow. The couple said some of the kids in the program come from families that are struggling financially but not in spirit. They told the story of one of the students who slept in a basement floor apartment with a baby on top of him to keep the child warm.

No matter the young mentees’ financial backgrounds, their countries of origin or their skill levels, the Larsons said the farm and the weekly meal the students share together creates a sense of community.

“It really brought some things full circle,” Deb said. “They’re not just working in the garden the whole time pulling weeds; it’s brought them to the table together.”