16-year-old Brennan Persenaire Hogeter is more than familiar with the effects of farming; he spent 11 years traveling around Africa with his family teaching new farming techniques to agricultural communities.
“I have seen the impact of farms and the impact of not having farms and what a poor harvest can do,” Persenaire Hogeter said. “I have always wanted to be a farmer, or at least be involved in where my food comes from.”
He is well on his way; Persenaire Hogeter is one of a group of teens employed by New City Urban Farm on the northeast side of Grand Rapids. The farm is a program of non-profit New City Neighbors and is impacting the community through social enterprise by employing at risk teenagers from the surrounding Creston and Belknap neighborhoods, teaching them valuable entrepreneurial skills and helping them to find careers paths.
New City Farm employs an average of ten teens in the summer and five during the school year. Most are high school freshmen and sophomores and start their first summer working 18 hours a week for a $1,000 stipend. If they choose to continue working through the school year and return for a second summer, they receive an hourly wage of $8.50. The program aims to give the teens a full look of what a functioning business looks like while building their resumes.
“We are not trying to make them future farmers, although if they get into that, that’s great … our hope is that they will find some kind of employment or end up in college,” Farm Director Lance Kraai said.
Kraai has been working with teens on the farm since the program was initiated in 2012. Kraai says that for the first year of the program, he and the team at New City Neighbors just wanted to see if the idea would work at all. The program initially only offered summer time employment and implemented school year employment this past year in order to increase retention.
“We used to work with them in the summer for 11 weeks and then say ‘alright, see you later’,” Kraai said. “We had a couple that would come back, but we kind of lost some of them through the school year.”
New City Farms sells produce to 120 CSA shareholders and supplies a number of local restaurants and grocers, including Graydon’s Crossing, Malamiah Juice Bar, the YMCA Veggie Van, Relish Green Grocer and Kingma’s Market. Along with working in the field, the teens are responsible for customer service, sales, marketing and creating additional product. They write articles and take photos for the farm’s weekly newsletter, make soups and salads to sell to shareholders, and contribute ideas for marketing strategies. In 2015, the farm harvested upwards of 25,000 pounds of produce and grossed $60,000 in sales.
“We do a marketing brainstorm each year and figure out what’s our market niche, what’s the story we are trying to tell,” Kraai said. “They see our crop plan, they see our annual budget … they really get a full spectrum of small business.”
For 2016, Kraai and the teens intend to focus on the value added side of the farm and are considering ideas such as installing a wood fire pizza oven for a weekly community pizza night, planting fruit trees and having a pickling day.
D’Merik West, 16, is a junior at Wellspring Preparatory High School and has been working on the farm since the summer of 2015. She spoke of enjoying learning new skills and is looking forward to an upcoming class on social media marketing that the teens will be taking.
“There is something interesting to learn about everyday,” West said.
Along with helping them build resumes and acquire small business acumen, the farm serves as an important platform for the teens to hone their management skills. Persenaire Hogeter has aspirations to become a farm manager and is learning how to implement leadership. Before he started working on the farm, he wasn’t convinced of his ability to make decisions and lead others.
“When I first came I didn’t really have much confidence in myself and my abilities…” he said. “They (Kraai) said that I was a really good leader … I have never heard that before in my life–that I am a good leader.”
For more information on New City Urban Farm, please visit http://newcityneighbors.org/farm/