Entrepreneurship the real crop of this urban farm

Aug 2, 2013

Gabe Diaz, 14, waters flats of seedlings under the watchful eye of farm manager Joshua Anderson.
Gabe Diaz, 14, waters flats of seedlings under the watchful eye of farm manager Joshua Anderson.
Credit Beth Lipoff/KCUR

When you grow up in the city, chickens aren’t something you see every day. But 13-year-old Malek Looney is getting to know them well.

"They’ll flap their wings and make loud noises and squawk at you. And you’ll be like, 'Oh no, they're mad at something,'" said Looney, taking a break from watering crops on a recent sunny morning.

Looney is spending part of his summer with Boys Grow, a Kansas City area group that teaches agricultural and business skills to 12- to 14-year-olds, and aims to provide them with positive male role models. Now in its third year, Boys Grow operates a 12-acre farm in Kansas City, Kan., just south of the Missouri River.  This is much more than a community garden.

"As far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of commercial-scale farms that are trying to start with kids," said Joshua Anderson, farm manager for Boys Grow.

The 24 teens in the program all sweat in the field. But they also transform the harvest into products like ketchup, salsa and barbecue sauce and become marketers of their business. They design labels and talk with local businesses about carrying their products, which are sold at local restaurants, grocery stores and farmers markets. Product sales provide about 25 percent of the Boys Grow budget, with the rest coming from grants and donations.

"The underlying goal is producing entrepreneurs. We’re just taking a little unorthodox approach in doing that," said founder John Gordon, Jr.

Each boy has to apply for his spot and commit to working for two years. The boys work a few times a month during school, then three days a week in the summertime.

The boys divide the work among their teams. One team works to develop the new product. The last two years, they’ve made salsa and ketchup. This year, they’re adding barbecue sauce to their repertoire.

Gordon said the teens have to learn how to shake someone’s hand properly, to make eye contact.

"A lot of the basic stuff that a lot of the time as you get older, you take it for granted, but … sometimes these guys aren’t necessarily taught those basic skills," he said.

And for this, they get paid.

"It gets a little jingle in the pocket, but more importantly, it actually teaches them they can make their own money and have the responsibility of having their own money," Gordon said. "Sometimes that responsibility is in the form of Playstation 3 or maybe it’s helping out with groceries around the house."

Shawnee Mission North biology teacher Ryan Ross, who is spending this summer working with the boys, said the program teaches the value of responsibility and hard work.

"Because these guys have to show up every day on time and be ready to work, and in the middle of the summer, it’s over a hundred degrees out here," Ross said. "We have to teach them to persevere and stick with it."

Some of the boys said that being in the program has helped them raise their grades at school.

Another skill they learn is public speaking. Malek Looney spoke about Boys Grow in front of hundreds of people at a food film festival.

"Right after, a lawyer walked up to me and was like, 'You’re very well-spoken,' and he gave me a card, and said, 'We’d like you to come in someday,'" Looney said. "'And I was like, 'Ok, yeah!'"

Looney said Boys Grow is fun because he gets great opportunities while doing something important. He also hopes to have his own farm someday.

Fourteen-year-old Steven Banks said he’s noticed a change in his own work ethic.

"At first, I was lazy and really not that worried about how things went, but after Boys Grow, it opened up my eyes that I need to do this and that and stop being lazy and do the right thing," he said.

For Tariq Nash, 14, the education goes beyond responsibility.

"I learned that growing vegetables, it doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It takes time and dedication, and you have to really take care of them.”