It is a timeless sentiment: we are able to do more when we work together. However, working together can be hard when you find yourself needing to adhere to strict social distancing practices. As an organization that is centered around gathering, heading into the 2020 growing season left us with many questions: How would we continue to grow food for our neighbors? How would we continue to engage communities in urban gardening? And, most importantly, how would we continue to support the development of young leaders? As we asked ourselves these questions, we realized the answer truly did lie within coming together, just in a different way. Over the course of our organizational history, a vibrant network of community partners has been integral to our work each and every year. This year, we knew that we could still grow alongside our community if we continued to work with these partners in new ways. 

An important part of our partnership work each season starts within our St. Paul greenhouse. The greenhouse, which sits on the property of Cherokee Heights Elementary School, serves a number of purposes, including plant education for students and plant distribution for local growers. Beginning as early as February, students seed thousands of plants as part of their school day alongside Youth Farm staff. These plants are then distributed to a multitude of partners throughout the Twin Cities. When the doors of local schools were shuttered in mid-March of this year, hundreds of plant starts in our greenhouse needed attention, and hundreds more needed to be started if we were to deliver on all of our commitments to partners.

Hardening off thousands of plants at Youth Farm’s St. Paul greenhouse during the spring of 2020.

Working quickly and collaboratively, the team at Youth Farm developed new safety procedures followed by greenhouse-specific procedures. With the green light to get back in the greenhouse, Program Specialist, AJ, had a lot of work ahead of him. As he began to tend to the plants that were already in the space, a local partner reached out wondering if he could take in thousands of plants that were already started, and needed a home within a greenhouse quickly. He promptly replied, excited about the opportunity and the fact that he wouldn’t have to make thousands of soil blocks by hand, a task that students typically assisted with throughout the season. With all of these new plants, AJ soon realized that there was now actually a surplus in the greenhouse. As a seasoned community organizer and long-time gardener herself, Director of St. Paul Programs, Sarah, knew that time was of the essence, so she quickly began reaching out to partners throughout the Twin Cities, not wanting to see any plants go to waste. Meanwhile, Program Specialist, Jesus, worked closely with schools and teachers throughout the West Side and Frogtown neighborhoods to coordinate school garden spaces for the season.

Vicki Bohling, the Partnership Coordinator at Cherokee Heights Elementary School, found herself in a similar situation, things were changing quickly and she wanted to still meet as many of the needs of students and families as possible. “This year, I tried to stay grounded and adapt to the things that we would normally be doing,” she said. “At first, we didn’t know what the fate would be for anything for the rest of the school year, including the annual plant giveaway that we do with Youth Farm.”

With a surplus of plants ready to go out to local gardeners and interest flowing in from students, families, and school staff members, Vicki knew that distributing plants to the school community was both wanted and needed, and the team at Youth Farm was ready to do it.

“Throughout the month of May, our solid partnership with Sarah, Jesus, and AJ allowed for really fluid conversations that led to the development of a system to get plants out to families from the school,” Vicki said. “Along with the students and families of Cherokee Heights, staff were also really excited about plants. Not only was the team able to package, label, and distribute plants to families, they also created a surplus table where staff members could choose plants to take home.”

The surplus table set up for staff at Cherokee Heights Elementary School.

Quick organization paid off, as over 40 families took home eight varieties of flowers, vegetables, and herbs, all of which will turn into engaging outdoor growing activities, delicious home cooked meals, and reasons to work and reflect within urban garden spaces. On the other side of town, another school was also excited about the opportunity to continue growing with Youth Farm this season. 

Na Yang, a fourth grade Hmong Dual Language teacher at Jackson Elementary School in Frogtown, uses plants for more than just growing food – she has turned them into learning opportunities and cultural connections for her students.

“During my second year of teaching at Jackson, I noticed that there wasn’t much involvement in the school garden,” Na said. “I decided to get more involved in the space, so I started planting and used the process of growing to teach my classes about life cycles.”

Over the next few years, Na continued to use the school garden space as a place for her and her class to grow together. She also used it as a space to connect her students to the Hmong culture, to which many of them belong.

“Every year I grow Hmong vegetables and herbs in the garden and then the students and I harvest, cook, and enjoy the food together. I also teach them the Hmong words for all of the foods – it’s a cultural experience for them,” Na said. “This year, since my students were not able to help me plant, AJ and Jesus came with plants from Youth Farm and helped me get the garden ready.”

Along with a network of students, teachers, and neighbors, Na is confident that the garden will be a success this year and will continue to provide a space for learning, connections, and access to delicious vegetables and herbs.

Na with fellow community members working in the garden space at Jackson Elementary School.

At Youth Farm, we know that spaces like Na describes are important to youth and community members alike. As plants continued to make their way out of the greenhouse, we looked beyond our school partners to see how our plants could support other organizations working to create outdoor learning opportunities. If we were not able to offer the regular amount of direct programming to young people ourselves, we knew that providing resources to others who also work with young people was the next best option.

The Urban Farm and Garden Alliance (UFGA) is a network of urban garden spaces in the Rondo and Frogtown neighborhoods, working to connect and heal communities through gardening. Several years ago, Steph Hankerson, a collaborator with UFGA, worked side-by-side with Youth Farmers in the Frogtown neighborhood and every year since she has connected with Youth Farm in some way, be it through programming or plant distribution. This year, with an uncertain budget and shifting programming, UFGA’s need for free plants was evident.

“When AJ reached out to me after taking in more plants, I knew it would be a huge help to UFGA,” Steph said. “Money is tight, so free plants are an important resource that help us keep our programming going.”

One of the programs UFGA runs is a children’s gardening program. Megan Phinney, the coordinator for the program, was able to use some of Youth Farm’s plants in garden kits sent to families, which will be used to run the program virtually this season.

“This year the interest for gardening was still there among our community, but resources were lacking,” Megan said. “As urban gardeners, collaborative partnerships, like the one we have with Youth Farm, are so valuable and are truly what keep us all growing.”

In addition to the children’s gardening program, plants from Youth Farm went to dozens of backyard gardens and eight community gardens in the UFGA network.

“Each year partnerships like this have to adapt,” Steph said. “But gardening still remains not only an interest, but a need of the community. The network of partners that our community of growers has created is making a ripple effect – these plants are going from large growers, to organizations like Youth Farm, to community gardens, to families, to children. The impact keeps carrying on.”

Varieties of vegetables packaged, labeled, and ready to go home with families.

After wondering whether or not we could keep growing for partners we had committed to, and long-time partners like UFGA, over the past few weeks we have actually found ourselves connecting with new partners.

In the same vein as the garden at Jackson Elementary School, Melissa Wenzel has been nurturing a native pollinator garden at Highwood Hills Elementary School on the east side of St. Paul. In 2018, the garden was designed by a local Eagle Scout from an all-Hmong Boy Scout troop as his senior project, and Melissa has since taken over the coordination of it. With some gaps still needing to be filled throughout the garden, she reached out to the Twin Cities gardening community on a perennial exchange Facebook page, where Program Director, Sarah, immediately drew a connection. Sarah knew that Youth Farm had access to a number of native plants through a garden that AJ had started and she also felt a strong connection to Highwood Hills, as one of her best friends is a teacher there and last summer Youth Farm came to work with the kids in her class.

“Sarah reached out to me letting me know that Youth Farm had connections to a variety of native plants that I was interested in,” Melissa said. “Within a few days AJ came to deliver 20 plants in eight different varieties. This simple, yet impactful, connection was so important to me because so many people travel through this space and truly appreciate it. It is a place where people can come, reflect, and connect.”

Carolyn Chisholm, Sarah’s longtime friend and Highwood Hills teacher, agrees. “The principal, along with the staff and community, have made it a priority to make sure this [Highwood Hills Elementary] is a place where people can feel pride,” she said. “The pollinator garden is another important way in which people can feel connected and enjoy the community here.” 

Over the next few years, we hope the connection to the pollinator garden at Highwood Hills allows our partnership to expand. Last year, Jesus was able to come out to Carolyn’s class and do a “test run” of sorts to see what future programming could look like. Both Melissa and Carolyn are excited to see how the budding possibilities to connect classrooms, gardens, and Youth Farm programming at Highwood Hills could play out over the coming seasons.

Not only does Carolyn see the importance of experiential learning, she is also excited about the way in which program participants can learn from each other.

“My class was so excited to learn from Jesus because he is the perfect mix between ‘cool kid’ and teacher,” Carolyn said. “As an alum of Youth Farm’s programs, he has a special connection to students and understands how to engage them. This continuous process of learning from each other is so incredibly valuable.”

A member of the community at El Colegio Charter School collects jalapeno and papalo plants from Youth Farm to send home with families.

With plants now making their way into the ground across the Twin Cities, we continue to collaborate where we can. In each neighborhood, we strive to listen to the needs of the community and identify how we can be a part of meeting those needs while still keeping ourselves and others safe. The power of partnerships is woven within the fabric of the success of our entire organization and has been instrumental in our work this growing season. In a year of uncertainty, we have been certain of one thing – the communities we collaborate with are making an impact far beyond what we can write here, and that is the fire we need to keep doing what we do best: growing.