Outreach: Of Job Skills and Vegetables: the Youth Now Farm

A heritage farm outside of Ottawa is hosting a program to help marginalized youth and young adults (ages 15-24) gain the job skills and confidence to find and keep employment. Youth Now Canada, the Youth Services Bureau, Ottawa’s Parkdale Food Centre, and the National Capital Commission are working in partnership to help reduce the barriers to employment for this age group. In 2017 Statistics Canada reported that 13% of young people in Ottawa were unemployed. Youth who have difficulty finding a job often come from poverty, homelessness, have mental health issues, challenges at home, or have a history of run-ins with the criminal justice system, according to Youth Now Canada, a nonprofit organization.

Recent young immigrants also struggle to find employment. For them culture and language are the significant barriers. Mark Arnold, Youth Now Canada’s executive director, asserts that farm programs across North America have proven to be revolutionary in changing reality for marginalized teenagers and young adults. He is ready to put this knowledge into action. In 2017 an unnamed donor gave Youth Now Canada $100,000 to jump start the program. Through the donation they were able to buy equipment and pay for initial staff salaries. The multi-pronged approach combines community engagement, youth development, paid employment, therapeutic experiences, and valuable mentorship in a farm setting.

After much preliminary work, Youth Now Farm finally accepted its first group of young trainees to its program in June and its second on August 20. Six participants spent their day getting their hands dirty as part of the new eight week social program at the Carlsbad Spring farm. Working on a farm can be therapeutic and gives youth the opportunity to discover their particular strengths.  The animals they work with help youth learn the art of give and take, as well as responsibility, cooperation, and kindness. As well as the care and feeding of livestock, youth also learn how to plant, raise, and sell a variety of produce. Much of the produce grown is sold at the farm’s roadside stand or at local markets, which creates additional business skill learning opportunities. Working in a natural setting is a wonderful experience for these young people, and many don’t want to see their term end.

Rylan Campbell, a 17 year old high school student in the second cohort, rides the bus for an hour to the Blair transit station where she catches a 7:30 am carpool to the farm at Carlsbad Springs. The farm is 18 kilometres southeast of downtown Ottawa. “I feel really grateful to be here, so it’s great,” said Campbell, who moved to Ottawa from Thunder Bay less than a year ago. “It’s really an awesome environment to be in.” Campbell says that she interviewed for the two-month farm program because she enjoys working with her hands in the earth. She wants to gain knowledge and practical experience that will help her pursue a career in the environmental sciences.  The managers and the organizations involved in this program, still in its infancy, are very optimistic about the positive impact it is having. Of the five initial youth that participated in the very first cohort to complete the program, two went back to school and two of the remaining three are employed.

For the participants, some of whom are dealing with depression, anxiety, or anger management issues, the time spent with the animals is a big help. A student who feels overwhelmed and who might need some space to reflect is encouraged to hang out with a horse or a rabbit for a time. This interaction often makes them more receptive to learning essential coping skills. The program aims to foster both personal and professional development. Youth set goals and journal daily. At the end of the week they are given the opportunity to discuss challenges they faced and lessons learned. The very act of growing or nurturing something outside of themselves is important.

Rebecca McCaffrey is the youth development facilitator at the Parkdale Food Centre and joined the farm program staff in July. She says that a youth’s progress is tangible and improvement in confidence can often be seen on a daily basis. A typical shift on the farm involves work in both the barn and the garden. The successful applicants who are interviewed and chosen by the Youth Services Bureau earn a wage for up to 35 hours of work each week. If they fail to show up for work, they don’t get paid. The mission of Youth Now is to assist youth by enhancing their own strength and resiliency. A good work ethic is part of their training.

Working on the farm can help youth recognize their past challenges in the work force, and then find ways to problem solve. In the garden the participants plant, harvest, sort and wash a variety of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Some days they can be found peeling garlic, bagging beans, bunching green onions, or picking and sorting cucumbers. In the process they learn a number of food related business skills, including the best way to sell food at market. Leftovers go to the Parkdale Food Centre or home with participants so that they have an opportunity to taste the results of their labours. Once a week the young people visit the Centre where they learn food safety and preparation, meal planning, nutrition, and how to network for a job.

The priority in the barns is the care and feeding of the animals. These include a donkey, several goats, pigs, turkeys, ducks, rabbits and four therapy horses. The participants learn how to groom the horses, muck out stalls and pens, as well as feed and socialize the various animals. Time spent with the animals is meant to be therapeutic and builds many skills that are transferable to other jobs. Not all of the work is fun, but the youth soon learn that the animals’ well-being depends on the work getting done. The importance of each chore to the life of the animals fosters a sense of responsibility.

Elvis Gakwaya has been working on the farm for most of the summer. Born in Rwanda, he was orphaned during the 1990s’ genocide. He has been living in Canada for 9 years. He loves working on the farm. “I’m going to miss the farm and just being in this quiet,” he said. I am never going to forget this.” The natural environment has given Elvis healing and purpose.

The goal for the managers is to grow the farm into a financially sustainable venture, which they hope will simultaneously evolve into a full-fledged social enterprise for the benefit of many. Arnold believes it will take three to five years to maximize the farm’s potential. The property has 75 acres, but the soil quality is poor. Less than two acres are in use right now, but as the farm grows, the future revenue it provides will support the overall project. The dream is that the farm will not only contribute to the greater Ottawa community by increasing the city’s access to locally-grown foods, but also empower and train youth who are in need of such an opportunity. “A lot of young people aren’t going to succeed necessarily in some of the more traditional programs. Counselling doesn’t work for everyone,” Arnold said. “There is something to be said for planning, planting, seeding, nurturing, and harvesting a vegetable… seeing it from start to finish.”  The farm is designed to assist marginalized teens and young adults to gain the confidence they need to land and keep a job. They learn and practice skills related to conflict management, problem solving, reliability, and personal responsibility, all key ingredients to a successful career. Growing produce and caring for animals bring about tangible results and the harvest will be ownership of a job well done, new skills, and a fresh appreciation of the natural world.

By: Alison Zenisek

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