High school students start a farmers' market

Ohio teens who had never done any farming learned to grow organic vegetables and started their own farmers' market.

AP Photo/Columbus Dispatch, Neal C. Lauron
Last month, Olivia Degitz bundled up beets from the vegetable garden at the Waterman Agricultural Research facility in Columbus, Ohio. On a small plot of land owned by Ohio State University, 13 high school students have dedicated their summer vacation to farming.

On a small plot of land owned by The Ohio State University, 13 high school students have dedicated their summer vacation to farming. The youths from nearby Metro Early College High School are growing organic vegetables for a student-run market they spent months organizing.

Never mind that most of the participants began with little — if any — knowledge of the agricultural world.

"They've never been to a farmers' market before; they've never worked on a farm before — and yet they've put together this business just through straight research and interviews and talking to people," said Neal Bluel, the marketing manager for the farm and a botany teacher at Metro.

Their efforts came to fruition on July 25, when the market opened for the first time.

"They've done a good job so far," Mr. Bluel said. "It's gone beyond our expectations already."

The project represents a collaboration between the so-called STEM school adjacent to Ohio State and the university.

Ohio State students enrolled in a horticulture class mapped out the crop placement on the farm; Metro students planned the market and found other vendors. Both groups tend to the vegetables in the field.

Support for the initiative — including marketing and grant writing — was supplied by the Past Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with the 11 STEM schools ("science, technology, engineering and math") throughout Ohio to develop hands-on programs.

The four Metro students serving as managers and eight Ohio State students earn credit hours for their work.

A rotating group of volunteers from Ohio State, Metro, and other high schools in the area pitches in to help maintain the farm.

For their volunteer time, the Metro students get service hours — a graduation requirement.

The experience has given farm manager Meagan Jones a new appreciation for the vocation. "I didn't know what carrots looked like when they were in the ground," said Megan, a 17-year-old senior. "I didn't know there were so many different varieties of lettuce. I didn't know anything about it, and I didn't give farmers enough credit."

With the market's Saturday debut, Megan learned firsthand about some end-of-the-line challenges: Morning thunderstorms kept three of the nine vendors away.

By about 8 a.m., though, the rain had slowed to an occasional drizzle. And the six vendors who had set up shop in the Metro parking lot — five vegetable stands and one pottery stand — stayed busy.

Upper Arlington resident Barbara Shramo stopped with her husband, Richard. "The produce is beautiful," she said. "And I think this is a great experience for the kids."

The couple left with peppers, basil, green beans and summer squash.

Danielle Stellato of Upper Arlington and her husband, Chris, were driving to the North Market when they saw signs for the Metro market. They went no farther.

"It's smaller than most of the farmers' markets we've been to, but we got everything we needed," said Mrs. Stellato.

The students made about $200 — money for the Ohio State student-farm fund, which pays for supplies. The vendor fees go into the Metro general student fund.

"For the weather and for it being the first market, it did very well," said Bluel, also an Ohio State graduate student in horticulture and crop science. "The other vendors were happy with the amount they sold."

Market hours were planned for four consecutive Saturdays — and possibly longer, depending on the availability of student produce, which includes greens, peppers, sweet corn, tomatoes, and edible flowers.

Jack McClintock, a Metro senior, signed on as a farm manager because he plans to go into business and wanted to be involved in the startup of a small operation. Beyond the accounting and advertising lessons he gleaned from the work, he also learned a lot about food production.

"What this has done is opened me more to the unawareness of where our food comes from," he said. "I think often we take for granted the food that we have, what we eat, and what we live off of."

Elizabeth Roche, a volunteer, has broadened her knowledge of food and gardening. "In Columbus, it's probably not your average school that does farming," said Elizabeth, a 16-year-old Metro junior from Westerville. "Everyone talks about local produce and how good it is for you."

Although not particularly fond of weeding, she plans to volunteer at the farm again next year — when a new crop of managers and volunteers will lead the effort.

Jones hopes that more young people will visit farm markets and explore agriculture. "Because a lot of urban teenagers aren't really into farming," she said, "they don't know what it's about.

"It would be really rewarding to see people who would just go to Burger King to eat ... come here instead."

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