Like every dedicated farmer, Darius Dixon rises before dawn each morning and heads out the door with dreams of a bountiful harvest.
But for Dixon, 17, embracing an agrarian way of life requires a grueling two-hour commute five days a week on a CTA bus from his family's Chatham neighborhood home to the farm at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (chicagoagr.org) at 111th Street and Pulaski Road.
"My great-grandmother grew up on a farm in Mississippi, so now we share stories, and we share recipes," Dixon said. "All the hard work pays off when you're finished, and in your hand, you're holding an ear of corn that you actually grew."
Indeed, for a burgeoning number of teens such as Dixon, an affinity for digging in the dirt is proving transformative, blurring the boundaries between rural and urban, fostering a grassroots slow food movement, and perhaps above all, forging future career paths in agricultural sciences.
From suburban 4-H club members donating bushels of their homegrown produce each week to local food pantries, to Chicago high school students who view their urban farm as a safe haven from dangerous city neighborhoods, teen gardeners these days are too busy tending their hydroponic basil to worry about something as trivial as who's dissing whom on Facebook.
"I don't mind getting my hands dirty," said Quincy Sadowski, 16, a student at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake and a member of the Crystal Clovers 4-H Club. "When I'm feeling frustrated about something, I like to water my garden. It always makes me feel better."
Over the summer, Sadowski and her fellow 4-H members were busy growing cucumbers, green beans and peppers in two raised beds at the University of Illinois Extension in McHenry County. After months of weeding and watering, the produce was picked and packed up by 4-H members, who distributed their bounty to a local food pantry and nursing home.
"I actually refuse to get a Facebook account, because I don't want to get sucked in, and I only text message my friends a couple of times a day," Sadowski said. "I really love being outside, just sitting in a rocking chair next to my garden."
According to Kristin Walter, spokeswoman for the National 4-H Council (4-h.org), the venerable organization is not only increasingly popular with suburban teens such as Sadowski, but also is attracting scores of new members in cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Detroit and New York. Walter said that today's chapters of 4-H, long a staple of rural America, are often far more concerned with issues such as eradicating social inequities in food distribution, rather than competing for blue ribbons at the county fair.
"We have one 4-H group where the kids are doing a project that uses GPS technology for mapping food deserts," Walter said, referring to neighborhoods with few fresh-food grocers. "With 4-H, the kids decide what excites them and work step by step to solve a problem."
For special education students at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, tugging weeds from the flower beds in their courtyard garden has become a labor of love. Bolstered by a grant from the district's fine arts foundation, teacher Craig Ameel has been able to encourage his students to create a "Garden as Living Art," a project which involved the students' sketching out landscape designs, shopping for perennials and painting steppingstones for a walking path.
"It's been a very positive experience for the kids, heading outside when the weather is nice, and getting their hands dirty," Ameel said. "There really is no holding them back from this project."
At the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, teacher and agriculture department chairwoman Sheila Fowler said her student gardeners recently harvested a bumper crop of broccoli, sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, okra and other veggies at the campus farm, which also is home to a menagerie of horses, cows, pigs, chickens, goats and sheep. The vegetables are then sold to the community at the high school's on-campus farmers market, where students also sell items like homemade zucchini bread.
Earlier this month, Fowler traveled with a contingent of her high school students to a convention in Indianapolis; they had the chance to huddle with leaders in the agricultural industry, where many of the students hope to work someday.
"We're really proud that between 75 to 80 percent of our students here go on to college," Fowler said. "We have kids at the high school from various neighborhoods. … Some are rough places where all the bad stuff happens that you hear about in the news. It's good for these kids to be here at the high school, and they are generally happy here."
Senior Darius Dixon said he is busy these days applying to colleges, where he hopes to major in food sciences and technology.
"I'd like to be part of an organization that is working on ending world hunger by improving agricultural practices and food distribution," said Dixon, who plans to apply to colleges with strong agricultural science departments, including Purdue University, the University of Illinois and Kansas State University.
"My friends in the agriculture program are more like a family. We're all really close," Dixon said. "I absolutely feel the safest place for me right now is here at the high school, so I find myself staying late a lot, just working on projects."