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Douglass High, USDA look to train a generation of urban farmers

Students at Douglass High School have started a farm.

Six raised garden beds appeared behind Frederick Douglass High School this week containing rows of spinach, broccoli, cucumbers and "supersonic" tomatoes. Nine new trees nearby will one day produce apples, pears, figs and a fruit known as serviceberries.

Tending them will be a group of students at the historic West Baltimore school who, along with reading, writing and math, will now get lessons on how to be urban farmers.

"It's fun to me," said Nykerra Williams, a 15-year-old freshman excited by the idea of eating produce she grew herself. "It's fresh, and it's not processed."

The project brought together Douglass teachers and administrators, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and various city and state organizations to show the youths that urban farming is an economic opportunity for them and for their communities. The students could eventually turn the garden into a commercial farm, joining 17 other agricultural operations and dozens of community gardens that have sprouted around the city in recent years.

"We're here to celebrate your garden, but it's bigger than that," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the students Friday during a visit to Douglass. "There is real opportunity here — to be your own boss, to grow, to succeed."

Vilsack and Broderick Johnson, chair of President Barack Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" program promoting opportunities for young men of color, emphasized to the students that the project is a chance to move the community past the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's death from injuries sustained while in police custody. A night of rioting and looting last April 27 began with a confrontation between police and youths near Douglass and Mondawmin Mall.

"It was a lot of negative press about you all," said Johnson, a Baltimore native. "I know you all do a lot of positive things that people don't talk about."

As the USDA works to promote urban farming as an economic opportunity in cities across the country, Baltimore is serving as an inspiration, Vilsack said. The department is looking to multiply the number of urban farms across the country, and on Friday it was promoting an urban agriculture tool kit (at usda.gov/knowyourfarmer) on its Web page. "You all helped to start this," he said. "It was a conversation that took place in Baltimore."

Amanda Briody, a science teacher at Douglass, first saw students' enthusiasm for urban agriculture while working with them in a farm on Reisterstown Road just blocks from the school.

"It was really relaxing," said junior Jadzia Hall, who most enjoyed caring for the flowers.

Briody took a group of students to Great Kids Farm, which the city school system operates in Catonsville to supply produce used in dozens of city school cafeterias. About 15 of them were particularly enthusiastic, and they're now the school's first corps of student farmers.

"Now they're following me around and saying, 'Are we going outside today?' And I'm like, 'No, it's pouring out.'"

The USDA, through its Natural Resources Conservation Service, provided an $11,000 grant to launch the project. And local groups stepped in to help, as well — the Baltimore Orchard Project donated the grove of fruit trees, and the Maryland Nursery, Landscape and Greenhouse Association is providing supplies and training.

Eventually, the school and its partners plan to add hoop houses — greenhouses created by stretching plastic over a row of arches covering the gardens — to extend the growing season.

The students plan to get to work this summer. Briody said school officials hope to get them jobs through the city's Youth Works program that would assign them to the Douglass gardens.

Then in the fall, the plan is for the students to spend one class period each day working on the garden, learning more about agriculture or developing a business plan to sell their produce.

The gardens join a growing network of agriculture in the city. There are 17 farms, defined as operations that produce crops or livestock for sale, as well as more than 75 community gardens and another 77 or more school gardens, said Holly Freishtat, the food policy coordinator in the Baltimore Office of Sustainability. Most of them have sprouted since 2009, when the city created its first sustainability plan and included goals for growing urban agriculture.

Freishtat called the addition of the Douglass garden a first step in getting even more city youths involved in agriculture and "knowing where food comes from."

But the project is also stressing the economic opportunities in urban farming.

Vilsack cited a Purdue University study estimating that there are 60,000 job openings in agriculture-related fields each year, but only 37,000 new trainees for them. The Douglass students can help address that, he said.

"They're the ones who are going to be graduating and looking for jobs," said Allison Boyd, director of the Baltimore Farm Alliance, a network of 14 of the city's farms. "We'd love to have more young people working in agriculture."

For students like Hall, the Douglass junior, having a farm right outside their classrooms means it will be that much easier to get their hands dirty.

"I look forward to all the fruits, vegetables, flowers and trees — and experiences — the garden has to offer us," she said.

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