Drew Gold warned me that if I came to the Teens 4 Good farm, I should be prepared to work. So, when I arrived at the half-acre plot on 8th and Poplar Streets in Philadelphia, I crouched down and started to weed a perennial garden.
In the course of an hour, a dozen visitors to the farm came and went: teachers from neighbouring middle schools picking up compost; customers from the community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme collecting their share; volunteers plucking cherries from a Philadelphia Orchard Project tree; a local public radio station spotlighting a student in Teens 4 Good; and two youth rehabilitation officers taking a tour.
It’s an unseasonably breezy, cool day for June. “You’re wearing a straight-up winter coat,” Gold calls to a CSA customer on his way out. But the plots around us are teeming with spring produce, despite the weather.
Gold is friendly and speaks fast – shouting salutations; handing over sets of keys; checking on the farm stand out front; weeding around milkweed (worth keeping for the butterflies); all the while giving me an interview. Gold is Farm Manager and Educator at the 8th and Poplar Teens 4 Good Farm, one of four youth-led entrepreneurial urban farms that are part of the Teens 4 Good programme.
A commuter train roars above our heads every 15 minutes, crossing an underpass that bisects Poplar Street. The East Poplar neighbourhood has a history of moderate industry and single-family homes, both razed during the Depression. Public housing has blanketed the neighbourhood for the better part of 70 years.
Now, nestled around the farm, amongst abandoned factory shells and empty space, are baseball fields, tennis courts, a community centre, schools and a gold-domed Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral. It’s not a booming neighbourhood, but it’s not empty. There’s life here.
Gold is personable and approachable, and this life suits her. She isn’t isolated in the middle of a 100-acre field, like many of her peers, because her farm is located in the city. Here, Gold and a crew of teenagers from neighbouring high schools grow produce to sell at a weekly farm stand and through a CSA programme, as well as to donate to neighbours who need it. Gold’s main equipment consists of a pair of red pruning shears resting in a leather holster clipped to her belt loop.
Ten years ago, this space was growing nothing; it was a vacant lot. When executive director Diane Cornman-Levy decided to establish the Teens 4 Good flagship site here, the farm beautified a quarter of the block and, more importantly, improved access to healthy food and created meaningful jobs for at-risk youth. Work on the farm is meant to empower youth to become healthy, responsible stewards who give back to their communities.
Angela is a 12th grade student in the programme. She is working at the farm stand the day I visit. Gold points at the chalkboard of vegetable prices as Angela ticks off that day’s offerings: “Bok choy, tatsoi, turnips, arugula, garlic scapes, cherries,” she lists, trailing off.
Purchasing from the Teens 4 Good weekly farm stand or joining its CSA means purchasing produce grown in healthy soil by farmers and teens on Philly’s neighbourhood farms. All produce (except apples) is grown on site using organic practices and it is all harvested the day of market.
“Kids in the city don’t get exposed to farming,” Angela says. “I’m the first in my family to do anything like this. And I’ll keep doing it as a hobby.”
Gold estimates that 1 in 15 of the teens that go through the programme will have a professional future in agriculture. The rest have other plans. But, for her, that’s reason enough to keep teaching.
“Even if every teenager doesn’t end up farming for a living, they hopefully become responsible participants in our food system,” says Gold. “The aim is to give them the tools they need to make their own healthy decisions – like deciding whether to drink soda or to drink water, knowing what choice they want to make and why.”
“I grew up in New York State. I grew a garden, but never my own food. I got my hands dirty, knew how to weed, knew I didn’t hate it,” she said.
It was a year’s WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) experience in Italy that introduced Gold to growing food. She followed this with three years working at the university farm where she studied in southern Vermont. After graduating, Gold took an urban farming position in Berkeley, California, followed by a two-year “allyship” at People’s Grocery in Oakland.
“It was mind blowing,” Gold says. “I learned about issues of systematic oppression as it relates to our food system and got pretty riled up. Our generation is used to having our decision-making powers manipulated.”
Gold leans over the sink as she washes cherries, then looks behind her shoulder at the broccoli growing behind her. “For me, this farm is the antithesis of that. I think it’s important to provide an environment where people can teach each other and themselves. They can take back some control over their lives.”
When Gold moved to Philadelphia five years ago, the house she was renting had garden space in both the front and back yard. Serendipitously, she was befriended by a group of neighbours – “Old heads who had been farming in the city for 30 years,” she says.
Her home became a hub for her neighbours – including its teenagers – to come and lend a hand in the garden and cook together.
“There were projects happening at the house all the time,” Gold says.
“I don’t like grown-ups that much,” she continues. “I like teenagers. Teenagers are a huge, yet underestimated, part of every community.”
At the time, a friend of Gold’s was working at Urban Nutrition Initiative, and asked if she wanted a job running the garden programme at a nearby public high school.
“They told me, ‘You’re doing it anyway’,” says Gold.
She made the high school garden her home for many years, and taught its students all she knew about growing food. Now she’s doing it for the teens at 8th and Poplar.
“The main value I try to teach is self-sufficiency,” says Gold. “I feel that teenagers and young people in general are not given as many tools to make their own intelligent decisions and don’t have much agency in doing that. Hopefully, our students leave the Teens 4 Good programme feeling excited and independent and they have the tools and knowledge to do what they want to do.”
As a young adult, once Gold figured out what she wanted to do, she quickly realised the hurdles she would need to jump in order to make a career in urban agriculture. If she kept farming the way she did during her time in California, her career trajectory would look something like: “Making $9 an hour so that in five to seven years I could make $12 an hour, and then get my own farm and make even less money. I couldn’t even afford to buy the food I was growing.”
Possessing both the skill to work with teenagers and the knowledge of sustainable agriculture is a niche skillset in today’s workforce, and Gold has both. There are funding sources that support this kind of work, but Gold hopes that more develop so other qualified folks can have positions like hers.
“It took me about five minutes to realise how insanely pivotal Drew is not just to this farm, but all four of them,” says Sean McKenzie, Teens 4 Good’s new Director of Youth Programs. “She’s dedicated. She knows what needs to happen, and I think that everyone sees that. Especially the youth who get to work with her.”
“People ask if I volunteer,” says Drew, smiling. “I tell them that I’m not that good of a person. I just hope our teenagers will be part of a society that sees the value of the farmer. Just like we see the value of young people.”
I asked Gold why. Why value young people? What do they do for us?
“Everything, eventually,” she replies. “Teenage years are an amazing age for people. You can decide on the course of your life at that point in time.”
“Think about your life,” she prompts me. “If you had been given more opportunities and choices, what would you have done?”
We pause as she hangs a bag of sorted cherries on the scale.
“I don’t know,” she continues. “A lot of teens are pretty hilarious and blunt and tell it like it is. They see more. This farm is a catalyst. If one in every ten of my kids grew food for a living I would be thrilled.”