A group of green-thumbed high school students will make a little extra cash this summer with unexpected tools — lettuce, tomato and daikon seedlings, and a greenhouse in Fair Haven to grow them in, courtesy of the New Haven Land Trust.
The five to seven students are the Land Trust’s Growing Entrepreneurs, a cadre of high schoolers who have joined the trust during the summer months since 2016. Thanks to a new greenhouse and a $10,000 grant from the Greater New Haven Green Fund, they’ll do their farming year round. Working only part time, they will earn the current minimum wage.
Land Trust Director Justin Elicker made that announcement Tuesday evening at the Land Trust’s Grand Acres community garden at the corner of Grand Avenue and Perkins Street in Fair Haven. It’s one of the organization’s 50 sites across the city, and one of the few that the trust owns.
Standing between the new $35,000 greenhouse and 21 community vegetable beds, Elicker welcomed 40 of the organization’s staff, board members, volunteers and supporters to the site, declaring it an expansion of the group’s mission to grow food for, in, and by members of the Fair Haven community.
“Our asset is not the land. It’s the people that use the land,” Elicker said.
The idea for the expanded garden and greenhouse is twofold, said Elicker. First, there are the 21 gently sloping, freshly dirt-covered community beds, each marked with a wooden stake and mound of black dirt.
“They remind me a little of graves,” joked gardener Mark Duda as he walked the beds before the event. But the beds are envisioned as a way to grow community involvement in Grand Acres, he added. People show up when they have a bed to tend, and there’s already a long waiting list.
In some of the beds, young plants have already begun to poke their heads out of the soil. In one that a couple has named after their daughter Hazel, still-tender collard greens rise up beside a few green, spiky strands of garlic.
There are also “incubator garden plots,” intended for graduates of New Haven Farms’ farm-based wellness program who want to continue growing and eating healthy food.
But second — and much newer to the Land Trust’s model — is the 28-by-48-foot greenhouse, with a gas heater, underground irrigation transport system, and automatic fans and vents that will allow it to operate year round.
Funded by a $20,000 grant from the city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative (by way of Community Development Block Grant funding) and part of a $50,000 grant from the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), the greenhouse will expand both the amount of food the Land Trust can produce each year and the Growing Entrepreneurs program. In addition to tending to new seedlings — enough to supply new plants at the Land Trust’s 50 sites — students will be able to try out business ideas and keep any extra money they make.
Ideas like offering to build, fill and plant raised beds for community members. After honing his carpentry skills on a fence for Grand Acres and several beds for the greenhouse, entrepreneur and Hillhouse High School senior Xavier Hernandez wanted to try that idea out. Slowly, he said, it’s catching on.
“It’s been a good experience working for the Land Trust for two summers and one winter,” said Hernandez, who moved to New Haven five years ago from Puerto Rico, and had looked for something to connect him to memories of his grandmother’s garden. “I now know I like carpentry a lot,” he added.
The program has already led to sales of produce to local vendors like Junzi and Miya’s Sushi, which purchased small batches of daikon radishes earlier this month. A junior at Wilbur Cross, entrepreneur Sadilka Lopez — who maintained that she’ll still only eat carrots, onions, and potatoes, but is a big fan of watching vegetables grow — said the experience had taught her to think differently about approaching both business and farming.
“This was dirt and a lot of rocks,” she said, motioning out over the neat beds, and motioning for a group of 20 to follow her. “Now look at it.”
“We want to make sure we are empowering New Haven residents to grow their own food, and at the same time giving them the skills” to transition to the job market, said Elicker, noting entrepreneurs Kylee Brown, Lopez and Hernandez, who had showed up for the event (two others from the 2016-17 session were not present). Whatever extra funds students make selling produce or privately building beds, they get to keep.
The greenhouse builds on existing programs at two nearby sites, said the Land Trust’s Mary Ann Moran, coordinator of 10 garden sites in Fair Haven. At the Fair Haven branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, Thursday afternoon classes are intended to engage kids every week, and leave the library with a basket of food that patrons can take from as they head out. On neighboring Clinton Avenue, there’s a program for kids at Clinton Avenue School to plant seeds during growing days, and a summer plan in which six volunteers man operations and community members can harvest vegetables throughout the summer for free.
“It’s getting healthy food to neighbors and creating community,” Moran said.