A new business that builds and installs garden beds. Another that converts garden plots into greenhouses. Yet another that turns locally grown herbs into incense. All from a program that grows New Haven high school students into local entrepreneurs.
On Monday night in the second-floor dining room of Union League Cafe on Chapel Street, the New Haven Land Trust celebrated the graduation of the latest cohort of that program, the Land Trust’s Growing Entrepreneurs program.
Six local high school students received diplomas and chowed down on a gourmet dinner of chicken, rice, and carrots as a few dozen family members and Land Trust advocates celebrated the group’s environmentally-friendly work over the past two years ... including growing the very carrots used in Monday night’s entrée.
“We live in very challenging times today,” New Haven Land Trust Executive Director Justin Elicker said. “And oftentimes we lose this connection with people, particularly people who are different from us. We may not have the same economic means. We may not come from similar backgrounds. But much of what we do at the New Haven Land Trust is try to bring people together and break down those barriers and meet people where the need exists.”
Those connections were on full display on Monday night as the newly minted graduates praised the professional and personal skills they learned during their two years participating in the Growing Entrepreneurs program, which the Land Trust has been running for five years and which trains local high school students to start businesses around growing sustainable, local produce.
The program also distributes vegetables grown at the Land Trust’s Grand Acres farm to CitySeed farmers’ markets as well as to a number of New Haven restaurants, including Union League, Christopher Martin’s, and The Juice Box. The students, who began their paid employment by the Land Trust in early 2017, also built two pergolas, one on Chapel Street and one at LEAP’s headquarters on Grand Avenue, and a four-bin ASP compost system at a garden on Winchester Avenue.
Xavier Hernandez, 21, and Sadilka Lopez-Roldan, 19, started a business installing raised garden beds at privately owned homes throughout the city. The recent Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross graduates said they installed around 35 garden beds in the summer of 2017, and another 25 in the summer of 2018 in neighborhoods including East Rock, West Rock, and Westville. In addition to building the garden beds out of wood, they also provide soil and fabric that separates the garden bed from a lawn.
“I like hands on jobs,” said Hernandez, who said he wants to be a mechanic. He said his work with the Land Trust taught him a lot about carpentry, and how to grow some of the fruits and vegetables that his grandmother used to grow in Puerto Rico, but that he never knew how to replicate.
Jahlil Moses, a 16-year-old junior at Common Ground, started a business where he converted herbs grown at the Grand Acres farm into incense. He said the idea came to him when the students had to pull weeds from the garden, and he decided to dry out one of those weeds, which was the herb mint. He now makes incense out of mint and sage grown at Grand Acres.
“The program made me more comfortable adapting to new things,” he said about his work on the incense business as well as his work building the pergolas and the compost bins.
Carlos Feliz, a 16-year-old junior at Eli Whitney in Hamden, started a business where he bicycle-delivered salads that were made of vegetables grown at the Grand Acres farm. Ultimately, the business never got off the ground because of the relatively high level of expenses required, he said, but he still valued the program for encouraging him to develop skills ranging from carpentry to gardening to communication. “I feel like opening up is a good thing,” he said about overcoming his shyness in working with his fellow gardening entrepreneurs.
Brianna Chance, a 17-year-old senior at Wilbur Cross, started a business focusing on garden education classes. Ultimately, she wound up directing more of her energies towards helping her peers build out their own businesses, but lauded the program for bringing her and her co-workers into closer contact with the natural world and for encouraging them to convert raw vegetables into more complicated culinary delicacies like sofritos and pesto.
And Rasha Abuhatab, a 17-year-old senior at Metropolitan Business Academy, started a business called Hot Hoops, where she used PVC pipes, plastic, and Velcro to build sloping walls that convert gardens into mini-greenhouses. She said designing and building the greenhouse hoops required a lot of work, and difficult math, but she persevered, and is so pleased with the end result.
“It taught me that it was easier to do hard work in the moment,” she said about her experience at the Growing Entrepreneurs program, then to keep delaying and delaying until the work has added up to something insurmountable.
She said no one in her family in West Haven gardens or taught her how to garden, so there was a steep learning curve when she started working with the Land Trust. But she caught on quick, she said, and now feels confident growing a range of vegetables she never thought she’d be able to grow.
As for the mini-greenhouse business? She’s not sure how long she wants to keep up the business, but she knows at least one customer looking to benefit from her newly forged gardening, carpentry, and design skills.
“My mom really wants me to make her one,” she said with a smile.