SAGE helping young people grow their future

L-R: Gus Hyde, Kyle Levier, Brodie Carrington, Brianna Tuckey, Jarrod Davis, Paul Lanfear, Jemma Moretti, Kaitlin King, Darnica Kopt-Dart, Natasha Ralph, Mellissa Marshall, Maddy Fisk, Sophie Campbell

Increasingly, we are focussed on university as the main pathway to a satisfying career. That’s certainly true for people inspired by those more traditional vocations, such as medicine, business, science and the like, but for many kids, those careers aren’t for them. High schools are faced with the constant challenge of engaging these young people in their education and helping them find something to spark their interest in a possible career direction.

The NSW Department of Education runs a “School to Work” program, where schools can partner with local businesses or community groups to develop creative projects aimed at capturing these kids’ imaginations with something a bit more left-field of the usual suspects of career choices.

Back in 2014, Tracey Hogg, the then Careers Advisor at the Moruya High School (now Deputy Principal), approached Sandra Makdessi, SAGE’s Education Coordinator, with the idea of creating a program that would get students thinking about alternative career options by participating in a community gardening project. Exactly what the project would be, they didn’t know yet, but they knew it was a great idea, so the funding for “Growing Your Future” was sourced and the school and SAGE started working out the details.

The premise of “Growing Your Future” – that growing food is a legitimate career option – was the perfect entry point for SAGE’s involvement. The high school’s Agricultural Studies classes have boomed in the last couple of years after teacher Mellissa Marshall joined the staff and began injecting her passion into the role. So within the school, there was already a growing interest in the idea of farming that SAGE could help nurture.

Not only that, this was exactly the sort of project SAGE likes: kids growing food. What’s more, teenagers growing food. While SAGE is working on multiple fronts to reconnect our community with our food system and grow more growers, teenagers are normally a hard group to reach.

Kyle Levier mentored the students in the market garden they created from scratch

Kyle Levier mentored the students in the market garden they created from scratch

SAGE already has experience with encouraging agriculture as a career path, as we have been running our own Market Garden Intern program for three years now. In each of those years, we have trained and mentored a new vegetable grower and supported them to get established in our area. Kyle Levier was our inaugural intern back in 2013-14. He was an inspired first choice. His affable and amiable nature saw him through a very difficult year of being the guinea pig for an internship that is only now finding its feet. While advice and help is always available, the intern is still very much in charge of their own learning. In 2013, the SAGE Garden was also still in its infancy and not yet fully functioning, so Kyle’s learning curve was steep — but he handled it admirably. This made him the natural choice to be the project mentor.

By the middle of 2015, the project had taken shape. Original ideas of raising crops to sell at the farmers market were discarded when it was realised that the project needed a finish line – an event. The idea to hold a long table lunch for the students’ families and friends on the weekend of the 2016 Southeast Harvest was agreed upon, giving the students a goal to aim for. The project would require multiple skills: planning, marketing, hospitality, cooking, creative writing, technology and more. With Kyle’s and Mellissa’s help, the students would have to prepare the soil, plant and maintain the crops, deal with unforseen disasters, then turn all that work into an event — a manifest achievement.

Teacher Mellissa Marshall has reinvigorated the Agricultural Studies curriculum at the school

Teacher Mellissa Marshall has reinvigorated the Agricultural Studies curriculum at the school

Next came the task of selecting the students. As the current MHS Careers Advisor Kimberley Eke put it,

While we wanted to target disengaged students, we still wanted students to have enough motivation and drive to actually want to be there and to be able to learn something and take something away from the program.

Students volunteer to participate in School to Work projects, which opens it up to all students, not just kids doing Agricultural Studies, but the school conducted an interview process to ensure the students involved really wanted to be involved. This was not going to be just an excuse to get out of Wednesday afternoon classes. It also meant the group had the required capabilities to cover all the different activities to complete the project. Senior students aren’t on campus on Wednesdays, so students from Years 9 and 10 were selected.

Students formed up the beds by hand Kyle brought along some of his tools for the students to try Learning outside the classroom These guys live on site and did a great job with helping prep the soil They made some great compost You don't see many market gardeners with black nailpolish

Work began in earnest in Spring 2015. Kyle proved to be a natural with the students, as his enthusiasm for growing food clearly registered with them… which is saying something. With Kyle’s instruction and Mellissa’s supervision, the garden took shape in the school’s ag plot and the crops went in. Over six months, soil was examined and tested, improved and amended, compost was made, beds were dug, seedlings were raised, planted out, weeded and maintained – even over the Summer holiday break. A menu was chosen and logistics for the long table lunch were planned. Finally, in the middle of March 2016, the surviving crops were harvested, prepped, cooked and served at a lunch for around 50 guests at the SAGE Garden.

Mellissa emphasised that the students themselves largely determined the structure of the project.

The kids are designing it, because they’re the ones who are deciding what we’re growing and how [the lunch is] going to run, so they’re the ones who are going to have to decide when things are getting planted.

Kyle was able to lead the students through each step of the process and draw on outside resources to help them, including expert advice from local soil guru Bruce Davison.

Within weeks of the project commencing, at least one student was inspired enough to start his own garden at home to replicate what the group was working on at the school’s garden. If that doesn’t sound like much, think again. This teenage boy realised that growing your own food is worthwhile for the sake of his and his mother’s health and wellbeing. That’s pretty huge and it’s this kind of work at the coalface that creates that kind of change. While chatting to another three students, they revealed a clear appreciation of the value of this sort of project, of working on something from scratch to three course meal. As one of the students said while turning compost, “It’s cool — like — seeing everything — like — come together, because in the actual classroom, you don’t do much, but with people who want to actually do this… stuff gets done.” Yeah. Totally.

Harvest day - time to enjoy the fruits of all that labour The school has a great ag plot and aquaculture shed Bean picking Digging for carrots Colourful silverbeet Beautiful carrots Prep begins in the CWA Tea Rooms kitchen Looking at the camera was not popular Fabulous green onions The students were really engaged with the cooking Batter for the fish some of the boys caught the night before It's hard to be cool with a mixer in your hand Organised chaos

The “Growing Your Future” students were from Years 9 and 10, so thoughts of agriculture as a career were nebulous at best, but there was a clear interest for the project or something similar to be transferred into the curriculum. Kyle’s contribution has triggered a tsunami of ideas for Mellissa to incorporate into future Ag Studies lesson plans. Those initial thoughts of growing food to sell at the farmers market might yet come to fruition. That’s something that excites Kyle. As he said,

If we can demonstrate that hey, you can stay in the area, you can work for yourself, you can make an income from this if you do it right — like any small business — and you can surf or you can still go riding horses or whatever you want to do, and stay here with your family, there’s opportunity here.

He added that being involved with food production isn’t all “airy-fairy” and about saving the world. “You really want kids to think ‘OK, I like growing vegies, how can I make an income from it? Could I have a market stall, could I supply a catering business…?’ You really want them to consider it as an income stream.”

Teenagers typically don’t want to give too much away (just getting them to look at a camera is a challenge), but at the SAGE Garden last Sunday, it was clear that this group were enjoying a real sense of achievement. From the early morning harvest at the school garden, to the chaos of preparing the food in the Moruya CWA Tea Rooms kitchen, to serving their guests, their enthusiasm and pride shone through.

One of the students brought in bunches of flowers from home Carrot and beetroot dips Pumpkin dips creatively presented Served with crudités also from the garden Pumpkin soup for entrée Some of the friends and family members Students enjoying the results of their efforts Mellissa blanching the leafy greens right before serving The boys cooked the flathead they'd caught the night before The main dish was a delicious noodle and salad stack A bit of everything, thanks This Moon and Stars Watermelon was the watermelon of your childhood The watermelon sorbet was a very successful experiment Students thanking everyone who got the project off the ground A special gift for Kyle, a lemon tree

The challenge now is to keep that spark alive and show these young people that this project doesn’t have to end with a lunch. It could be the beginning of a rewarding life growing food for our community. Links like the one now forged between Moruya High School and SAGE — and hopefully more community organisations in the future — will construct alternative pathways towards rewarding careers that don’t immediately occur to many young people. It’s another spoke in the wheel of the work SAGE is doing to rebuild our local food system. Projects like “Growing Your Future” contain enormous potential for creating homegrown employment and ultimately a stronger local economy, a proud community identity and unique local culture.

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