New program aims to interest Black youth in agriculture
On a hot summer day, 15-year-old Jordan Jones of Oswego waters a tomato plant he is growing in his backyard in an EarthBox container. It is the first time he has ever tried to grow anything other than a flower.
"I never knew that my plant was going to grow this well," Jones said. "I appreciate the fact that I was asked to do this."
Jones is one of the first participants in the "Young Black Agri-preneurs of Kane County" program, a collaborative effort between The Just Food Initiative of the Fox Valley, a nonprofit organization based in Batavia, and the African American Men of Unity, a nonprofit group based in Aurora.
The "Agri-preneurs" program aims to interest and train future Black farmers for Kane County, where few such farmers -- if any -- exist. Program lessons started in April, with approximately 10 young participants learning about where their food comes from, the importance of soil health and careers within agriculture.
Lessons were led by Hannah Auch, coordinator of special research for Just Food. The program concluded May 15.
"Throughout the project, we learned about how someone can grow healthy food and how each participant could play a role in the food system in their futures," Auch said.
"A healthy food system relies on knowledgeable gardeners, farmers and food industry workers. This project aims to provide some of that knowledge to the participants."
Currently, several boys from the program -- including Jones -- are participating in a capstone activity where they have planted gardens at their respective homes using EarthBox, containers specifically designed to grow plants.
Each participant growing a garden has been paired with a Just Food mentor, who is assisting with the growing process and answering questions during the summer.
North Aurora resident Jocelyn Harris serves as the mentor for Jones and helped him establish his garden, which also includes a squash plant that is not faring quite as well as the tomato plant.
"To have the opportunity to teach someone younger than myself how to grow his own food ... I just feel so grateful to be able to do that," Harris said, crediting the executive director of Just Food, M. Grace Grzanek, for creating the "Agri-preneurs" program.
Grzanek, 85, a longtime resident of Batavia, is not aware of any Black farmers in Kane County. She is optimistic about future generations honing agricultural skills that could benefit the local community and would love to see more farmers -- including Black farmers -- practicing sustainable agriculture.
She acknowledged that the history of Black farming is complicated.
"Black slaves who knew how to farm helped build this country," Grzanek said. "We want to celebrate the knowledge and generational history that come with that farming heritage and were encouraged to see that billions of dollars were included in the American Rescue Act approved in March to assist farmers of color."
This month, Just Food will gather the "Agri-preneurs" participants, their families and others for a certificate awards ceremony and a final discussion about how such agricultural enterprises can grow into entrepreneurial opportunities.
Ricky Rodgers, executive director of the African American Men of Unity, summed up how the "Agri-preneurs" program is benefiting participants:
"As one of the youth said so eloquently, 'I can grow my own food and can eat it too. Amazing!' This was a great partnership for the African American Men of Unity to collaborate with Just Food to not only expand our program, but to expand the doors of opportunity for youth of color."