On a 10-acre plot of land in Kansas City, Mo., you’ll find a small farm filled with lifelong friends, learning and fresh produce. BoysGrow, a nonprofit that uses farming and agriculture to teach entrepreneurship to urban youth, was created by John Gordon Jr. in 2010.
The two-year program for boys aged 14 to 18 teaches skills and life lessons through two years of work, three days a week in the summer, John said.
Most of the youth come from five charter schools in the metro Kansas City area. The program is typically pitched to eighth-grade boys going into ninth grade. The youth attend an informational meeting and receive an application packet. They apply, go through an interview process and get a call letting them know if they got the job.
John is impressed by the ambition these young men show who are committed to bettering themselves. Most of the boys have never worked on a farm, and the ability to immerse themselves in agriculture is a new experience.
“Some people kind of stay in their comfort zone for a long time and these guys stepped out of their comfort zone and did something like this,” John said.
Team Building Produces Valuable Products
Each BoysGrow member is part of an on-farm team. Teams include construction, culinary arts, agriculture, animals, landscaping, public speaking and marketing. Each week, the boys learn from a farmer’s handbook and grow their knowledge of agriculture, in addition to developing their interpersonal and leadership skills.
On the farm, the boys grow a broad range of produce including garlic, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, blackberries and raspberries. The farm also has turkeys and chickens. BoysGrow produce can be found at a variety of restaurants in Kansas City, such as Novel, Kansas City Canning Co., Heirloom Bakery and Corvinos Supper Club. Each BoysGrow class creates a different product to sell at local businesses. There’s a salsa, a mustard, a hot sauce, barbecue sauce, a salad dressing and a ketchup.
“Some of the produce goes back into the products that we sell,” John said. “Some of it goes into the restaurants we sell to and the community-supported agriculture shares. The boys take back home probably 40 percent to 50 percent of it.”
“I think one of the biggest things this program offers kids that they don’t get other places is the ability to be a leader,” John said. “For the second-year boys there’s no option to not be a leader. They lead their small teams. Once these kids reach the second year, the expectation is to be leaders.”
That leadership is built through several events BoysGrow participants host each year to help with fundraising and showcase the produce they raised.
“A lot of our earned income is through our events, and we get some of the best chefs in town to come out, and the tickets sell out right away,” John said. “It creates more momentum and money for the program.”
BoysGrow’s events consist of date nights for up to 100 people, which includes two chefs and live music. Farm Fest is a family friendly farm experience with restaurant highlights, live music, a DJ and petting zoo. Gather and Grow is a chef-driven event, typically with food and a long table in an open field.
“Without the support of the local chef community, I don’t know where we would be, and I don’t think the program would be the same,” John said.
Continued Success and Leadership Post-program
When the boys complete their two years working at BoysGrow, some alumni will continue working on the farm or visit as guest speakers. BoysGrow graduates are an integral part of the organization’s success.
“We have two guys who are junior staff,” John said. “Junior staff are juniors or seniors in high school. We’ve always had the junior staff position, and it’s a big component of the program for the boys to see kids who went through the program. For the junior staff, it’s a learning experience, too. It’s a good opportunity for them to work on their leadership skills. The graduates and the junior staff play a big role in the program and in the overall energy of the program.”
To date, about 140 youth have completed the program.
“I think one of the biggest takeaways we could ask for is for them to know there’s a lot more stuff out there beyond their walls, beyond their neighborhood and beyond their schools,” John said. “Most of the kids out here never thought they would work on a farm.”