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Seasons of change coming to Youth Farm

Mark Parker

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Local artist iBOMs, in collaboration with the youth, painted an expansive mural along a wall at the farm. Photo by Mark Parker

Long-awaited facility and operational improvements are on the way for the St. Pete Youth Farm as it continues blossoming into an oasis for teens on the city’s south side.

A pilot program for the farm began in 2019 with the help of the City of St. Petersburg, the Pinellas Education Foundation and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete. What started with 15 high school students working on the farm that first summer has since grown to over 55 local youth participating in an initiative to cultivate vegetables, fruits and now fish in a part of the city known for its limited access to nutritious food.

Initially overseen by the city’s economic development department, the Youth Farm recently transitioned to the parks and recreation department’s purview. Collaboration Manager Carla Bristol, the farm’s leader, said the restructuring and facility upgrades are part of Mayor Ken Welch’s promise to focus on youth programming with a sense of intentionality.

“I find him to be a very leveled thinker,” said Bristol. “But this is one of the things that he made rapid movement on in terms of feeling like that would be the right placement for this particular program.”

The economic development department will still oversee some funding aspects, said Bristol, but Mike Jefferis, director of parks and recreation, is her new contact for day-to-day operations. She noted the transition is already paying dividends.

Bristol said she and Jefferis’ team recently met to discuss design plans for the farm’s long-awaited processing center. During the meeting, the parks department asked for a list of Bristol’s urgent operational requirements.

The most immediate need, said Bristol, was for two refrigerators.

“I said, ‘hey, as we’re growing, where do we store this?'” she relayed. “We don’t have anywhere to store the food, and before I blinked, there were two refrigerators.”

Bristol shows how nutrient-rich water from tilapia tanks in the farm’s new greenhouse feeds into a hydroponic system.

Bristol said that parks and recreation’s operations align closely with the farm’s, and she believes the department’s experience overseeing youth centers and programming will aid in its continued growth. The city is accepting development bids for a small processing center, and officials are also exploring fully enclosing the property.

The processing structure will feature basic necessities the Youth Farm lacks, explained Bristol, such as a washing and drying station for freshly harvested produce. It will also house the refrigeration units and provide a wash station for its employees – all local teens. She noted the youth currently have to walk to the Enoch Davis Center to clean up for events.

The city is also looking to hire Bristol – who has overseen the farm’s operations since its inception –  some help. While Rick Smith, economic development manager, announced the administration is “tapping the brakes” on two new managerial positions during an Aug. 18 council meeting, Bristol believes that is the right move in light of the ongoing site and operational changes.

She explained that when the city began accepting applications nearly two years ago, the initial idea was to hire a farm manager “in terms of the day-to-day growth cycle.” However, she noted that experiential learning is a key aspect of the Youth Farm.

The kids receive agricultural, culinary and financial literacy education, along with community leadership skills. She regularly incorporates mental health programming, and vehicle safety and driver education is a new focus following the recent death of a former Youth Farm ambassador.

Cultivating the area’s young people into community leaders while cultivating food has become a mantra for Bristol, and she believes that as the programming and site evolve, so should the qualifications and job descriptions for the two new positions.

“I think looking at this program and space – even a year from now – is going to be so drastically different than looking at it now.”

At this time next year, Bristol envisions approachable fencing and signage greeting the farm’s visitors. She would like to have a new, better gate, and the processing facility complete for the youth’s bountiful harvests.

The surrounding community can stop by the farm to grab free seeds.

Bristol also hopes to continue spreading awareness throughout the city that the farm is a welcoming place that offers seedlings, food, recipes and cooking and gardening classes. She said its evolution “is having all those multiple channels running simultaneously.

“And having most of that work being led by youth in the community.”

For more information on the St. Pete Youth Farm, visit the website here.

 

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