The South Lawn Project, on-site at the offices of Cornell Cooperative Extension Monroe County, in Rochester, N.Y., has transformed an underutilized piece of land into a thriving food-growing environment, offering employment opportunities to at-risk young adults.
In this episode of Cornell Cooperative Extension's "Extension Out Loud" podcast, Urban Garden Specialist Marci Muller explains the origin and goals of the South Lawn Project.
During the project's planning phase, Muller envisioned integrating transitional employment aspects into the urban farm's framework, aiming to establish a living laboratory for urban agriculture. According to Muller “a transitional job is a job for someone with barriers to employment. And it gives them the structure of work but not quite as demanding as a real job”.
A key factor in the project's overall success is the emphasis on mentoring, as young adults work alongside a seasoned farm manager to acquire essential knowledge in planting, tending, and harvesting. Simultaneously, they develop vital skills necessary for success in the workplace.
Also contributing to this episode are two farm employees, as well as the farm manager Mike Kinkaid, and Brendan Tidings of the Regional Valley Market in Rochester. The Regional Market is a supporter of the south lawn farm, providing funding in these first years to help this innovative program continue.
PAUL TREADWELL: Welcome to Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I'm your host, Paul Treadwell, and for this episode of Extension Out Loud, I had the opportunity to visit the South Lawn Project in Rochester, New York, onsite at the offices of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County.
This project brings together workforce development and urban agriculture on a half-acre farm in New York's third most populated city. The South Lawn Project was initiated by CCE e Urban Garden Specialist Marcy Mueller. I talked with Marcy about the origin and goals of the project. I also spoke with two farm employees during my visit, as well as Farm Manager Mike Kincaid.
While as visiting the farm, Brendan Tidings of the Regional Valley Market in Rochester stopped by.
MARCI MULLER: I'm Marci Muller. I am the horticulture team leader at CCE Monroe.
PAUL TREADWELL: Hi, Marci. Nice to meet you.
MARCI MULLER: Nice to meet you.
PAUL TREADWELL: So we're here today on the South Lawn Farm. Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the farm and its purpose?
MARCI MULLER: When I came to extension in 2020 and started thinking about things that we could do, we started talking about the farm. And I brought in the workforce development angle. For that, for last year and now this year, my main focus was to get things going, to get the grass gone and get the beds in and start growing things and start the workforce development program.
PAUL TREADWELL: Can you talk a little bit about that? How did that program become established? How do you identify participants?
MARCI MULLER: I've been involved with transitional jobs for probably about the last 15, 20 years. And a transitional job is a job for someone with barriers to employment. And it gives them the structure of work but not quite as demanding as a real job was to help them get used to it and to be able to figure out where they want to go and what they need to do in order to successfully take on employment.
PAUL TREADWELL: This is Mike Kincaid, farm manager of the South Lawn Project.
MIKE KINCAID: It's a big benefit to us as an extension just to gain experience from people in the community. It's a workforce development program primarily, so we work with young adults 18 to 26 years old who are entering the workforce, looking to gain some experience. We are very lucky this year to have a very talented group of individuals who are kind of inherently interested in this kind of work and these kinds of projects.
OLUWATOBI BADMUS: My name is Oluwatobi Badmus. I'm 19,
PAUL TREADWELL: So you're working here in the farm.
OLUWATOBI BADMUS: Yes, I work here.
PAUL TREADWELL: Have you had any experience farming before?
OLUWATOBI BADMUS: Not an experience as large as the farm. Being in this program so far, I've, uh, been granted with experiences. That I could use to further like real skills.
MARCI MULLER: So our participants are all 18 to 26 years old, young adults from very challenged neighborhoods in the city. And some of them have had jobs before, but they have not had very good luck holding on to them. And some of them have never had a conventional job, so this might be their first time.
We structure it just like regular work. It's a little bit easier. We work 9:00 to 3:00, but they get paid for the hours that they work. And if they don't-- if they're late, if they miss a day, they get docked.
OLUWATOBI BADMUS: It's a great work environment. I have been offered different ways to [INAUDIBLE] in the skills and experience I pick up from here. And I think I've been interested in some of them.
MARCI MULLER: Our goal is to get all these guys employed somewhere. And so what we don't want to do is get him somewhere where it's not going to be a good situation.
PAUL TREADWELL: Right.
MARCI MULLER: We want it to be-- to go, to get the job, keep the job, and then move on.
PAUL TREADWELL: While I was on site, Brendan Tydings, the administrator of the Genesee Valley Regional Market in Rochester stopped by.
BRENDAN TYDINGS: I'm the administrator of the Genesee Valley Regional Market in Rochester, New York. So the crew at the Cooperative Extension had a vision and a mission, and the dedication is what inspired our board to support it. A lot of these young men and women, what we find is that what you learn through farming can be translated out to any career you take on. Hard work, perseverance, and just that can-do mentality can really translate to any career.
Jordan Conyer was at work planting beet seeds as I stopped by to talk to him about his plans for the future.
I start college in the fall. I'm going for graphic design.
PAUL TREADWELL: Are you starting at community college here? Are you going to start--
JORDAN CONYER: Yes, I'm planning on going to MCC. But I want to try and do the two year split where you do one somewhere at one college, and then to go to another. So I want to try doing two at MCC and then two at RIT. But that's one of the things that I mean. So like, hypothetically, if I wanted to use this when I left here and say I wanted to make a produce shop, I could use the skills that I learned from the graphic designing and also use that with the skills that I learned from here to be able to make a shop.
MARCI MULLER: We grow produce. We use the farm as a vehicle to give us some sort of daily work. All the produce that we grow, we donate to local food pantries so that the participants here can see how their hard work helps their community.
JORDAN CONYER: In the neighborhood that I grew up in, particularly there isn't much access to foods that are good for you. We have a lot of fast food places, a lot of Chinese foods spots, at least five different corner stores. So no, we don't have access. But that's why I like programs like these because with the knowledge that you get, you can kind of realize that you can bring all of that stuff to your [INAUDIBLE] yourself.
PAUL TREADWELL: So this is the second cohort you're going to be bringing through this summer.
MARCI MULLER: Correct.
PAUL TREADWELL: And that's going to be five.
MARCI MULLER: So we keep five active at all times. In a real farm, we would be way overstaffed. But for this particular program, we can handle five, and we can keep them busy all day long. Our ideal is if somebody was with us for a couple of months maybe, got themselves work ready, and we could help them find a job, as soon as somebody leaves, we'll bring a new one in. So we'll always have five. We hope to work with about 15 over the entire growing season.
PAUL TREADWELL: If you work with 15, that means you've had 10 that have been successfully placed out.
MARCI MULLER: Correct, and by the end of the last five, so that's the goal.
PAUL TREADWELL: All right, so what do you need to get from here to there to the vision, the fulfillment?
MARCI MULLER: What we need is sustainability financially. So we pretty much have the program figured out now, and we have a lot of partner nonprofits in our network that we work with. We're always looking for new employers that give us opportunities for our participants so those sort of expansions. But the main thing is to be able to maintain and know that we can have a farm manager every single year and anything we can do to support the program.
BRENDAN TYDINGS: We are involved in some commercial real estate and property that we manage with a lot of agricultural producers, and we rent out the warehouse space. So we have a wide variety of tenants in Henrietta and in Chili, about 190 businesses in total, many of which are involved directly with agriculture, whether it's produce wholesalers, the hard cider spots, grocery stores. You name it, we kind of have it out at the regional markets.
It's a wide variety, but then what's nice is all of our surplus revenue at the end of the year goes back into agriculture through the Ag development program. And that's what you see that we're sitting at here today at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Monroe County's garden and farm here.
PAUL TREADWELL: The Ag development program has been supporting the farm since its inception, is that correct?
BRENDAN TYDINGS: Yes. We saw this from the start. The crew at the Cooperative Extension had a vision and a mission and the dedication. What inspired our board to support it, and like I mentioned earlier, our board, they're all farmers and directly involved in agriculture. And we manage our funds internally at the regional market like it's our own. So we watch every penny that goes out the door. And we like to support good organizations, and they jumped at the opportunity to support these guys here.
MARCI MULLER: We do have ideas about how we could expand it so that maybe we could have more participants. I have this dream about having a mobile crew, and the mobile crew would go into the city on a daily basis and help out all the community gardens that are there. Most of those community gardens, it seems like they start out great in the spring, and then things kind of fall off. And people don't come around as much as they used to.
And so if we could provide a labor force for them, that would really be something. And again, tie the fact that these young people are working in some of the neighborhoods that they live in, and they're helping them. That's pretty important. My other idea is to develop some sort of value added product that maybe we could make through the winter months and sell it the public market, something like that.
BRENDAN TYDINGS: It all comes down to funding. These, again, the Cooperative Extension of Monroe County is doing a great job with the resources that they have, but we're just scraping the surface here. That I think we could find many more people and grow this thing as big as they're able to.
PAUL TREADWELL: Thank you for listening to this episode. Extension Out Loud was produced and edited by Paul Treadwell. For more information about this episode, including show notes and the transcript, visit extensionoutloud.com, and be sure to subscribe to Extension Out Loud on your favorite podcast directory.
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