Farm program aims to help at-risk Ottawa youth gain job skills

High school student Rylan Campbell doesn’t have a typical part-time job.

Several mornings a week, the 17-year-old rides the bus for an hour across town to the Blair transit station, where she catches a 7:30 a.m. carpool to a farm on Russell Road, about 18 kilometres southeast of downtown Ottawa.

There, Campbell will spend a full working day learning how to plant and harvest a variety of produce, feed and care for a quirky group of farm animals, and sell food to customers at the farm’s roadside store or at local markets.

Campbell is one of six young people recently selected to get their hands dirty at the Carlsbad Springs farm as part of a special program and budding social enterprise, launched earlier this summer, designed to help at-risk youth gain the skills and confidence necessary to land and keep a job.

“I feel really grateful to be here, so, it’s great,” said Campbell, who moved to Ottawa from Thunder Bay less than a year ago. “It’s just a really awesome environment to be in.”

In 2017, 13 per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 in Ottawa were unemployed — meaning they didn’t have a job but were actively seeking work — according to Statistics Canada.

Among those who have an especially tough go finding work are youth who experience poverty, mental health issues, challenges at home or run-ins with the criminal justice system, according to local non-profit organization Youth Now Canada, which runs the farm program. Many newly-arrived immigrants to Canada also experience significant barriers to employment, the group said.

Mark Arnold, Youth Now Canada’s executive director, said farm programs based elsewhere across North America have proved helpful in changing that reality for marginalized teenagers and young adults. And so his organization, which serves the Ottawa, Cornwall and Peterborough areas, set out to emulate such a project in the National Capital Region.

After nearly three years of legwork, the Youth Now Farm, in partnership with Ottawa’s Parkdale Food Centre, the Youth Services Bureau and the National Capital Commission (NCC), finally accepted its first official cohort this June and its second on Aug. 20.

Rylan Campbell, 17, is part of the second cohort training at the Youth Now Farm, a program for at-risk youth who face significant barriers to employment. Campbell said she hopes to gains skills that will help her pursue a career in the environmental sciences.

Campbell, who is part of the second cohort, said she interviewed for the two-month farm program because she enjoys “working with (her) hands in the ground” and wants to gain knowledge and practical experience that will help her pursue a career in the environmental sciences.

Even though the program is only three months old, the managers and organizations involved already feel optimistic about the impact it’s having. Out of the five individuals in the first cohort to complete the program, two went back to school and two of the remaining three are employed, Arnold said.

Rebecca McCaffrey is the youth development facilitator at the Parkdale Food Centre and joined the farm program staff at the beginning of July. In her two months on the job, she said the youth’s personal and professional progress is tangible.

“Even within a day, you’ll see their confidence change,” she said.

In the garden and in the barn

A typical shift on the farm involves work in both the garden and the barns, McCaffrey explained. The successful applicants, interviewed and chosen by the Youth Services Bureau, earn an hourly wage for up to 35 hours of work each week, but if they don’t show up, they don’t get paid, she said.

In the garden, they plant, harvest, wash and sort a number of vegetables, herbs and flowers. When Global News visited the farm on a hot, sunny day in late August, the group was peeling garlic, picking and sorting cucumbers, bunching green onions and bagging green beans, preparing them for sale to local businesses like Thyme & Again, Seed to Sausage and Red Apron.

In the Youth Now Farm program, teenagers and young adults who struggle to find work are taught how to plant, harvest, wash and prepare a variety of produce. They also learn a number of food-related business skills, including how to sell the food at market.

What doesn’t get sold goes home with the youth or is sent to the Parkdale Food Centre. And once a week, the youth will visit the Hintonburg-based charity, where they learn about food safety and preparation, cooking techniques, nutrition, meal planning and networking for jobs.

Back in the barns, feeding the donkey, goats, pigs, turkeys, ducks, rabbits and four therapy horses is first on the list. The youth are also put to work brushing the horses, cleaning messy pens, socializing the animals and putting them out to pasture.

Farm Manager Jenny Roebuck said caring for animals is an excellent way to build both interpersonal and social skills, as well as stamina for doing those “yucky jobs.”

“The horses and the animals here all need to be looked after and sometimes that might mean walking into the pig pen and getting dirty … and that’s not always nice and it’s not always fun, but it needs to be done,” Roebuck said.

Rebecca McCaffrey from the Parkdale Food Centre feeds one of the pigs at the Youth Now Farm. The program managers say that having to care for farm animals builds skills transferable to other jobs.

For the participants who are dealing with depression, anxiety, or anger management issues, time with the animals is also meant to be therapeutic. Anyone who needs to take a step back is allowed to hang out with a horse or a rabbit and a manager guides them through some coping skills, Roebuck said.

In this sense, the program aims to foster personal as well as professional development. The managers have the youth set goals and journal daily and, at the end of the week, discuss the challenges they’ve faced and the lessons they’ve learned.

“Having the youth involved in growing something outside of themselves is … really important,” McCaffrey said.

The future of the farm

Now that it’s up and running, the biggest question facing the Youth Now Farm is how to grow into a sustainable venture.

An unnamed donor provided Youth Now Canada with $100,000 to kickstart the program, after watching the non-profit come close to winning a competition hosted by the Ottawa Community Foundation in November 2017.

With that seed money, the organization was able to buy start-up equipment and pay for staff salaries. But Arnold said that cash will only take them so far and he’s been working to introduce the project to more and more businesses in town.

“I wake up everyday thinking, ‘Okay, who am I going to reach out to today? How am I going to engage partners?’” he said.

Finances aside, Arnold said it will also take three to five years to maximize the farm’s potential. The property is a 75-acre heritage farm owned by the NCC — but he said the soil quality was eroded by chemicals over time and the former dairy farm went unused for more than a decade.

Less than two acres of land are in use right now, but the more the farm can grow, the more revenue it can bring in to support the project.

Ultimately, the program managers hope the farm will evolve into a full-fledged social enterprise, contributing to the greater Ottawa community by increasing residents’ and businesses’ access to locally-grown foods, while using sales revenue to employ and train young people who need a leg up.

“A lot of young people aren’t going to succeed necessarily in some of the more traditional programs. Counselling doesn’t work for everyone,” Arnold said.

“There’s something to be said for planning, planting, seeding, nurturing, harvesting a vegetable … seeing it from start to finish.”

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