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(Kieghan Briggs, left, and Gail Stickle, participants in a Tutorial Center agriculture program, weed a garden Thursday at Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington. (Peter Crabtree))
Saturday July 27, 2013

BENNINGTON -- Local youth ages 16 to 21 are getting their hands dirty as they work and learn through the summertime Youth Agriculture Project, in its eighth year.

A collaborative program of The Tutorial Center, Vermont Department of Labor, and University of Vermont Extension, participants put in 20 hours a week tending and harvesting garden beds behind Mount Anthony Union Middle School.

They also help out at other area gardens, including plots at the hospital and North Bennington's Hiland Hall farmhouse.

Once the middle school crops are harvested, the gardeners sell the produce at the Walloomsac Farmers Market. Other produce is donated to Meals on Wheels and local food shelves, or distributed via a developing local "food hub" network that links small growers with large institutional buyers.

Seventeen-year-old Brittany Goss said her favorite part was selling vegetables and having contact with people at every Tuesday's farmers market, which she said relates to her future career aspirations in human resources.

Plus "it's something fun to do" over the summer, Goss said.

"It's amazing how much work you can get done with 12 youth in the fields," said YAP Director Katherine Keys, who is also the manager of the local farmers market. While functioning as hands-on job skills training -- participants are paid $8.60 an hour through the Department of Labor -- the program also teaches at-risk and out-of-school youth about sustainability and community involvement.

Keys said the program had continued to grow, although the number of participants is limited by the grant funds.

Frank Bossong, 17, and Austin Hamilton, 18, were two others out amicably gardening during good weather earlier this week. "I've enjoyed hanging out with people," Hamilton said, "and just the experience of gardening."

While Bossong confessed to having no past experience in the fields, he said he was looking forward to making his own salsa from scratch.

"I love the agriculture piece," said Jeannie Gilson, the program's assistant and a local teacher. "That's really what excited me about it. ... Teaching a new generation to get back to the land."

"They feel this connection with the food."

Keys said the program was also nutritional as participants bring a share of the harvest home each week and receive a direct lesson on where their food comes from. But overall "it's less about gardening than it is about becoming a family and raising self-confidence," Keys said, the connection between dirt in your hands and growing things a natural self-esteem booster. "We hope we can give them a piece of that foundation."

The program runs for eight weeks each summer, with participants hearing about the opportunity through high school counselors and agencies like The Tutorial Center and Sunrise Family Resource Center.

An additional program in the Northshire has resulted in gardens on the grounds of Manchester Elementary-Middle School.

Time and again, "Kids say next year there's going to be a garden at my house," according to Gilson. "I think kids need to learn to grow gardens and not lawns."

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