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Sunday, August 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Planting seeds of high expectations in young gardeners

Seattle Times staff columnist

Every booth at the Columbia City Farmers Market has a story behind it. It's not unusual to see young people selling produce from their family farm, but one stand is different.

At the Seattle Youth Garden Works stand city kids sell fruits and vegetables they've grown on a plot of land in the South Park neighborhood. South Park is better known as an industrial area you drive through on the way to a garbage-transfer station.

It wasn't always that way. Duwamish Indians lived there next to the river that carries their name. And for years Italian and Japanese farmers grew food they sold at the Pike Place Farmers Market.

Industry pushed farmers out after the river was straightened, but the old Marra Farm survived, and that's where these kids grow their stuff.

These are teenagers who come from South Park or other South End neighborhoods and are from low-income families.

I talked with some of the teens at Marra Farm, where a dozen kids work a one-acre plot, amid plots run by several other community groups.

Anthony said his parents were happy that he is getting a chance to work on a farm, because they did farm work in Vietnam.

Trishanda said her parents are glad it gets her out of the house. They say it's good that she's not on the phone all the time. "And when I get home I go to sleep." All that fresh air and work is magic.

Sara, a Latina, said some of the kids she hangs with needled her about the program. "They didn't like the point of view of a Mexican working on a farm."

These kids work between early July and late August. Seattle Youth Garden Works has fall and winter after-school programs and another garden at the Center for Urban Horticulture in the University District.

The teens said they notice differences in taste and smell between the vegetables they grow and the ones they get from the grocery store.

"Ever since I tasted carrots here, I don't like the ones in the store."

"I like the tomatoes. Those are bomb."

The day I visited, six of the teens were in class, sitting around a picnic table in the shade of a cluster of trees.

The program pays the teens by the hour, teaches them about food and the environment and helps them get a leg up on their school work. In this case they were learning things that should help them with the science WASL.

Teacher Anthony Warner said he sees the program as a tool for fighting poverty. It's about, "Empowering youth so that they can believe they can make positive choices."

I asked the teenagers about their goals. What do they want to do when they are grown?

Chanea wants to be a beautician. Trishanda volunteered that Chanea had used her first paycheck to get her tongue pierced. And Chanea always wears gloves to work to protect her long nails.

Know yourself and do what you love.

Rosie and Francisco are cousins, and they both want to emulate Francisco's mom, who works as a carpenter. Francisco listed a bunch of projects his mother had worked on, and I could feel his pride.

"I could earn $18 an hour," he said.

Sara said she wants to be either a massage therapist or a psychologist. She also likes photography.

It's too early to know where any of them will be in another five years, but I suspect they'll be better off for having had this experience.

They gave me a tour of the garden and fed me along the way. "Have a green bean." "Try one of the strawberries." "Let me get you a flower. You can eat this kind in salads. It's a nasturtium." "Here, I'll wash a carrot for you."

They showed me the spot where they'd started laying out small personal plots where they will each plant whatever he or she wants.

Each of them can be whatever he wants to be, if like their plants, they get the right amount of tending.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. His column runs Thursdays and Sundays and is found at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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