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Teacher Brings the Farm to His Inner City Students

posted on June 4, 2004

The government released its latest farm census this week. It showed that just 3 percent of the farms produce about 62 percent of the nation's agricultural goods. A more specific breakdown shows that U.S. farms produced just over $200 billion in products in 2002, an average of about $94,000 for each farm. That's a gain of $3,400 over 1997 Census figures.

Other snapshots provided by the data show average farm size at 441 acres; a full-time farmer population of 1.2 million people; and, a growing number of women classified as principal operators.

In the city, such information may seem irrelevant. But connecting the links in the food chain is not a pointless matter to one urban educator and his eager class of students. Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.


Teacher Brings the Farm to His Inner City Students

Goats, chickens and beehives usually are not part of an urban student's regular curriculum --except for students at the all-girl Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit.

The 13-year-old academy, one of only four of its kind nationally, is a school for pregnant and parenting teens. Named after Catherine Ferguson, a slave whose freedom was purchased before she founded the first home for unwed mothers in New York, the school offers a program that helps its students learn about agriculture.

Porsha Martin, Catherine Ferguson Academy student: It's nice because most people have to go far out in the country just to have a little farm activity, and it's cool because I never did anything like this before. It's a first time experience."

Often, children who grow up in the inner city don't know how the food on their table is grown and harvested. But, Paul Weertz, a science teacher at Catherine Ferguson Academy decided to change that. Weertz calls himself an 'urban farmer', scattering his farm over 10 acres in seven locations around the city. On these 10 acres, he harvests hay, alfalfa, honey, eggs, and goat's milk. And while he's just 10 minutes from downtown, his backyard is anything but urban. In the alley behind his house, alfalfa is nearly ready to be harvested and chickens scratch in a garage that he converted into a barn.

Paul Weertz, Catherine Ferguson Academy teacher: The city of Detroit has like 40,000 vacant lots with the loss of jobs and people moving out, which is about 10,000 acres. So, my theory is instead of paying to cut these weeds, from a farming point of view, that is a crop you can feed an animal with."

For more than a decade, Weertz has tried to connect his urban students to nature and food. Instead of taking them out to the farm, however, he decided to bring the farm to them. With the support of the school's administration, he developed an agriscience class, which works like any standard science class. But, in addition to tests and lab work, the students also take care of a gamut of animals and gardens on a farm --in what has become a barnyard located in the school's backyard.

Annette Lewis, Catherine Ferguson Academy student: Goats, I love the baby goats. They're my favorite. And, I like Duffy, the fat horse. I like that horse."

Weertz and other faculty members at Catherine Ferguson Academy have three main objectives for the farming class. One, to teach the students proper nutrition and parenting skills; two, to give their inner city pupils the same opportunities rural students have by experiencing farm life first-hand. And three, they hope the girls will have a better understanding of rural America, by learning where their food comes from and by developing an appreciation for farming.

Paul Weertz, Catherine Ferguson Academy teacher: Sometimes, I think it's almost a civil rights issue, where you wouldn't go to rural kids and say, 'You don't need to take computer science, you're just farmers.' That would be crazy because those kids have a right to everything that they can be. But yet with city kids, there is no agriscience program and they could be involved in agriculture. I think they need to at least be given the opportunity to see what it's like."

Under the watchful eye of Weertz, the students grow alfalfa and other crops to feed the livestock. A few years ago, they even helped build a barn in the schoolyard. The girls, most of whom have never spent time on a farm, are gaining hands-on experience caring for animals and a first-hand understanding of the food chain by raising their own gardens.

Ottisa Crawford, Catherine Ferguson Academy student: This is a tomato plant and this is a strawberry plant. I'm taking them home so I can have a little garden of my own."

Sparkle George, Catherine Ferguson Academy student: "We're learning stuff that we use in everyday life like raw jelly and honey, all the stuff we get from them and from them. We do everything out here."

Studies show people living in poor neighborhoods are less likely to find fresh, healthy food. In some of the roughest neighborhoods, it's easier for families to find drugs and weapons than a garden. The students at Catherine Ferguson Academy are discovering they can change these statistics. They plant and harvest their own gardens, taking the produce home to share with their families

ShayTuan Jones and Chaquila Brown, Catherine Ferguson Academy students: "We know where it's coming from. We know that we that we planted it in here. It's coming from good stuff. I'm tight. I like it because it ain't coming's fresh."

Ottisa Crawford, Catherine Ferguson Academy student: "Me and my grandmother, we planted some watermelons and we usually don't do that. But, Mr. Kemp gave me some seeds, so we planted some watermelons and once they grow, we're going to eat them."

Weertz' agriscience class offers a unique opportunity for these urban teenagers to experience sights, sounds, and smells of a world outside their own.

Weertz says while the main goal of the farming class is to educate the students about agriculture, more importantly, he hopes the girls are learning about themselves.

Sparkle George, Catherine Ferguson Academy student: "My momma always tells me it's funny you've got a farm in the city. Many people don't have it this good and I think it's good to have hands-on experience because it's much better. Many people don't grasp real well with reading and all that. So, I think it's much better out here."

Annette Lewis, Catherine Ferguson Academy student: "And, I think the home repair, we built that fence with Mr. Weertz. We put up that fence right there. He taught us how to make fence and do the cement and all that, so he teaches us a lot of stuff that will come in handy in everyday life. It's real nice."

Being teen moms, the girls already have a lot stacked against them, but Weertz hopes they feel proud of their accomplishments both on the school's farm and in life. He claims nearly 100 percent of the students at Catherine Ferguson Academy are placed in post-secondary college programs. And, he says the school has sharply reduced the likelihood the girls will have another baby while still in their teens --by more than half of the national average.

While the farming class is not entirely responsible for the successes the students are achieving, it is making an impact.

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.


Tags: agriculture chickens education Michigan news schools students teachers urban