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Bringing inner-city boys to the farm with help from Cargill

By Mark Klein September 09, 2014

Boys Grow is a small organization in Kansas City, Mo., that uses farming to make a big difference for inner-city boys from foster homes and single-parent families. From 2010 to 2013, Boys Grow carried out its mission on borrowed land. A $225,000 donation from Cargill has now given it a permanent home.

At the new 10-acre farm, about 30 boys learn work skills – and earn a paycheck – by raising vegetables and egg-laying hens. They also develop business and entrepreneurial skills by marketing the produce locally and developing value-added products (this year: avocado hot sauce).

John Gordon Jr., founder and executive director, said the idea for Boys Grow came in part when he was a social worker in California. He met a misguided boy “who would steal your wallet if you let him.” The boy was put to work on a farm. When Gordon saw him next, the boy was transformed. “His energy was completely different. I noticed the pride he was taking in something he was involved in doing himself.”

Eric Keller, principle project manager for Cargill’s grain and oilseeds North America supply chain business, heard about Boys Grow through a friend. Boys Grow was trying to raise money to buy a farm, and Keller took the idea to the local Cargill Cares Committee. Over the last eight years, the committee has allocated $2 million to local organizations. Cargill has 200 employees in the Kansas City area.

The committee met with Gordon and the boys and reviewed the organization’s multi-year plan. “What impressed us was the vision and direction,” Keller said. “They had a good strategic plan. We also liked that Boys Grow hits on all three of the primary focus areas that Cargill corporately and locally contribute to – health and nutrition, education and the environment.”

Bounded by trees on three sides, the farm has several buildings and a pond. This season it produced a cornucopia of vegetables, including nearly 20 types of tomatoes destined for local restaurants. Rather than starting on new land each spring and leaving it at the end of the season, Boys Grow can now have activities year round and build permanent structures, like greenhouses.

The boys learn more than farming. “What I like is interacting with people and doing new things,” said Dagan Berkley, 16. “When I started, I was a shy guy. I learned about myself and communicating with people. Me and the boys connected more than I would have thought we would. We bonded and made a brotherhood.”

Gordon said the farm will provide a place the boys can go even after the two-year commitment is done. “Whether they are seeing bad examples in the neighborhood or school, they will still have the bond of Boys Grow and they can always come back to the farm.” It’s also a place where Cargill employees can volunteer and help the boys grow.