Scarcely a minute goes by that Robert Pierce isn't laughing, waving or greeting people by name at his South Madison Farmers' Market stand, where he serves as market manager. Friendly, warm and fiercely dedicated to making local food accessible to all, Pierce also runs a youth gardening program that teaches minority kids that "eating good is a good thing."
Says Pierce, "If you teach people when they are young to tend the soil and raise food, then how much better will they appreciate sustainable, natural food when they are adults? That's what I'm working on."
Pierce has been teaching kids ages 14 and up how to grow and market vegetables for roughly four years now. Two years ago he hooked up with Will Allen of Milwaukee's Growing Power, an urban organic farm and learning center that grows and sells food and offers a variety of workshops in sustainable farming to adults and children.
With scholarship money provided by Growing Power, the kids in Pierce's program travel to Milwaukee one weekend a month from January through May to learn from Allen and his staff: vermiculture, composting, growing techniques and how to create a small business plan, among other things - all skills they can use in the field.
Pierce runs his youth program on a half acre of land he rents from the Community Action Coalition in Madison. The kids put in approximately 20 hours a week throughout the growing season, planting, weeding, harvesting and learning about growing systems from Pierce. In July, they will begin selling some of their produce at the South Madison Farmers' Market, splitting the profits among themselves.
Growing Power has contracted to purchase a share of their string beans, specialty peppers and heirloom tomatoes for its market basket program, so the kids already have a ready market for their vegetables. Pierce has also arranged for the kids to sell produce directly to residents of Meriter Retirement Center.
Aside from the specific vegetables requested by Growing Power, Pierce lets the kids grow what they want - within reason. "I had to shoot down the kid who said he wanted to be a shrimp farmer," says Pierce. "Good idea, just not here." Pierce helps participants find vegetables to grow that will be successful and ultimately, profitable. The kids can then choose to keep the vegetables for themselves, sell them at the market, or donate them to food pantries.
Pierce has another plot of land that he reserves specifically for food pantry donations that the kids help to harvest and deliver. "Going to the food pantry gives them the chance to see where the food is going, to give rather than to take, and to see that people really need fresh food," says Pierce.
The biggest challenge for Pierce is finding enough time to devote to teaching in addition to tending his own farm, managing the farmers' market, and running the weekly market basket program. But the kids remain a priority.
"If I can turn one kid away from a McDonald's cheeseburger to eat something green then I've done my job, one kid at a time," he says. "If you eat healthy early, you won't pay for it later in life."