Heirloom tomatoes. Purple cauliflower. Even the humble turnip. If it can be grown locally, there is a good chance the students at Abe’s Golden Acres have raised it this summer and shared it with the community around them.

It is about food. Over 10 weeks, the six student interns at Abe’s Golden Acres at Lincoln High School have provided thousands of pounds of food to local residents including customers at St. Leo’s Food Connection food bank. They have also run a very professional free produce stand each week, where community members (including this thankful author) have been wowed not only by the good food they have grown, but by how friendly and knowledgeable the students are.

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Plant Biology Teacher Kale Iverson carries some of the heirloom tomatoes from Abe’s Golden Acres for local food bank delivery. Photo credit: Gale Hemmann

It is also about much more than food. With the guidance of teacher Kale Iverson, these Summer Jobs 253 participants have been earning school credit, gaining job skills and making summer cash while showing that a group of committed students can make a real difference in their community. From tending crops, to painting the signs you may have seen along the roads in East Tacoma, to practicing customer service skills before market day, the students each put in 96 hours of serious work learning all aspects of urban farm and gardening operations. They have brought fresh, organic produce to residents of all incomes and backgrounds. And they have been enjoying themselves along the way.

They have also been busy harvesting crops from Abe’s Acres and four other school gardens at DeLong, Edison and Reed elementary schools and Stewart Middle School for the farm stand and St. Leo’s. Abe’s Acres, at the edge of the Lincoln property, has become a special spot for many Tacoma residents.

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Lincoln Senior Ny’jah Green expertly pulls green beans from the garden bed as she helps prepare the farm for fall. Photo credit: Gale Hemmann

With summer winding down and back-to-school in the air, I got to visit with three student interns still on the farm as they harvested for the last official farm stand day and started prepping the beds for fall. As senior Ny’jah Green expertly pulled green bean plants, she was all smiles talking about her time at Abe’s Acres. Friendly and composed, Green was Iverson’s biology student as a sophomore and got involved with the Lincoln High School Plant Sale as a junior.

She said she enjoys being outdoors and the fresh air as she works. “You get a perfect rhythm going” for each plant type, she says. After graduation, Green plans to attend college in Seattle to become a family therapist. She credits Iverson with providing much encouragement. “He’s like a friend who knows a lot. He’s wise,” Green says. Green already had some customer service experience and likes sharing knowledge about the produce with her customers. She says the skills learned at Abe’s Acres are ones she can apply in her yard and garden as a homeowner in the future.

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Kendy Urzua, a senior at Lincoln, organizes gardening and farming books for the Abe’s Acres outdoor classroom during a quiet moment at the farm. Photo credit: Gale Hemmann

Senior Kendy Urzua was organizing the books in what will become the new outdoor classroom this fall. Urzua completed her paid work hours and enjoyed her work so much she decided to stay on as a volunteer at the farm. With a ready smile, Urzua says she has enjoyed meeting new people and interacting with the customers each week. She wants to become an elementary school teacher. Urzua says the farm has helped her learn more about working with plants, and she is excited to use her new skills to help her mom in the garden.

Michael Finch, a senior at Stadium High School, was calmly and confidently mowing the open field area. This is Finch’s first job, and he has learned much that he will take with him. Finch has enjoyed the teamwork aspect and “doing community service for a good cause.” He has learned that food is a social justice issue. He too plans to attend college and says working at Abe’s Acres has provided real-world job and home ownership skills.

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Stadium High School senior Michael Finch mows the open space with skill and focus honed from a summer of learning at Abe’s Acres. Photo credit: Gale Hemmann

This year’s host of student interns also included Lincoln juniors and seniors Hap Bee, Marcus Trotter, Marques Linthicum and Charlie-Anne Hiatt, all of whom provided valuable skills to the team effort.

By all accounts, Iverson is a caring and energetic mentor. He teaches Plant Biology 3-4 classes and is the faculty advisor for the Abe’s Golden Acres after-school club. Throughout the year, the students will be taking seeds from the harvest and cultivating plant starts for the beloved Plant Sale in April – one of the biggest around. The summer interns will become classroom and club leaders.

Iverson says the farm is rewarding on several levels: giving the students a chance to try out a new vocation and watching them become more self-sufficient and connected to the natural food cycle. The small network of school farms Iverson has started is the result of seven years of work and planning. He also sees the project as instrumental in working for food justice, an idea he shares with his students. He is inspired by Olympia’s GRuB project (read more about GRuB on ThurstonTalk here), and would like to see the farm project keep expanding. Abe’s Acres is an example of how a small school garden – and terrific students – can help fill a real need in the community.

The farm served from 65 to 89 visitors per week, with about 75 percent being neighborhood residents, Iverson says. About a quarter of those who visited to shop were young people.

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Students Ny’jah Green, Kendy Urzua, and Charlie-Anne Hiatt ready to greet customers at Lincoln High School’s weekly farm stand. Photo courtesy: Abe’s Golden Acres

As the students work away, and the first visitors start to pull up, there is a steady hum beneath the old-school hip-hop playing on the radio. It is the hum of people and nature working in unison to create something great, the rhythm of farm life in a new urban setting. “I dream big,” says Iverson. In turn, so will his students.

For great photos and an overview of all the students have achieved, follow them @abesacres on Twitter. You will also find Abe’s Golden Acres on Facebook. And check out this article on the Tacoma Public Schools website.

You can support Abe’s Acres by stopping in at their seasonal farm stands in September (check Twitter for dates) and shopping the Plant Sale next spring. They accept donations of native and perennial plants. You can also register as a volunteer and donate your time. Iverson notes that the farm makes a great destination for field trips – it is the largest school garden in the area and truly a “golden” innovation.