Driving into the farm yard, we were greeted by a young man could have been a parking director for the State Fair or some sporting event — except that instead of using a flag or flashlight, he pointed the way to a parking place with a bright green cucumber in each hand. He’s a member of Dirt Group, a therapeutic program that grows gardens and kids. The cucumber-wielding teen welcomed us to an observation day for the program, which is directed by my brother, Kenny Turck.
Dirt Group kids come from a variety of difficult situations, which add up to needing some help to cope with life. In official parlance, they are all “at risk.” The therapeutic program, run by Crow River Family Services, “gives participants an opportunity to experience social inclusion by being part of a safe, cohesive, structured group.” Dirt Group participants plant seeds, weed rows of vegetables, herbs and flowers, interact with chickens and turkeys and each other, and harvest food and self-confidence.
They began this year on March 7, planting seeds in a greenhouse on Sisters Kay and Annette Fernholz’s Earthrise Farm near Madison, Minnesota. Then they transplanted, and planted more, in the gardens on the home farm. Three pre-teens proudly showed me around the gardens “My garden,” one of them explained, has green beans, snap peas, carrots, zucchini, peppers and sunflowers. He invited me to sample a snap pea from the vine, and said the sunflowers were his favorite. Each group of young people tends its own garden plot — Green Garden Gobblers, The Seedlings, the Dirt Devils, S3, and #6 Weeders — as well as helping with the flower garden, herb garden and a common garden.
Today they have a stand filled with garden produce to show their accomplishments. Flower baskets hang around the farm yard. “We put them up to look pretty,” my guide explains. He also introduces me to Hopper, a friendly tabby cat. Too friendly, it seems. “We have to lock her in the biffy when we eat lunch,” he explains, “so she won’t take our food.”
My guide points out a wandering chicken. Chickens and turkeys live in the old white barn, and, he says, the roosters are annoying “because of all the cock-a-doodle-doo.” Ten pigs, including two named Bacon and Sausage, live in a pole barn and get treats such as radish tops. The kids explain that a pig is wallowing in the mud “to keep cool” and “because they like it.”
The kids go off with their counselors to talk in small groups. Kenny talks to the visitors, explaining that the circle time will begin with reviewing goals. These might be target skill areas, such as learning to follow instructions, choosing the best words or tone of voice for communicating at home or in school, staying on task, cooperating with others, starting conversations/talking with others, delaying gratification, and so on.
Kenny identifies five outcomes of the Dirt Group program:
- tangible results (planting and weeding lead to harvest and eating)
- skill development (learning to succeed)
- pride in ownership (“my garden, my beans, my sunflowers”)
- the ripple effect (growing food, taking it home to feed families, taking excess to food shelves in the community)
- social inclusion (becoming part of a group)
Then it’s time to eat together at long tables set up under bright blue awnings. Much of the food has been grown in the garden. The young people are eager and enthusiastic hosts, offering water and coffee and serving homemade ice cream flavored with lemon verbena from the garden.
Kenny thanks them and asks, “What are the principles of Dirt Group?”
“Reasonable, thoughtful, kind and sincere,” a teen answers promptly. He and his fellow Dirt Group participants showed all of those characteristics as they welcomed us to their gardens and their day.
Related article: Bragging about my brother (2012)