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MNyou reaps what it sowed: Youth group’s garden produce for sale at farmers markets

Shelby Lindrud / Tribune Members of MNyou weed the garden Wednesday on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar. Last week the youth group members harvested their first crop and sold all of it at the Saturday farmers market in Willmar.1 / 3
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune While weeds and critters have been an issue, for the most part the MNyou youth and leaders have been happy with the first year of their garden, shown Wednesday just east of the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar. They are already planning for next year.2 / 3
Shelby Lindrud / Tribune The MNyou garden has really taken off, with many vegetables at or near ripeness. Even the more exotic plants, including the bitter balls native to Africa, have grown well.3 / 3

WILLMAR — When the youth and leaders of MNyou, a youth group in Willmar, started planting their first garden this spring, no one really knew what to expect.

They filled the plot of land on the MinnWest Technology Campus with traditional plants including tomatoes and carrots alongside more exotic fare including bitter balls and kittley. The hope was to sell the goods at local farmers markets along with giving minority youth a project over the summer.

Last week MNyou celebrated its first harvest, bringing the goods to the Saturday farmers market in Willmar.

"It was our first market. We sold out of everything in two hours," said Nate Erickson, who founded MNyou with Abdiweli Yusuf and Ben Larson.

The men founded the group as a community service to help especially minority youth learn to run a business and other life skills.

Both the garden and the group as a whole have been a learning experience for all involved. While at first they didn't know each other or exactly how to tend a large garden, today both are flourishing.

"The group has grown. We are a lot more cohesive and working together," Erickson said.

The youth are more open with each other, sharing their experiences and learning from each other.

"Everyone is growing closer together. They've opened up," Erickson said.

The garden itself has definitely been educational.

"We've had some run-ins with weeds and critters," Erickson said, but the youth have been on board to keep the garden growing. They come out to weed, water and harvest. And now they are selling their produce.

"People have been buying in," Erickson said.

At their first market stand, MNyou sold peppers, broccoli, tomatoes and zucchini. The sale went well, and Erickson is hopeful for the rest of the season.

"I don't think we'll have much of a problem getting rid of the rest," he said.

The group will be selling at the Wednesday markets in the southeast parking lot of Kandi Mall, the Becker Market on Thursdays in downtown Willmar and on Saturdays at the market located in the YMCA parking lot.

Erickson said if the weather holds and the garden continues to produce the way it is, MNyou should be a fixture at local farmers markets through September. Money made at the markets will be split between the youth who have worked hard in the garden through the summer.

"Everyone is willing to jump in and take part," Erickson said.

MNyou has begun introducing the community to bitter balls, a vegetable native to Africa. While it took some time this spring for the plants to take root, the garden now has a nice patch of bitter ball.

"Surprisingly, the bitter balls have really taken off. We've got a good amount of them," Erickson said.

At last Saturday's market, Erickson said MNyou gave the bitter balls away, along with recipes. This way people can try them out, spread the word and — they hope — come back and buy some more.

"Everyone was super excited to try it," Erickson said.

While there are still a few months left in the season, Erickson said the group is already thinking about next year and how things can be changed or what should be added. One idea is to build raised beds in the garden, instead of planting directly in the ground.

Erickson is also willing to say that year one of MNyou has already been a success.

"We feel we've accomplished a large part of our goals for the first year. We are on our way. The first year has been a success so far," Erickson said.

Current updates, photos and additional information about MNyou can be found on its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MNyouYouth/.

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