Job skills for kids grow alongside vegetables at MNyou Youth Garden in Willmar

The MNyou Youth vegetable garden near Willmar is located on a scenic former horse pasture owned by Brent and Debbie Larson, just north of Willmar. Currently, about three acres of land is used for the gardens — with plans to expand and add another two acres next year by building terraces on the sloping hills.

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Ben Larson, left, and Nate Erickson started the MNyou Youth Garden program five years ago as a way to give youth job skills while providing locally-grown vegetables to the community. Since then, they’ve expanded the scope and goals of this program. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — By 8:30 a.m. on a hazy August day, the three-acre MNyou Youth vegetable garden near Willmar is buzzing with activity as one crew of kids harvests peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and kale while another crew packs the fresh produce into boxes and loads them into a trailer for the delivery route.


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Wah Soe, (far back), Ket Htoo and Than Tim, who are all from the Karen community, work in the MNyou Youth Garden near Willmar. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

Meanwhile, yet another crew of kids plants cabbage and broccoli seedlings for a late-season harvest, and there’s activity in the deep-winter greenhouse that’s being prepared to grow lettuce and tomatoes during the bitter winter months.

Throughout the buzz of activity, there’s good-natured chatter as one of the young adults, who is supervising the crews, leads by example to make sure all the necessary tasks get done by those under her watch.

“These kids pretty much run the farm,” said Ben Larson, who started the MNyou Youth Garden with his friend and fellow volunteer, Nate Erickson, five years ago with the goal to give kids new skills and give area residents access to locally-grown produce.

The unique program continues to evolve as the amount of land planted to vegetables, the number of kids who work in the garden, the types of services offered to the youth and the number of people being fed with locally-grown vegetables steadily increases.

“We try to come up with something new each year,” Erickson said. “That’s one of the most fun parts of this whole experience.”

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Ket Htoo, 15, attaches string to posts to secure a 100-foot row of pepper plants growing at the MNyou Youth Garden near Willmar. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

There can be 20-30 kids working on the farm every day. Most come from diverse backgrounds, including the Karen community, and some have economic or family hardships. For many, this is their first job.

“They can do all the harvesting and planting,” Larson said. “I send them a list of things to do in the morning and they roll on it.”


Aged 14-23, they are paid an hourly wage while learning new life skills at a project that provides locally-grown vegetables to people who purchase subscriptions to the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

With the farm’s “buy one, give one” initiative, each box of paid CSA membership vegetables is matched with an equal number of boxes that are given to west central Minnesota families experiencing hardship.

This summer there were 85 paid subscriptions, which means 85 additional families also received boxes of food either once a week or every other week.

“We give away a lot of stuff,” said Larson.

Garden growth

Both Larson and Erickson have long histories of working with youth in volunteer and professional capacities.

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Hunter Parker, back, and Hannah Molash pick tomatoes in the hoop house at the MNyou Youth Garden near Willmar. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

Erickson currently works with the 4-H program with the Kandiyohi County Extension Service and Larson is an occupational skills instructor at Ridgewater College in Willmar.

When they first teamed up, the garden project involved a handful of kids and land and an old greenhouse on the MinnWest Technology campus in Willmar. The produce they grew was sold at a farmers market in Willmar.


In 2019, MNyou moved to the CSA model and the garden is now located on a scenic former horse pasture owned by Larson’s parents, Brent and Debbie Larson, just north of Willmar. Currently, about three acres of land is used for the gardens — with plans to expand and add another two acres next year by building terraces on the sloping hills.

“We’re going to expand the heck out of it,” said Larson, looking ahead to 2022.

Most of the vegetables are grown in 50- to 100-foot-long rows, with mulch and constant weeding by youth negating the need for chemical control of weeds.

Large hoop houses on the property allow for extended seasons for crops like tomatoes.

Crop rotation is constant and quick at the farm. As soon as one crop is harvested from the beds and hoop houses, compost is added to the soil and new seeds and seedlings are planted, including those planted in August and September that can tolerate cool temperatures.

“We just never know when that frost is going to come in Minnesota,” Larson said.

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Youth harvest and plant vegetables at the MNyou Youth garden near Willmar. Vegetables are grown on three acres of land, in hoop houses and a solar-heated greenhouse for a CSA program that provides locally-grown produce year-round to subscribers. For every box delivered to CSA subscribers another box is given away to those in need. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

They hope to keep tomatoes growing in the hoop houses into November.

A new deep winter greenhouse is helping the MNyou Youth Garden make the transition from a seasonal 18-week CSA program to a year-round program.

The greenhouse will be used to raise lettuce and other leafy greens during the bitter winter months that will be included in the winter CSA subscription boxes, which run from mid-November through March. Plans are being made to also grow hydroponic tomatoes in the deep winter greenhouse this year.

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A 16 x 20-foot deep winter greenhouse that’s kept warm with solar power that’s stored in four feet of river rock is used to grow fresh vegetables all year round at the MNyou Youth Garden near Willmar. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune
Deep winter gardening

Designed by the University of Minnesota and built in 2020 with the help of grants from partners, including Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the Bernick’s Family Foundation , the deep winter greenhouse is 16-by-20-feet.

Attached to a heated building where the produce is washed and packed into CSA boxes, the south-facing greenhouse features a slanted, triple-layer polycarbonate roof that captures passive sunlight without letting heat escape.

Underneath the greenhouse, there are four feet of river rock that stores the daytime heat that’s used to warm the greenhouse at night.

At one end of the greenhouse there’s a large PVC pipe with a fan that draws the daytime heat below ground and into a series of drainage tiles that are embedded in the river rock. The rocks serve as a storage battery, said Larson, and provide the bulk of necessary winter heat. There is a secondary heating source for extra-cold days but it only kicked in twice last year.

“It actually gets too hot in here,” Larson said.

They used the deep winter greenhouse for the first time in 2020 with great success but are altering the method of raising leafy greens this year. Instead of using raised garden beds that take up considerable space, greens will be grown in rain gutters placed on stacked shelves, which will make room to grow hydroponic tomatoes.

Growing skills

Partnerships with local school, church and job training organizations — along with community grants — have helped create paying job opportunities for youth at the MNyou Youth Garden.

Employees are learning basic job skills while learning how to grow food and what it takes to run a business.

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Ben Larson, who established the MNyou Youth Garden with his friend Nate Erickson, packs fresh vegetables into bags for the CSA program, which gives away as much food as it sells to subscribers. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

“So we’re training them on how to get along with different people, that they have to show up on time for work, what it’s like to stay busy at work and how to get along with your supervisor,” Larson said.

“But then it’s also those small-scale sustainable ag practices of being able to make a living on a small acreage like this,” he said. “A lot of these kids can run a farm, if they want to go into that field.”

At least one of the Karen youth working on the farm is pursuing an ag business education at Ridgewater College.

The farm also gives job coaching skills to second-year employees by putting them in supervisory roles, overseeing the duties of other youth.

Sey Paw, an 18-year-old Karen woman who grew up in Thailand and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 9 years old, supervised other youth this summer.

“I’ve learned many things through this program. I didn’t know much about gardening at first,” she said. Besides learning how to raise vegetables, Paw said her confidence in speaking English and interacting with others has also improved. She is attending Ridgewater College this fall.

“This farm, it’s a good place to work for young people,” she said. “It’s a good way to get to know others.”

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Boxes of fresh vegetables grown at the MNyou Youth Garden are ready to be delivered to CSA customers. The program gives an equal number of boxes away each week to individuals in need. Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune

One of the goals of the MNyou Youth Garden is to provide education and job opportunities for youth with diverse backgrounds, a family or economic hardship or some type of disability or limitation. But Erickson said they welcome any youth who’s willing to learn and work.

Future plans include providing mental health services to youth with licensed therapists, he said.

“It’s really turned into this well-rounded program,” Erickson said.

More information about the MnYou Youth Garden and CSA program can be found on their social media page: or email:

MNyou CSA fast facts

* There were 85 subscribers during the 18-week summer CSA program.

* The winter CSA program is expected to run from mid-November through March.

* The cost for the winter CSA is $500 for a weekly share and $300 for an every other week share.

* Drop-off sites are located in Albany, Paynesville, New London and Willmar.

* For more information, visit or email

This story was originally published in the West Central Tribune's Rooted edition on Nov. 6, 2021. More stories in this section can be found at

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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