Mill Village Farms Helps Youth Through Gardens and Markets

From a small seed that began as a church program, Mill Village Farms has grown and sprouted several operations that support entrepreneurship and healthy food access in the Upstate. Its markets and farm comprise the face of Mill Village, but its heart is the youth development program. The Greenville and Easley gardens, and markets from which produce is sold, are really vehicles to create opportunities for at-risk youth to learn about business. The youth, ages 14 to 18, also attend weekly classes on leadership and entrepreneurship. Improving soft skills like communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills are key goals for the ministry.

Mill Village Farms exists under the umbrella of Mill Community Ministries (MCM). MCM also includes Nasha Lending and the Village Wrench, a youth development organization centered on bike culture. They focus on under-resourced communities, said Market Director Kelly Childress. “They don’t have that uncle or friend’s dad that owns the business that can give them that first job. And maybe they don’t even have the transportation to get to a job where they can work in a storefront.” As part of the staff at Mill Village’s gardens and markets, they can begin to overcome such gaps.

Establishing a work history and making connections with potential future employers is also a priority. The aim is for the job skills they acquire at places like the farm and markets to be transferable for future employment and community leadership. The high school years are a critical time for forming views about employment and education. Mill Village has provided 45 job opportunities for youth since the program began in 2012. Some of the youth have chosen to stay on for a second summer or an additional season. For 2016, they have funding for 60 youth to go through the program.

This month, operations expanded with the opening of the Mill Village Market, a brick-and-mortar storefront in a food desert area. In addition to grocery items of all sorts, a prominent space is given to a monthly pop-up shop featuring products from entrepreneurs who’ve received funding through Nasha Lending. In addition to affordable grocery items, Mill Village hopes it will be a community gathering space. A large community table features prominently in the small shop, and co-work spaces will eventually be added elsewhere in the building.

In 2016, Mill Village aims to provide over 40 employment and training opportunities at Mill Village Farms and to help another 15 youth to “find meaningful employment at local businesses,” according to Executive Director Dan Weidenbenner. The gardens and markets are crucial to making it all happen. This year, 2,754 pounds of sellable produce were harvested from Mill Village gardens, generating twice as much revenue as in 2014. Ninety percent of that produce was sold in the Mobile Market.

That is a long way from the first garden that was planted at Long Branch Baptist Church in 2012. By 2015, Mill Village also added a rooftop garden on Main Street in downtown Greenville. Meanwhile, the Mobile Market delivers fresh produce to institutional locations throughout Greenville County, including the Clemson University CU-ICAR and Bob Jones University campuses, as well as TD Bank corporate campus and various churches and community centers. Childress said Mill Village seeks a great deal of input from the communities it serves, and hopes to provide resources and opportunities people say they need and want. In that way, Mill Village can continue to grow and improve, just like the young people it aims to serve.

Photos courtesy of Mill Village Farms.

Jennifer Oladipo is a writer in Greenville whose work appears in local and national publications.