Chris Martin was removing unwanted Bermuda grass from a patch at the community farm in Marana.

"This is something I have never done before," said Chris, 16, who will be a junior at Ironwood Ridge High School this coming year. "I thought I would get some new experiences, and meet some new people."

Chris, one of six summer apprentices at the farm, said the work is "really exciting … but a lot tougher than I thought it would be."

Since July 11, Chris and other students ages 15-18 from across Tucson drive themselves, ride a bike or get dropped off at 7 a.m. each Saturday morning and jump right into chores. They'll be out there until the end of September, when this class finishes planting, watering and growing plants on the Marana Heritage Farm at the Heritage River Park, located at 12375 N. Heritage Park Drive.

Chris started his Saturday morning churning, mixing and watering down the compost heap with the help of 15-year-old Alex Provine and 17-year-old Lauren Sheller. The compost is later used to help nourish their current crops of watermelon, cantaloupe, zucchini, summer squash, okra, tomatoes, basil, eggplant and more.

"I never thought I would like something like farming," Chris said later, working the hoe on pesky grass. "I now have a different view on this. This is something I could see myself doing."

Into the first hour of work, the students have broken into groups, tackling the tasks set out by the youth farm coordinator Debbie Weingarten and youth apprenticeship coordinator Shanti Sellz.

Tucson High Magnet School students Robin Soliz and Claudia Burrola are harvesting the fresh basil, trimming off the flowers, washing the leafs and then spin-drying them in a large salad shooter. The basil is placed in individual bags to be sold at farmers markets around town throughout the week. On Mondays, the produce is sold at the Marana Heritage Farm from 4 to 7 p.m. Fruits and vegetables grown on the farm are also taken to the Santa Cruz farmers market, open Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Produce not sold at the farmers markets is donated to the Marana Community Food Bank.

Robin, who hopes to one day get a degree in sustainable agriculture, has been enjoying her summer, learning all there is to know about growing crops.

"You have a free summer, what better thing to do than grow food?" Robin said. She enjoys learning the ins and outs of what to grow, when to grow, how things grow, and how to plant certain plants.

And this is only their third class.

Claudia, who is planning to go into nursing in the next couple years, is just enjoying learning how to garden. She said it's fun and very educational learning about the food industry, along with how to grow plants in her own yard.

Debbie and Shanti want to introduce farming, gardening and agriculture to students as a possible career. But if they decide farming is not for them, the apprentices are still introduced to a job that gives them skills. And they learn where their food comes from, and how it is grown. Debbie gave the example of a student who thought an eggplant was where eggs came from.

For the 32 hours of work across the span of eight weeks, the apprentices are paid a $200 stipend. Through the three rounds of pilot programs, starting in March and in May, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention funded the farm and apprentice program with a $40,000 grant. Now, with the farm starting to spark more interest among students in and around Tucson, organizers are working to secure a larger, three-year, grant to expand their apprentice program with larger groups and longer sessions.

When Debbie and Shanti first went to recruit student apprentices, they found minimal interest even after traveling from class to class and school to school.

"We would make our presentation to a class of 20, and maybe one would apply," Debbie said.

Now, with a full group of students working on the farm, Debbie and Shanti are positive the apprenticeship program will continue.

"Almost all of the kids we have worked with so far are interested in continuing a relationship with the farm," Debbie said. "They are interested working with anything we can come up with. They have even been interested in volunteering for free."

The next apprentice program is for 13- and 14-year-olds Sept. 5-26. Call Debbie Weingarten or Shanti Sellz at 873-7401 for more information.

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