Urban farms cultivate green thumbs, STEM skills in Boston schools

young student working with microgreens
Oliver Homberg, from the Boston Youth Farming Project, harvested pea shoots, sunflower shoots and micro basil with students and prepared a salad at South Boston Catholic Academy on May 31, 2023. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

A Northeastern University graduate passionate about urban farming has launched a non-profit organization that is teaching children about plant biology, nutrition and the environment by growing microgreens at schools.

“If we can get to people at a young age, when they are so open to learning new concepts, it can have a big ripple effect on their lives,” says Oliver Homberg, 28, director of the Boston Youth Farming Project.

Homberg, who graduated from Northeastern in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and a minor in social global enterprise, is a passionate urban farmer. He started cultivating baby versions of leafy greens like basil, kale, cabbage and mustard in his apartment which led to his urban agricultural business, Boston Microgreens.

Having grown his company to a value of more than $1 million and recently selling the majority stake in it, Homberg decided to concentrate on passing along his passion for microgreens. He formed the Boston Youth Farming Project, developed an experiential short-term program that compliments Massachusetts curriculum and started approaching public and private schools.

“We are not trying to create a future generation of farmers, necessarily,” Homberg says.

But tending after a growing environment in the classroom for a month might inspire students to become biologists, nutritionists or engineers, he says. Or at least get a few kids to like salads. 

Over a course of five weeks, students plant seeds and learn about seed biology, anatomy, photosynthesis, the farming industry supply chain, pollution and how humans can have an impact on the planet through what they eat. In week four, they harvest and taste the microgreens they grew. 

During a recent “harvesting” class at the South Boston Catholic Academy, students got a chance to taste the microgreens that they had planted in indoor containers just a few weeks prior. Homberg and a Boston Youth Farming Project school facilitator, Tony Smoragiewicz, served a two-course meal that included a pea shoots and sunflower shoots salad with Greek seasoning and vegetarian tacos with micro basil. 

Most of the sixth-grade students gave a thumbs up when Homberg inquired about how they liked the food.

“You grew it,” Homberg said. “That is why it is so good.”

Chloe Lynch, 12, really enjoyed the salad and went for seconds. She said that her favorite learning moment over the course of four lessons was an experiment that demonstrated how plants follow the light.

“We definitely get cool experiences [in STEM classes], but I don’t think we have done anything like this before,” she said of the program.

Her classmate Kamilah Kiley, 12, was surprised by how fast the plants had grown. She said Homberg and Smoragiewicz made studying more fun and exciting.

“I feel I will remember it for a long time and tell my parents [about what I have learned],” Kiley said, noting that micro basil tasted not as strongly as the full-sized basil that her mother grows in their backyard.

Lauren Monaghan, a STEM teacher who hosted the Boston Youth Farming Project at South Boston Catholic Academy, said the programming allowed them to talk about a lot of things with the students. It supplemented what they previously learned about pollution and complemented materials, like designing a water filter kit, the school received from the Boston Museum of Science. 

“It is really great that Boston Microgreens is based in the neighborhood,” she said, “so this is relevant to the South Boston community.”

Next, students will go on a field trip to the Boston Microgreens’ facilities to see how the program works in a commercial setting.

The Boston Youth Farming Project programs are customizable to each school’s requests.

“We are not trying to drown them [children] in information,” Homberg said. “We really have an opportunity here to come in and provide a little bit of a different, let’s say, flavor or spice to what the kids are learning in the traditional Massachusetts state curriculum.”

The Boston Youth Farming Project provides its services to schools for free or at a low cost. Its expenses are covered by grassroots fundraising, and Homberg does not pay himself a salary at the moment.

“This is something that takes a lot of energy and is hugely invigorating at the same time,” he says. “I walk out of these classrooms with a smile from my ear to my ear.” 

The organization currently has eight employees and also relies on volunteers. Many of them are Northeastern students and graduates. For example, Smoragiewicz, who is finishing up his master’s degree in robotics, saw the organization’s flier at the university’s library. Anyone who participates in on-the-ground work and facilitates the programs at schools gets paid $20 an hour plus transportation expenses.

In the future, Homberg hopes to bring the Boston Youth Farming Project to other cities, as well as directly donate supplies to teachers anywhere in the U.S.

“I don’t know where the end goal is, but I’m really enjoying the process for now,” he says. “I’m just head down, pedal to the metal.” 

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at a.kuzub@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.