Growing up in a rural part of Chico, California, Courtney Leeds was surrounded by fertilizer and gardening tools. Her father grew walnuts and almonds, but she never thought she’d follow in his footsteps.
“I kind of rebelled from it and wanted to be in the city,” says Leeds, co-founder of Schoolyard Farms. “But once I started working in the corporate sector, I was disillusioned by it. It didn’t bring me the satisfaction I was looking for.”
After college, she worked at a corporation in San Francisco doing qualitative research on market trends and organizing focus groups. When the recession hit in 2008, the company shut down, giving her an opportunity to rethink her future. She started apprenticing for a San Francisco farm called Little City Gardens.
“It was an inspiring and motivating experience watching two young women just a few years older than me figure out how to repurpose land in that city, develop land use agreements, and build a community around pieces of land,” says Leeds.
Then she had an opportunity to work with Zenger Farm in Portland and learn more about urban farming. That led to forming her own nonprofit with Justin Davidson, a farmer who also apprenticed at Zenger Farm.
Realizing the sincere joy she finds in being outdoors, working with her hands, and teaching kids about where fruits and vegetables come from, the duo launched Schoolyard Farms in 2012. The business has since partnered with two schools: Candy Lane Elementary and New Urban High School, both in Milwaukie, Oregon, a 20-minute drive from downtown Portland.
Though Leeds is now a solopreneur, she says partnerships with school administrators, teachers, and neighbors have been vital to funding her nonprofit.
“The elementary school has lessons that are structured and connect back to the classroom,” Leeds says. “The goal is to teach kids about where food comes from, how to grow it, and why it’s important to grow it. At the high school, we encourage kids to know how to grow food and have them work in the garden and get community service hours, which get credited towards graduation.”
Schoolyard Farms recently launched a tasting program for students to enjoy. During each month of the school year, they’ll sample recipes made with locally grown fruits and vegetables that they can easily replicate at home.
Over the summer, Schoolyard Farms offers a host of activities for kids from first to sixth grades. For a week, they get a chance to watch chefs in the kitchen, study bugs in an ecology track, and make green houses.
During the fall, Schoolyard Farms hosts its annual Farm to Table Dinner, which attracts the public to see up-and-coming local chefs prepare rustic dishes using mostly the produce that comes from the plots of land harvested by Schoolyard Farms.
“We’ve grown at a good, steady pace,” says Leeds, a WeWork Custom House member. “We haven’t grown too fast too soon, yet we have taken advantage of all the momentum from the community and pushed ourselves. Slow and sustainable is the way to go.”
Photos: Tom Bender