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Urban Agriculture Lab

Spark-Y Impact Report: 2017-18

Spark-Y Impact Report: 2017-18

Youth Empowerment. This is our mission as an organization and also a directive that shapes our organization - from the curriculum we deliver in our school programs and the real-world approach we take in our summer internship program, to the opportunities for community outreach and youth employment we provide through Urban Agriculture Lab. These three branches of our organization work systemically to positively impact Twin Cities youth, providing multiple pathways for empowerment and growth both within and beyond our organization.

Perhaps this is why so many of our Spark-Y youth begin in our school programs, graduate from our summer internship program, and go on to gain employment at Spark-Y or other organizations as a result of their experiences.

As an organization we are always asking ourselves the same question: How do we measure youth empowerment?
Can it be measured by student grades in our school programs?
Or by the dollar value of projects completed in our summer internship?

If you ask one of our Sustainability Educators, they might tell you other stories of empowerment:

  • The transformation of disengaged students who rally to save a classroom fish, complete an assignment for the first time in their classroom history, or join an elective leadership opportunity (our elementary Captains program).

  • The marvel of watching student-led creations come to life, as young people use STEM-based learning and utilize power tools to design, build, and cultivate their own sustainable systems.

  • Youth interns sharing their summer internship successes on stage in front of our Minneapolis Mayor, Jacob Frey - then going on to secure jobs and admittance to higher education programs as a result of their experiences.

As we continue to share these meaningful stories of youth empowerment on our blog, Facebook, and Instagram we also want to share the other side of how we measure youth empowerment, through our Spark-Y Impact Report. This report is designed to help us as an organization measure our successes, focus our future efforts, and paint a broader picture for our supporters (that’s you!) the value of your investment in our organization.

Together, we are empowering more Twin Cities youth than ever before.


Total Youth Served in 2017/18: 1,926

School Programs:

This branch of Spark-Y provides hands-on education, rooted in sustainability and entrepreneurship to Twin Cities youth in school classrooms, workshops, one-time events, and customized programming.

In 2017/18 Spark-Y provided curriculum for:

  • 13 schools

  • 18 regularly occurring school programs or 2,799 class periods and 1,334 youth regularly served

  • Workshops and one-time events impacting 401 youth and 191 adults

  • Reaching a total of 1,735 youth

Within our school programs, youth engaged in hands-on curriculum that resulted in:

  • 10 permanent in-school aquaponics systems

  • 35 mini-aquaponics systems

  • 4 permanent vermicompost systems


Did you know?

In 2017-2018 Spark-Y doubled the number of permanent aquaponics systems built in the previous year.

Another marker of impact in 2017-18 was our expanded reach and lasting impact within of our partnerships with Twin Cities Schools:

  • Addition of Edison High School LEAF (Leadership Education Agriculture Future) program - a diploma certification with Spark-Y programming spanning 5 class offerings.

  • Our third year of programming at Roosevelt High School, including our urban farm and EASY Pro (Edible Schoolyard Professional) programs.

  • Our seventh year at School of Environmental Studies.

  • We also celebrated our fifth year at Southside Family Charter.

Fast Fact:
After participating in a Spark-Y school program, 62% of youth reported knowing ways they can live more sustainably.

Spark-Y continued to expand interpersonal partnerships:

  • 2 school interns from a continued partnership with HECUA program (non-profit with a focus on social justice, human rights and sustainability).

  • 2 AmeriCorps members on staff.

Urban Agriculture Lab (UAL)

The second branch of Spark-Y, the Urban Agriculture Lab, provides support to our school programs through sustainable systems research, facilitation of youth classroom builds, and ongoing maintenance to in-classroom systems. The UAL operates in indoor production facility, providing a sustainable revenue model for the organization and a youth job pathway. Lastly, the UAL is home to our DIY Bio Lab, equipping our classrooms with new, innovative science projects and providing workshops and outreach throughout the Twin Cities.

In 2017/18 the Urban Ag Lab:

Reached 167 youth and 175 adults through tours.

  • Impacted 199 youth with hands-on STEM workshops, in a new partnership with Hennepin County Libraries.

  • Provided a work-based learning internship with 3 Edison students, complete with class credits and stipends.

  • Employed 1 youth apprentice.

  • Impacted 23 youth at our second year in attendance as speakers at CONvergence.

  • Hosted 47 volunteers.


Fast Fact:

Spark-Y moved office headquarters in August of 2018, moving their 1,300 square foot indoor aquaponics system to construct a timber-frame, vertical growing system at their new offices in Northeast Minneapolis.

Additionally, the Urban Ag Lab participated in the following:

  • Hosted a Spring Plant sale, attracting hundreds of visitors.

  • Featured exhibitor at the Minnesota State Fair, Common Table.

  • A stop on the 2018 Farm Tour.

Summer Internship

The third branch of our organization, the Summer Internship Program, a sustainability bootcamp where young people gain real-world experience through hands-on projects with our Twin Cities partners.

In 2018 Spark-Y provided 41 paid internship positions for our youth, completing:

  • Design and build of a two-ton timber frame aquaponics system

  • A rain garden

  • Indoor aquaponics system

  • Garden shed

 2018 interns receiving paid stipends, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, in front of a youth-built timber frame aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Open House.

2018 interns receiving paid stipends, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, in front of a youth-built timber frame aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Open House.

Looking ahead:

With a nod to this last year’s accomplishments, we also look forward to focusing our efforts in key areas of growth to create even more impact in the year to come.

This includes:

  • Creating even more ways to measure our impact, including, entrance / exit surveys and methods of qualitative data collection.

  • Expanding our community workshop offerings to build interest and curiosity in new communities.

  • Thinking of new and innovative ways to fund and expand into new school partnerships, including the ten schools on our current wait list.

  • Increasing our employment pathways.

  • Adding professional certifications to our work based learning programs.

We are very excited to share this information with you. We appreciate your continued support of our organization and other Twin Cities organizations that are actively uplifting the lives of youth all around us. We could not do this work without you. We thank all of our volunteers, staff, Board, fiscal contributors, partners, and cheerleaders for your ongoing support.

Let’s keep building towards empowering our youth, so that they can go on to empower their families, schools, and our greater community!


A Special Thanks:

In the last month we have received in-kind support of our organization from the Joan Brick McHugh memorial. These donations were given to honor her memory, and for that, we are sincerely grateful. We would also like to recognize Spark-Y Founder, Mary Helen Franze, for her ten years of service on our Board of Directors and for choosing Spark-Y to honor her mother's memory.

Leading the Charge for Women in Urban Ag

Leading the Charge for Women in Urban Ag

The following blog post profiles Urban Farm Manager, Caitlin Barnhart,
as a part of our Spark-Y Staff Spotlight Series.

The backbone of Spark-Y is sustainability and entrepreneurship, two practices embodied in the staff the organization employs. In the instance of one staff member, another story can be told: the rise of women in urban agriculture.

Just before giving a tour to a group of students through the Urban Agriculture Lab, Caitlin Barnhart, Spark-Y Urban Farm Manager sat down to share her experiences as a staff member and her journey into urban agriculture.

“Especially when younger girls come in [to the Urban Agriculture Lab] I think they see that as a cool thing. It’s really not traditional that they see a female in this role. And a lot of the time, I think they are more willing to ask a question, are excited about what I do, and are more willing to say: ‘Hey! I want to do that too!’”

That wasn’t necessarily the case for Barnhart, who questioned whether there were role for women in this field. Fresh out of college, she noticed the majority of roles held in agriculture were held by men.

Graduate of the University of Minnesota in Food Systems, with a minor in Sustainable Agriculture, Barnhart was paired with Spark-Y as a community partnership experience in one of her capstone classes. Following her experience, she signed up for Spark-Y’s Summer Internship program in 2015 and was hired at a Spark-Y Education Facilitator while still in school.

It was a month before Barnhart was to graduate when she sat down with Nick Phelps, professor and mentor. He asked her questions about what she was passionate about and what she saw herself doing post-graduation. “I think my direct quote was I want Sam Menzies’ job at Spark-Y,” says Barnhart. Sam Menzies was Operations Manager at Spark-Y and had played a critical role in designing and building the organization’s 1,300 square foot indoor urban farm in South Minneapolis. Phelps encouraged Barnhart to pursue the position.

Spark-Y Urban Ag Lab:

Post-graduation Barnhart accepted a full-time Education Facilitator position at Spark-Y, where her role was teaching sustainability and entrepreneurship to youth in classrooms through hands-on sustainable systems. “While I loved that experience, I also realized that my passion is more on the farming and the hands-on side of things,” reflected Barnhart. This prompted Barnhart to look to other areas of the organization that held greater interest for her, culminating in a 14-page proposal focused on what she could contribute towards the urban agriculture arm of the organization. She presented her plan to Zach Robinson, Spark-Y Executive Director. “He said, ‘Yeah, I love that. Your energy is great and you’re going to do that.’ And today I am pretty much doing all of those things.”

Urban Farm Manager at Spark-Y since September of 2017, Barnhart did in-fact gain Sam Menzies job. Today, Menzies works as Operations Director for Spark-Y overseeing sustainable systems at the Urban Agriculture Lab and in the classrooms.

Working with a small, dedicated team, the Urban Agriculture Lab has seem more than a few changes since Barnhart came aboard, including a partnership with Gentleman Forager to sell microgreens to local restaurants, indoor growing expansions such as hydroponic growing towers, fish breeding tanks, and a soil lab completed with the help of a 2017 internship team.  Menzies and Barnhart also developed and executed a Spark-Y Plant Sale in 2017 and 2018, adding another revenue stream to the organization’s mission of youth empowerment.

“Caitlin’s passion for urban farming has contributed to the Urban Ag Lab’s highest revenue in a season to-date,” says Menzies. “And with a young staff, empowerment within our organization is critical. We encourage our staff to be creative, take risks, and bring their visions to life. Caitlin embodies this philosophy.”


Spark-Y Microgreens



Barnhart feels that she has found her place within the organization. “I’m roughly fresh out of college, and not a lot of people get the level of freedom or responsibility that I get in this role - and that’s what I really enjoy about Spark-Y,” she adds.

There have been some defining moments for Barnhart along the way, including a Spark-Y partner calling to ask if she would be willing to give a tour to another young female interested in the field of agriculture or a group of fourth graders that enjoyed aquaponically-grown red veined sorrel after she told them it tastes like Sour Patch Kids candy. She thinks that youth having the opportunity to tour a growing facility at a young age makes a difference, noting that she did not become aware of sustainability or urban farming until a class in college.

 Barnhart adding "worm juice" from vermicompost systems to aquaponic-grown red veined sorrel.

Barnhart adding "worm juice" from vermicompost systems to aquaponic-grown red veined sorrel.

Today, Barnhart recalls just how important it is to find something you are passionate about and stick with it. A passion that is easily displayed in Barnhart’s contributions to the Urban Agriculture Lab and the way she speaks about her position: “I love the smell of dirt, the feeling of nature, you know, that feeling you get when you walk outside on a dewy morning is the same feeling you get when you walk into this lab and it’s 20-degrees outside. It’s a loving, nurturing feeling and you just don’t find that anywhere else.” A far cry from a young college graduate wondering if there was a place for her in urban agriculture.


Tours, Microgreens, and More: A Look at Spark-Y's Urban Ag Lab

Tours, Microgreens, and More: A Look at Spark-Y's Urban Ag Lab

Spark-Y’s Urban Agriculture Lab (UAL), offers a blooming paradise in a cold Minnesota winter! Youth operate our aquaponic production facility, raising microgreens for sale through the Gentleman Forager, facilitating regular tours, and organizing events such as our spring plant sale. Since the beginning of 2018 alone, more than 180 students and over 20 community members have toured Spark-Y’s UAL. Read on to learn more about the UAL, and the activities that our awesome interns, volunteers, youth apprentices, and citizen scientists are participating in.

The Latest from the Urban Agriculture Lab


Spark-Y’s fresh, local, youth-grown microgreens are being used in restaurants across the Twin Cities, through our partnership with the Gentleman Forager. These microgreens will also soon be offered for sale at the Gentleman Forager stand in the new Keg and Case marketplace opening spring, 2018. Revenue earned through this partnership allows youth in Spark-Y’s school programs to be employed in the UAL, where they can apply the skills and knowledge learned in their school program to a real-world setting. Kelly, our first youth apprentice, was a student at Roosevelt High School. He participated in the Roosevelt Urban Farm Squad for two years, and in Spark-Y’s summer internship for two years. He was hired on as staff in August, 2017, and is now helping produce microgreens for the Gentleman Forager partnership.


Baby Blue Tilapia were bred as a special project by our intern Nicholas Jacob. They were born on November 3rd, 2017. These fry will reach a mature size within about nine months. Tilapia are the ideal species to raise with students in our school programs for their hearty nature, and ability to reach maturity quickly. We like to celebrate the creation of a food system with the students in our school programs, by participating in a fish fry at the end of each year. These Blue Tilapia fry are currently being raised by the youth apprentices and interns operating our UAL. We intend to sell them to local restaurants and individual consumers right around August, 2018 when they reach maturity. Our tilapia make extra tasty (and sustainable!) fish tacos incase you were wondering.


Spark-Y’s mission of sustainability education and empowerment stretches beyond the youth in our programs. Every-other Thursday evening from 6 to 7pm we welcome the public to join us on a tour of the UAL. Tours only cost $10, and will go through each of the sustainable systems we utilize in the classroom as drivers of STEM education. You can sign up for a tour on Spark-Y’s Shop page.

Side note: You can also stop by before the tour on Thursdays from 5-6pm to purchase fresh, youth-grown microgreens!

This summer, Spark-Y will also be partnering with the Hennepin County Library to offer a series of STEM focused workshops. Keep an eye on our Facebook page, or sign up for our newsletter to learn more.


What’s Ahead for the Urban Agriculture Lab:

Are you getting antsy for spring? We sure are! Get your pants from Spark-Y at our 2nd annual Spring Plant Sale taking place May 5th, 2018. All your veggies, flowers, herbs, and even native plants will be available! We will also be offering mushroom log demonstrations, UAL tours, and activities for the kiddos throughout the day. Sign up for our newsletter at to receive a pre-order form for the 2018 plant sale.


Looking to get involved?

You can support Spark-Y and our UAL by participating in any of the following events:

  • Come on a tour - Offered every-other Thursday 6-7pm.
  • Purchase microgreens @ Spark-Y, 5-6pm on Thursdays.
  • Come to our plant sale on May 5th.
  • Purchase a mushroom log, T-shirt, fanny pack, SCOBY, or vermicompost bin at, or on Thursdays 5-6pm.
  • Sign up for our newsletter.
  • Donate
  • Volunteer
  • Like & follow us on Facebook

Student-Driven: Design to Build Day at IAA

Student-Driven: Design to Build Day at IAA

Background: Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) is a Spark-Y school partner with an apprenticeship / school program hybrid. Students in the program spend half time at Spark-Y at our commercial-scale aquaponics system, learning to care system health, and the other half of their time learning STEM-based curriculum with a focus in sustainability. As a part of their education in sustainability, students submitted their own aquaponics system designs and chose one to build on-site at school. Having completed their apprenticeship at Spark-Y, students are now equipped to care for their own aquaponics system, with continued learning in their own classroom.



Youth-designed model and student-built aquaponics frame behind it.

Systems Engineer, Andrew Rescorla, shares his
experience of build day at Integrated Arts Academy (IAA).

Early on, a few students milled around while Wolid and I cut 2x4's with the chop saw. The teacher had announced that the students didn't have to help with the build, but they could if they wanted. None of the students seemed too eager- they had the too-cool-for-school vibe going.

One student, Sean, stopped to watch us. I asked if he wanted to help and he said he would, though he wasn't so sure about making a cut with the chop saw.

"Nah, I'll let you all do that."

He hadn't spent much time around power tools.

After watching a couple of cuts, he gave it a try himself and seemed surprised with how easy it was. After a few minutes, Sean and another student wandered over to Sam, our Operations Director.  The three of them began laying out posts and assembling the wood framing.

When I joined them later, Sean was zipping in screws with an impact driver. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. He was doing a great job. There was also a newfound confidence, evident as he shared his opinions on wood screws vs. hex bolts and tested the strength of his joints by applying pressure to the cross beams.

Before he left for the afternoon, he stood back, admired what he'd built, and nodded. (I know this sounds corny but it really happened).

At Spark-Y we talk about empowering students to change the world - to create, invent, design, and build sustainable solutions to enormous global problems. But along the way are smaller moments of empowerment - when a student learns that they are capable of building something.

This was a small but cool moment for me to see in my first experience with a student build day. As I had imagined, many of the students were not that interested. But a few were. And those that engaged, they took ownership of the small tasks that were given to them. They learned how to use new tools, and they saw an aquaponics system take shape from a bunch of boards on the floor.