BRUNSWICK — Four years ago, four Brunswick High School students took pickaxes to a coarse, overgrown plot of land beside the school’s parking lot.
It was English teacher Jon Riggleman’s idea. He wanted to make it a vegetable garden, and pay students to farm it.
Now, nearly 10 students spend three mornings a week getting paid $9 an hour to weed, water, hoe and harvest the plot, which has expanded to 14,000 square feet.
Riggleman figured farming was a way to teach work ethics and strong employment skills to students who would otherwise spend their summers in less fulfilling ways.
“I noticed that kids lose a lot of ground over the summer,” he said. “The idea is to get the kids outside of the house, doing something meaningful.”
Riggleman, an avid gardener, also figured farming was a way to get local, organic produce into the school cafeteria – and, less literally, into the minds of students.
“My kids will be the first to tell you that they can really tell the difference between this and the crap that they would usually eat,” he said, recalling his students shelling peas and popping them into their mouths like Skittles as often as they dropped them into the harvest bucket.
The program supports itself through the sale of vegetables to the school cafeteria and Wild Oats, the downtown cafe. But it was launched and is still mainly supported with grant funding from the Brunswick Community Education Foundation.
Riggleman also helped found The Academy, a program at BHS “for kids that were coming into the ninth grade (and) were not flourishing in traditional education,” he explained. Riggleman recruits the majority of his student farmers from the academy; the familiarity might be why his students call him “Riggles” out in the field.
Students are also learning skills and values that Riggleman hopes will prepare them for their lives after graduation.
“They’re learning a work ethic. We talk explicitly about it,” he said, and listed the lessons: “Show up on time. Commit to the job. Give it your best effort. Take initiative.”
“I feel like this might sound insane, but I like the pickaxes, the hard work,” rising senior Charles Thurlow said Monday morning, just after the group assembled at 9 a.m. to begin the day’s work.
Like the high school, the garden is on a former blueberry farm – evidence of which is clear in the tough root system Thurlow recalled taking axes to when he helped turn the original garden beds three years ago.
Recent grad Ben Poseno agreed. He may have graduated from BHS in June, he said, “(but) I enjoy doing this so much I just didn’t leave. It’s rough, but when it’s done …”
“It looks good and it helps you sleep at night,” Thurlow added, completing the thought.
Poseno said he had spent the morning weeding and checking vegetables for bugs.
As veterans of the program, Poseno and Thurlow are two of the more productive farmers, Riggleman said, because they work hard and show initiative.
Sometimes, the students rely on Riggleman’s colorful instruction.
“Give them a haircut,” he told student farmers Alex Cocture and Anna Carpenter.
He was talking about garlic. A set of off-white bulbs were splayed on a ragged blanket, each banded together by a long, string of weed. Cocture and Carpenter got out their scissors and began cutting, dropping the garlic heads into a bucket as they talked about their summers.
After they’re done, Garrett Erb, a University of Southern Maine student who interns with the group, would take the garlic to Wild Oats Bakery, which buys about $1,500 worth of produce from the farm.
Over time, Riggleman said he hopes to see produce from the farm make its way to area farmers markets and involve even more students if he can get the money to do it.
He’ll certainly need more sets of hands to work an additional 2 acres of land off Baribeau Drive that was recently donated by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust.
On Monday, the group made their way over to the plot for the first time to begin the process of raking the untouched earth into usable beds. They’ll start with only a portion of the land – maybe about a fifth of an acre, Riggleman said.
“I want to grow this thing organically,” he said. “Just like the vegetables.”
Ben Poseno, a recent Brunswick High School graduate, and rising senior Charles Thurlow hold the pickaxes they used to transform a plot of overgrown land next to the school parking lot into a thriving vegetable garden. They have farmed the land for three summers with teacher John Riggleman, in a paid program meant to teach practical skills and work ethics.