Teens become farmers at Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport
FREEPORT — Pulling weeds, bucking hay and fighting bugs is not how most high school students want to spend their summer.
But four students working at Wolfe's Neck Farm wouldn't have wanted to do anything else.
By the end of the week, the small crew will have followed as much as 5,000 pounds of produce from seed to table, and donated it to food pantries in Freeport and Brunswick, while learning about all aspects of farming.
Their work is part of the Teen Ag program at the farm, which is designed to teach young people about sustainable farming practices.
"They planted, weeded and battled insects, while doing a great job reaching out to extension and contacting local farmers to overcome challenges," said Eric Tadlock, director of education at the farm. "The idea really is to give these kids employable job skills to teach them to create and develop and implement a growing project throughout a growing season."
The program started at Aldermere farms in Rockport, and this was the first year at Wolfe's Neck. It is supported by grants from organizations including the Horizon Foundation, the Environmental Funders Network, the Northeast Agricultural Education Foundation, Farm Credit Northeast AGEnhancement, and the Maine Community Foundation, plus private donations to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Wolfe's Neck Farm.
These grants, of about $30,000, paid for the supplies, a crew leader from the farm and a small wage for the students, Tadlock said.
The teens grew an array of produce including lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, corn, buckwheat, tomatoes, beans and squash. Most of the seeds were started in a greenhouse before they arrived this summer, but they transplanted them into the field – including more than 1,000 pumpkin seeds – and nurtured them into food.
They also learned soil management, succession, vegetable management, seed farming and how to fight against pests.
One of the biggest take-aways from the experience, aside from what they learned about farming, was learning about themselves, said Caroline Wild, 18, of Brunswick.
"Without realizing it, we learned about our leadership styles," she said. "We realized how to work together and that we take charge of certain things."
They agreed that the most rewarding part of the experience was handing out the food they had grown to seniors at a food pantry dinner early this month.
"We literally got to follow the whole path of production that day," said Andrew Hollyday, 16, of Cape Elizabeth, noting they had harvested the vegetables that morning and then brought them to the pantry to eat later the same day.
"They were glorifying us for our beets," said Abrim Berkemeyer, 17, of Freeport. "We could actually see where our food was going. It was good to take the initiative and see the impact on the community."
Despite all the opportunities and accomplishments they have had this summer, they said their favorite part was the exhausting physical labor of throwing some 5,000 bales of hay in the barn.
"We're addicted to it," said Emily Harvey, 15, of Pownal. "It was always like 'when can we hay again?'"
In addition to growing food, the teens also had the chance to learn about other aspects of farming. They sheered and tagged sheep, learned to use specialized farming tools, trimmed hooves, built fences, drove a tractor, and Hollyday even learned to drive a standard transmission.
"Agriculture is some much more than growing vegetbales," Tadlock said. "They learn all the skills that farmers need from carpentry to plumming to installing water lines. We try to provide an agriculture education snapshot."
Their long summer hours are now coming to a close as the school year begins, but they will continue to work a few hours a week on the farm until mid-October to finish what they started, Tadlock said.
Although all of the teens are moving on from the program after this year, they said they will miss it.
"We really got to see every part of agriculture," Berkemeyer said. "But, one part about getting to know the farm is having to leave."