Erickson Fields serves veggies to Quarry HillTeens learn about sustainable agriculture
Rockport — On a summer morning, a group of teenagers are harvesting lettuce, kale, summer squash, scallions and Swiss chard in Rockport for the residents of Quarry Hill, the senior living community in Camden. Heather Halsey, program manager for Maine Coast Heritage Trust, wanted the trust’s Teen Agriculture (or Teen Ag) program to have a relationship with a group of elders. So she talked with Quarry Hill Executive Chef Jon Roy, and the partnership got under way at the beginning of June.
Roy, who prepares lunch for about 110 and dinner for around 150 daily, was happy to be approached by Halsey, he said, because he had been thinking about looking for a local source for produce, but didn’t know where to start. “It was a no-brainer. It was a very easy decision for us to move forward” with the partnership, he said.
The chef was equally enthusiastic about the produce he’s been getting from the trust’s 93-acre Erickson Fields Preserve. “The product is unbelievable,” he said. So far, he has gotten lettuce, kale and scallions, with cherry tomatoes, summer and winter squashes to come when they are ready, and possibly fresh-cut flowers, depending on the weather. Halsey said this summer, with alternating periods of rainy and hot weather, has not been good for flowers, but she may have some in the fall.
Halsey appreciated Roy’s being “excited and open” in response to her proposal. Because he has the flexibility to change the menu on short notice, he can plan around whatever the farm delivers at the beginning of each week. “We’re going with the season,” Roy said. Students from the program deliver vegetables on Monday, he said, and they’re gone within a couple of days. He said he hasn’t checked the farm’s prices against what he pays to the wholesalers he buys from, but he feels they are comparable.
Halsey started the Teen Ag program three years ago at Erickson Fields, on land which she said “has been in farming for generations.” Besides its agricultural history, she explained, the land there has “prime agricultural soils,” with the just right combination of minerals, drainage and organic matter to make it superior for growing healthy plants.
Halsey said teens who have taken part in the program in previous years have asked to come back, and she always hire at least one student who has been part of the crew before so the group can benefit from his or her experience. This year, it’s Courtney Gautreau, 16, of Camden. She said the group decides what to plant based on what customers such as Quarry Hill, Good Shepherd Food Bank and the Camden schools want to buy. She said she has learned a lot from being in the program. She applied for the job because she wanted to work outdoors and because it allows her to do “something for the community,” she said.
Halsey said crew members often bring their friends to the farm to volunteer – in the fall, much of the harvesting is done by volunteers and school groups – and parents tell her what a difference the program makes in their children’s behavior. Crew members’ eating habits change, she said, and they start encouraging their friends to think about where food comes from.
After spending a summer working together in the heat, the bugs and the rain, crew members become close, Halsey said, as they learn about teamwork, communication and work skills. She keeps them involved in harvesting and delivery of the vegetables so they can see the results of their work and its effect on others.
This year’s crew has two college-age interns working about 40 hours a week, four older teens who work 32 hours a week, plus two younger teens who work 20 hours a week, and an intern, who is a college student. Before school lets out in the spring – the planting season starts in April – and after classes start again at the end of August – students typically work eight to 10 hours a week, Halsey said. She commented that the teens’ “work ethic is really impressive.”
Intern Hilary Brown is majoring in sustainable agriculture at UMaine Orono, where she will be a senior in the fall. She explained that crops are planted next to other crops with which they will have a beneficial relationship. For example, she said, garlic and onions discourage pests, so they might be planted next to plants that are more susceptible to pests. Basil is planted next to tomatoes to enhance the tomatoes’ flavor.
Brown said she was in a similar program as a teen, and wanted to help other high school students enjoy an experience like hers. She noted that there are significantly more women than men in her program at UMaine, which she thinks is because sustainable agriculture emphasizes hands-on nurturance of plants and small scale, as opposed to the chemical-dependent industrial farming that attracts more men.
Girls are also in the majority in the Erickson Preserve program, which has just one boy this summer. Intern Julia Pope, a student at Connecticut College, suggested this might be because “girls have to seek out opportunities” to work in farming, while their male counterparts are “grandfathered” into it, working on their families’ farms from the time they are young.
At 14, Emily Quinn, of Camden, is one of the younger members of this summer’s crew. She said she had had a garden at home, and liked working outside. She applied to the program because she wanted a job that “wasn’t stereotypical.”
Hannah Holte, 15, of Camden, said she was drawn to the program because she knew Gautreau and others who have worked at Erickson; some of them told her when they went on vacation, they missed working in the fields, she said. Holte added that she wanted to learn about sustainable agriculture and give something back. She said this is the first job she’s had that she feels proud of.
Roy said Quarry Hill residents appreciate the fresh produce and have commented on it. “They know we are doing everything we can do … to be environmentally aware,” for example, by purchasing local products that are not trucked across the country. He added that the Erickson produce, which is grown organically with no pesticides or herbicides, is more nutritious. “I’ve got to believe, if it’s a day fresher,” there is a nutritional benefit, he said.
Halsey said she and Roy have talked about having the Teen Ag crew make a presentation to Quarry Hill residents after school starts again.