Aroostook County is a great place to turn a good idea into reality, especially if it involves children and agriculture. When cash is scant, energetic promotion of a vision can attract volunteers and donations to create something new.
That’s what happened when Kevin McCartney, president of the Northern Maine Fair in Presque Isle, came back from Minnesota last fall with photographs of an exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair introducing toddlers to the farm as a source of their food and clothing.
McCartney, long an advocate of “informal education,” threw the idea out to the NMF board and a committee picked it up and ran with it, under the leadership of first-year board member Jessica Blackstone of Easton.
“Agriculture is a huge staple in Aroostook County,” Blackstone said. “And people realize the importance of teaching kids where their food and clothes come from.”
So with community support, family support, Future Farmers of America club support, and donations from the Maine Community Foundation, Maine Potato Board, Presque Isle and Easton Kiwanis clubs, the Northern Maine Antique Tractor Club, Huber Engineered Woods, Poland Spring and other businesses and individuals, this year’s Northern Maine Fair debuts “Lil’ Farmers at The Fair,” an interactive experience about what it means to be a farmer.
“The knowledge is much better learned because the kids figure this out themselves,” McCartney said, explaining how the display allows children ages 3-10 to do what farmers do and make the connections between food, farms and stores.
Wood for five small barns was donated by Huber Engineered Woods of Easton. Three of the buildings were constructed by FFA clubs from Presque Isle, Caribou and Mars Hill high schools. A fourth was built by the Northern Maine Antique Tractor Club and the fifth by Warner Archer of Washburn, who is not only a carpenter but also a musician with the six-member All-Around Country Band, with members from Topsfield, Houlton, Patten and Washburn.
“The total cost of this remarkable project has come from the community,” said Lynwood Winslow, fair treasurer, who, along with Roger Shaw and Cheryl Boulier, also has taken a lead role in the project.
Jessica, who is assistant director of admissions at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, led me from barn to barn among the 10 stops children make in their experience of a day at the farm. They pick up small baskets and aprons as they enter what used to be the flower building on the fairground. If they have to wait in line they can have their pictures taken with their faces in cut-outs in the heads of farm animals painted by Robb Johnston, a student at UMPI.
In the grain barn, they pick up oats and corn, which they dump into the feed trough of the next barn where Daisy the cow waits for small hands to milk her. All the animals and products are make-believe replicas of real animals and farm produce the children will see elsewhere at the fair.
After putting a little milk carton in their baskets, the kids move on to the chicken barn containing realistic chicks, hens and eggs.
“My grandfather made the nesting boxes,” Jessica said, pointing to the authentic handiwork of Richard Kneeland of Easton lining both sides of the little barn. Hens look from their nests onto a row of wooden eggs, from which the children will each collect one for their baskets.
They pick an apple for their baskets from a wooden tree on their way to the potato house, where they learn to size and bag potatoes before picking a potato to sell at the farmers market. In the sheep barn, they learn how wool is made into clothing and collect a bag of wool for their basket. A fleece for touching and a display of wool sweaters reinforce the message.
At the last stop before the market, they prepare soil, plant and water seeds and harvest vegetables in a vegetable garden. Appropriate gloves and supplies are provided.
Then the children “sell” the items they have collected in their baskets at a farmers market in exchange for one “Lil’ Farmer’s Dollar,” which they can spend on real food at the simulated grocery store. They turn in their aprons and baskets and use their make-believe dollar to buy a snack from items donated by Mike’s Family Market in Limestone and Frito-Lay potato chips by County Super Spuds of Mars Hill.
The nine-day exhibit is staffed with volunteers from UMPI, FFA clubs from Fort Fairfield, Caribou, Mars Hill and Presque Isle high schools, Maine Agri-Women, the Presque Isle Kiwanis club, the NMF board and Jessica’s friends and family.
“It’s a great educational experience of the farm,” said Jessica. “It’s a good interactive experience for parents and children together, and it’s lots of fun.” She said the greatest reward for all she has put into the exhibit would be “if all the children leave knowing one thing they didn’t know before about where their food and clothes come from.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.