ROCKPORT, Maine — It was a squash day. Every day this week likely will be a squash day for four teenagers working on a farm for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
The land trust nonprofit is in its second year of its Teen Agriculture program, which grows new farmers on the old, conserved farm land, according to the programs coordinator, Heather Halsey. The program pays the young people to grow food from seed to harvest. The nonprofit then delivers all of the food to Good Shepard Food Bank.
By 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the teens had cut 280 pounds of squash off their stems, brought them down a hill to a shed, weighed them and placed them in buckets at Erickson Fields Preserve on Route 90.
This is one of their cash crops. The revenue doesn’t totally support the program, which also needs help from grants and donors.
The program donates potatoes, peppers, radishes and about 10 other types of vegetables to the food bank, which distributes the fresh vegetables to pantries all over the state. But for squash, cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes, the food bank will pay the Teen Agriculture program. The more squash, the better.
“Those are huge!” said Halsey as one of her workers triumphantly lifted a massive summer squash over her head, as if she were bench pressing the vegetable. The squash was at least twice the size of the teen’s arm. “We last picked on Thursday,” Halsey said. The squash grew mammoth in the worker’s four-day respite from those rows.
All of the vegetables on the one-third-of-an-acre farm are grown organically. The land has always been farmed, Halsey said.
“It’s some of the best soil in Maine,” Halsey said, scooping a handful of crumbly, chocolate-brown sandy loam dirt.
The land trust bought the old 93-acre farm in 2008. Most of the farm is hayed to feed Belted Galloway cows at another conserved farm in Rockport, but one corner of it is dedicated to farming, and the four teenagers and Halsey are the ones responsible for it. The young people are there eight hours a day, four days a week all summer and then part-time through October. The teenagers are responsible for planning, planting, maintaining and picking the field.
“This is part of the educational aspect of what Maine Coast Heritage Trust is doing. We’re growing new farmers and we try to connect people with land. It’s good to start them early to learn about conservation. These teens are forming this into their identity,” Halsey said.
For the most part, Halsey leaves the three girls and one boy alone. She will spend a couple hours a day helping them make a work plan and then begin the day’s work, but after that, they’re on their own.
When she started leaving them to their own devices on that farm back in April, she would come back later in the day to find them waiting around for her direction. They don’t do that now.
“Things get done,” Halsey said. “They’ve become independent and know what to do. Now they find what to do and do it. They used to wait and not engage in problem solving. This has changed a lot for them.”
For a couple of the teens, this is their first summer job. To be accepted into the program, which pays $7.50 an hour, they must make a resume and go through an interview process.
This was a first for Alexandra Dobbins, 14, of Camden. Sure, she once ran her own pet-sitting business, but that’s about it.
By 7:58 a.m. on Tuesday, Dobbins had helped pack potatoes, yellow wax beans, cucumbers and other veggies into her mom’s SUV and got in. Her mom, Teresa, then drove her to Camden Area Christan Food Pantry. This is the best part of the job, Dobbins said.
“Everyone who gets the food thanks us. Plus the food is a much healthier option for people,” she said. “And instead of getting a can, you get something we really worked hard for. It means more.”
When Dobbins and her mother get to the parking lot, they haul 139 pounds of vegetables to a sorting table. Volunteers quickly separate the food and bring it to the main room, where others help pack bags of food for the hungry.
“Green beans or yellow?” a volunteer shouts to a food bank client.
“Green,” a man shouts back.
Food bank worker Barbara Kurz of Camden said she sees 60 people on Tuesdays and they love the fresh food.
“It’s a special treat. You don’t get that all winter. It’s very special,” Kurz said.
Dobbins said she didn’t realize the need in her hometown was so great until she started this program.
The other teens in the program all say that donating the food is the best part of their work.
“It makes all the work worth it,” said 15-year-old Emily English of Monroe as she stood in the field, belly-button deep in squash plants.
“This is impossible to walk through,” she said to her work partner Autumn Dinsmore, 16, of Warren.
The girls typically pick vegetables on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at this time of year. On Thursdays and Fridays, and any rainy days, the teenagers will read articles on organic farming, research different farm projects, prune plants and do odd jobs.
Dinsmore prefers to be outside. It’s why she likes the job.
“A lot of my friends applied for jobs this summer, but didn’t find work. The others are waitressing or work in the ice cream shacks,” she said. “This is more fun than an ice cream shack. It’s hard work. But it’s worth it.”