June 25, 2018
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School farm connects students to land, culture of work

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

When John Hoffses of Mapleton graduated from Presque Isle High School in 2002, he enrolled in the agribusiness program at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. He had worked at the MSAD 1 Educational Farm during high school and looked forward to a career in agriculture.

But there was a problem. He was the only one to sign up for the program, so he had to switch to plumbing and heating. He worked in that field for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“My heart’s always been in agriculture,” said Hoffses, 28. So when a job opened up for a crop supervisor at the school farm two years ago, he applied and was hired. And when the farm manager retired, he moved into that position.

The MSAD 1 Educational Farm is a learning lab for students at Presque Isle High School and the Presque Isle Regional Career and Technical Center. It is a source of fruits, vegetables and cider for school lunches and a supplier of produce for local grocery stores, non-profit organizations and restaurants, as well as the public. Farm products are sold through a Farm Store.

Opened in 1991 on 38 acres of land donated to the school district, the original Educational Farm employed seven students. Today, the farm employs an average of 40 students with up to about 80 s at the peak of strawberry season. The farm serves as a practicum for a 10th-grade biology course in life science and a course in horticulture and nursery management for grades nine-12 that introduces students to career possibilities in the field of plant sciences. Topics include landscape design, pest management and disease control, and plant propagation using hydroponic technology. Students also may apply for a cooperative experience to work at the farm as paid employees during the summer.

“Students love it,” said Tom Gregg, crop supervisor, as he led a tour of visitors through rows of apple trees in October. The farm is “a unique thing” that inspires students to say, “See what my school does.” A Mapleton native, Gregg returned to Aroostook County, after earning a degree in geology at the University of Maine at Farmington and has found a satisfying niche at the school farm.

Gregg said anyone can work at the farm, in addition to students enrolled in agriculture-related classes. For example, an advanced placement chemistry student is using the tissue culture lab at the farm to try to clone a strawberry plant.

Approximately 7,500 hours of student labor are invested in every season, according to the farm’s website. Two full-time and four part-time staff members help guide and assist students with their tasks and activities. Revenue generated by the school farm is invested back into the program and its students.

As Gregg spoke from the seat of a tractor pulling a tour wagon, visitors plucked Honeycrisp apples from trees within reach. Apples are the largest crop on the farm with 2,560 trees planted on 13 acres. The orchard — the largest north of Bangor — produces 24 different varieties, including Cortland, Macintosh, Duchess, Gala, Red Free and Honeycrisp.

In 2005, the farm opened a commercial apple cider facility that produced 3,500 gallons of cider in the 2011 season. The cider receives ultraviolet protective treatment and contains no additives. Visitors can watch the operation through a wall of windows and purchase cider in gallon, half-gallon, pint and 8-ounce containers.

Farm Manager Hoffses greeted the tour group as it moved from the cider house to greenhouses filled with hydroponic cucumbers and tomatoes. He said the hothouse plants can produce tomatoes until February. After that, the greenhouses are used to nurture a variety of bedding plants, including geraniums, marigolds, pansies, petunias, poinsettias and petunias, which are sold at the Farm Store.

Other vegetables grown on the school farm are beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, corn, kohlrabi, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, spinach, squash and turnips. The farm also grows blueberries, raspberries and strawberries that are picked daily and sorted by students.

Some of those berries end up in strawberry jam and a variety of pies prepared in a kitchen adjacent to the store. Open between May and November, the store sells frozen ready-to-bake apple, strawberry, blueberry and strawberry-rhubarb pies, as well as produce from the farm, and honey from 12 hives of bees, maintained on the farm to pollinate the crops.

“It was a real pleasure to see how people are doing creative things,” said Jay Espy of Freeport, a member of the group that toured the Educational Farm on Oct. 2. He called the farm “a great way to connect kids not only with their heritage, but also with the culture of work — getting out there and getting your hands dirty — something many children don’t do any more.”

The culture of work never waned for John Hoffses, who remembered working on the Buck farm in Mapleton throughout high school. “I picked rocks and picked rocks, and just stuck with it,” he said of the path that led him back to the MSAD 1 farm.

“I always liked being able to take something from the classroom and go out and apply it in the field.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism. She lives in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.

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