FREEPORT, Maine — A hot morning spills over Wolfe’s Neck Farm. Six young women clad in T-shirts, tanks and shorts are knee deep in dirt. Rooting for potatoes, Maya Bradbury comes up with a spud.
“I found one,” the 16-year-old cried.
It’s summer vacation, and the young women could be at the beach, at the lake or cruising the outlets a few miles away. Instead, as members of Teen Agriculture: Training Farmers, Feeding Maine, a program on this working educational farm, they have other things on their mind. There are tomatoes to prune, strawberries to harvest and potatoes to unearth.
“It’s total immersion farming,” said Richard Hodges, the Teen Agriculture coordinator who for 10 weeks every summer teaches local teens, many arriving as green as a zucchini, the elements of full scale, sustainable agriculture.
From weeding to crop covering to business skills, it all comes into play in this summer stint where the next generation of farmers are learning by doing.
Teenagers in the five-year program are paid to maintain crops, build trellises, stock the farm stand and deliver produce to food pantries. The young crew members who go through an extensive interview process put in labor-intensive weeks to run this organic community-supported agriculture farm, one way Teen Agriculture stays solvent.
“It’s not a camp, it’s a job,” Piper Dumont, Wolfe’s Neck Farm’s director of education, said. “For some of them this may be the first time they’ve had to practice accountability.”
Because farming differs from a temp job in an office or cramming for a test, the hands-on training is unlike other aspects in their lives.
“If you don’t study for a math test that’s on you,” Dumont said.
At Teen Agriculture, they are all in.
And from the upbeat vibe on the 5-acre, no-spray farm this week, they were all smiles, too.
“I’ve had a lot of part-time jobs mopping floors and doing dishes,” Liane Rolls, 18, of Yarmouth said, snacking on a juicy heirloom tomato. “Even though I am not necessarily making more money, I am learning something and doing something fulfilling and meaningful and that means a lot to me.”
Headed to the College of the Atlantic at the end of the month, Rolls intends to follow a back-to-the-land path as she plots her future.
“I’d like to be a homesteader. I’d like to get into the value-add biz, like to learn to pickle things, preserve things, make my own bread and have vegetable fields where I have horsepower,” she said.
Returning to the program this year in a leadership role, one gets the sense the bright-eyed Rolls will accomplish that and more.
To train the future farmers of Maine, teens have some classroom instruction. They learn to market the farm share via newsletters and to use Excel spreadsheets to keep track of harvests, distribution and budgeting. But most of their days are spent outside tending to crops.
“Learning by doing helps. It sinks in more when you have context,” said Hodges, who is more mentor than boss. “It’s a serious 10 weeks where a lot is expected of them and they expect a lot from themselves.”
Starting at 8:30 a.m. in the fields, the young crew might end the day at a food pantry, where they donate thousands of pounds of fresh food per year to help combat food insecurity. Understanding Maine’s hunger problem is part of the instruction.
“To see how much impact small farming has on a community — we are giving fresh veggies to people that otherwise might not have the resource — is just really awesome,” Bradbury said.
Beneath agriculture’s multiple layers, the program lays a foundation for adulthood.
“There is a business aspect to it,” Hodges said. “Sometimes there is a dream: ‘I’ll have a farm, and two sheep and two goats.’ If someone wants to go into professional farming, you have to do the numbers.”
The teens tackle labor costs, upfront farming cost and ways to market fruits and vegetables.
“They are learning about all that business,” Hodges said, interrupted by Bradbury bringing over a half-pint of ripe strawberries for her elders to try. “And how to schmooze.”
But farm work isn’t the be all, end all mission here. As they balance on the cusp of adulthood, they are carrying with them a grounding experience for a lifetime — and even gaining a fervor for weeding.
“The people I work for are so great. I love coming here and having a fun time every day and leaving in a good mood,” Lilly Kuhn of Yarmouth said, wielding a hoe. “Weeding is so satisfying.”