Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Amy LeBlanc (left) with some of her string instrument students performing in the Exhibition Hall of MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair. English photo.

Friday, Sept. 21, at 11 a.m. in the Common
Maine Farmer Keynote Speaker
Amy LeBlanc –
"The Importance of Pickles, Or Why I Put Up With Teenagers Working In My Greenhouse"

“I must make fabulous dill pickles,” says Amy LeBlanc of Whitehill Farm in East Wilton, Maine. “Every time someone new comes to work, a veteran employee goes to the cellar and gets a jar of pickles to share for lunch.”  Those pickles come at a cost, says this year’s Common Ground Country Fair farmer-keynote speaker:  The workers who eat the pickles have to learn how to make pickles and replace the jar.

So knowledge is passed on at Whitehill, one pickle or plant at a time, one teenager at a time, one customer at a time.  At the height of the transplanting season, LeBlanc has about five teens and young adults helping her prepare for the short but intense season when she sells seedlings of mostly heirloom plants.

Amy LeBlanc has long ties to Maine.  She and her family vacationed here when she was growing up in Chicago, and her family moved here in 1964, so LeBlanc graduated from Cony High School in Augusta.  She then earned a degree in music education from Kalamazoo College in Michigan; taught music in Massachusetts for years, where her husband was a software engineer; and in 1985, they moved back to Maine.

A cellist, LeBlanc plays with the Colby Symphony, the Maine Chamber Ensemble and the Oratorio Choral, and she plays viola in the local community orchestra.  Her own group, Whitefield Ensembles, plays for weddings and receptions.  She also teaches string music to some 30 students, ages 7 to 70, and a group from her studio plays at Common Ground every other year.

LeBlanc’s small, growing business, Tomato Lovers Paradise (TLP), grows and markets MOFGA-certified organic seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, edible flowers and basic culinary herbs.  Most of the 300 or so varieties are heirlooms. The “very seasonal, Mom and Pop” sized business takes orders in the spring and sorts them for about 200 customers to pick up on Memorial Day. Then TLP is open for those customers and for the public from Memorial Day weekend through the following weekend. After the seedling sale, remaining plants are donated to two local social service agencies.

“TLP, because it is growing every year, requires many hands for many hours to tend and grow, transplant, and then divide the seedlings up into folks' orders,” says LeBlanc. “I have teenagers, many from my music studio, working every year in my greenhouse.”  The kids, she says, are wonderful, and she needs the helping hands for transplanting upwards of 15,000 plants each spring. Some return year after year, even after graduating from high school and going on to college.

“Sometimes we have altogether TOO much fun ... but the kids learn SO much.  For most it’s their first job.  There are routines, attention to detail, follow-through and completion, courtesy, safety, teamwork, dealing with the public and learning about a 300-item inventory – all great skills to be mastered!”
The kids are part of the family while at TLP, says LeBlanc.  They are welcome to stay until they’re ready to move on, or until LeBlanc thinks they’re ready to move one.  One was with her for almost three full years.  One has his own Community Supported Agriculture farm now.  “He’s one of the farmers I’ve made.  A lot of surprising careers have come along, including a couple of veterinarians, a landscaper, and a young woman who is now doing horticultural therapy with brain-injured adults.”

LeBlanc’s gardens have been MOFGA-certified organic since 1992.  They include 65 4x10-foot raised beds (because of the poor, sloping soil on her land), 2,000 square feet of open area, and assorted flower, herb and raspberry beds.  The gardens help feed her family, including her husband, Michael, and her son and daughter’s families (which include spouses and LeBlanc’s six grandchildren), but they also serve as trial gardens for varieties for the TLP catalog.

LeBlanc values her gardens for the clean, local food they provide for her family and market customers, and for how they pass the message of the importance of farming and gardening for strengthening and preserving our culture, community and climate.  Her heirlooms preserve genetic diversity and educate others about the importance of that diversity and of knowing how to grow food.

Her favorite tomato, says LeBlanc, is ‘Hogheart,’ the variety that started her business.  She found the tomato at New Moon Rising Natural Foods in Waterville.  “Then it took me 1 1/2 years to find the grower – Martha Gottlieb – at the Common Ground Country Fair, in the Exhibition Hall.  She turned me on to the Seed Savers Exchange [SSE,], and that was that.”  LeBlanc now saves seeds of about 10% of the varieties she grows – primarily the obscure ones that are being preserved by only two or three people in the world.
‘Bloody Butcher’ is an early tomato that she saved for a while; now enough other people are saving it that LeBlanc can focus on ‘Tennessee Sweet,’ a big beefsteak that recently was added to the SSE catalog; and ‘Baxter’s Large Red Cherry’ tomato, which her neighbor grew and gave to LeBlanc, who named it after him when he died.  ‘Grandpa’s Home Pepper’ is a unique plant that she’s saving.  It’s small and compact – perfect for a pot that can be brought outside in good weather and back indoors in cold times.  It’s “a very tough plant, blazing hot little peppers that dry well, and beautiful!” says LeBlanc.
She saves tomato seed by cutting the fruits in quarters, scooping the juice and seeds into a container with water, and letting the mix ferment for about four days.  Good seeds settle to the bottom; the pulp and nonviable seeds float to the top and can be decanted.
LeBlanc’s meeting with ‘Hogheart’ and then with Gottlieb introduced her to the Exhibition Hall at the Common Ground Fair.  She began exhibiting her produce there and was soon asked to join the coordinating team for the Hall.  She’s been doing that for some dozen years and is now the main coordinator, although Gottlieb is still “very much involved; a great mentor, a level head and an enthusiast.”

For LeBlanc, MOFGA has been “a vehicle for learning, for wonderful friendships.  The experience of attending the Fair showed me how much dedication and clarity exists among the folks putting it together.  I found it to be a light in the desert, so I joined, knowing it would be valuable and I would be on a good team.”
The scope of Common Ground has widened over the years, but its mission has been honed, more focused on Maine farmers, says LeBlanc.  “It’s cool to be part of the Fair Steering Committee,” which has to serve many masters.  “It’s an interesting charge, to balance the philosophy of MOFGA and the Fair and the energy necessary to present a credible product to the consumer.”  She values the meetings, which are run by consensus, because “a lot of the issues we deal with over time are contentious.”
Come hear Amy LeBlanc talk about young teenagers, old plant varieties, Maine agriculture, MOFGA and more at her keynote speech on Friday, Sept. 21, at 11 a.m. in the Common.