Amy LeBlanc

Winter 2007-2008
Amy LeBlanc told Common Ground Fairgoers about her experiences on her small farm … with both crops and kids. English photo.

Or, Why I Put Up with Teenagers Working in My Greenhouse!

by Amy LeBlanc

Pickles and teenagers took center stage on September 21, 2007, when long-time MOFGA farmer Amy LeBlanc of Whitehill Farm in East Wilton delivered her keynote speech at the Common Ground Country Fair.  LeBlanc grows hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes to sell as seedlings and for fruit, while passing her knowledge and work ethic (and pickle recipe!) on to young helpers each year. An active member of the Common Ground Country Fair Steering Committee and a co-coordinator of the Exhibition Hall at the Fair, LeBlanc has also participated in the past two international IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) conferences and has been thinking hard about how the Common Ground Country Fair and MOFGA can be forces for change in Maine and beyond.

Thank you for welcoming me to speak today … especially because I want to talk about something we all need to do. Because GROWING FOOD IS GOOD WORK, everyone needs to know how. We need to pass on our skills, our love of achievement, and our satisfaction with accomplishment to everyone around us, especially our young people.

I firmly believe that the world is a giant classroom, and that the doors never close. True, we can’t visit every “classroom” around the world, but those we find will always enrich us. And surprisingly, sometimes, the classroom seems to find US! Sometimes the lessons we learn aren’t immediately needed or even obvious. And sometimes it takes a really long time to figure out where and when an important lesson happened – just that somehow our lives have been changed.

Sometimes the teachers can be a complete surprise. And sometimes, unintentionally, each of us might become the teacher.

Just like all of you, I’ve had many teachers along the way. From my parents I learned the value of lifelong learning and literature and a delight in language, including silliness. We’ve even named the John Deere Gator at our house the Heffalump …

I learned that creativity is risky, but that the greatest satisfaction is in succeeding with a risk as the challenge.

I learned that humor is a healing tonic.

I learned that tenacity is the key to doing and finishing well.

I learned the value of support and respect, especially for children.

I learned that love, given freely in large or small doses, is what creates the sense of community that defines us as valuable people.

From my father I learned the value of beauty and the satisfaction of CREATING beauty – that can mean food, flowers, music, architecture and, sometimes, simply quiet.

From my mother I learned the value of good food and of traditional slow food – long before the Slow Food movement began. She wasn’t a spontaneous cook, but she used recipes very well. She wasn’t afraid to try new things, so there was never a dull moment at the dinner table in our house.

From my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Shaw, I learned that bullying, nastiness and revenge have no place in a student/teacher relationship. She was so nasty that we had a dime jar at home: Every time someone said her name, we put a dime in that jar. I really don’t remember what we did with the change, but I’m sure it was something very special at the time!

By contrast I learned from my Chicago University cello teacher that patience and kindness, with a good dose of humor and frequent congratulations, make practicing easy. He easily earned that can of Aromatic Sail pipe tobacco that I gave him every year for Christmas.

From my aunt I learned how to garden in the heat of southwestern Michigan. That garden fed my cousin’s family well, filled the shelves with canned goods, and the root cellar with stored crops. Their well went dry every August unless everyone carefully conserved water. So I learned to wash a whole dinner’s worth of dishes in one sinkful of water so there would be some left for the chickens or for a bath.

From Sidney Poitier I learned that respect is the first step toward a trusting educational experience. It took 20 years and the second “To Sir, With Love” movie for me to figure out the immense impact that Poitier’s movie, the first “To Sir, With Love,” had on my life. When the movie came out in 1967, I was in college and about to embark on my first teaching job. That first teaching job was in a segregated inner city school in Michigan – and every one of those students desperately needed respect.

From my grandmother I learned to sew, using a treadle sewing machine, for crying out loud! I learned that the smell of garlic simmering in bacon grease always meant dinner would be wonderful. And I learned that homemade salad dressing is always the very best.  It wasn’t until she passed away that I learned the secret of my grandmother’s salad dressing …

When I was little I’d watch her carefully pour every little drop of leftover wine from the glasses at the dinner table into one glass and take it down into the basement.  She’d reappear a moment later with the empty glass… and I always wondered…! What I didn’t know was that for all those years, she had a pickle crock of wine vinegar “cooking,” so to speak, under the basement stairs. Now, so many years later, I’ve learned to make my own vinegar.

From our neighbor in Massachusetts, next door to our very first house, I learned the love of healthy garden soil. All their daily kitchen scraps were buried in the garden, and every time he touched his vegetable garden soil he scratched in a little compost. Even now, as they are much older, these wonderful folks have a stunning summer garden, including a beautiful fig tree that bears fruit every year.

From a beautiful elderly lady – I never learned her name while we picked strawberries side by side in a pick-your-own field–I learned a simple secret for spring garden planting. She said that if your feet get cold in your garden soil, you should just go back into the house: It’s too cold for seeds, too!

And so here at our farm in Maine, teaching has evolved. At Whitehill Farm we are growing tomato and pepper seedlings to order for about 200 customers every year. It’s all about educating my seedling customers about heirloom vegetables and tomatoes that aren’t red! Sometimes that red tomato thing is a tough one!

We go as farm vendors at the Sandy River Farmer’s Market. It’s all about encouraging my farmers’ market customers to try new foods and funny colored tomatoes.

I volunteer as an Extension Master Gardener and donate a lot of time to MOFGA, and to NOFA – the Northeast Organic Farming Association. I teach violin, viola and cello students in my music-teaching studio at our small farm in East Wilton. It’s all about daily reminders to my music students that music is the language of our heart and soul.

And most importantly it’s about teaching the young people who work with me to understand  the richness of our agricultural heritage and the need to know how to grow their own food. It’s about teaching them to be soil stewards – and to savor the fruits of their labor.

We work side by side, choosing and storing the seed, growing the seedlings, planting, harvesting, cooking and preserving.

I try to show that since food must be grown, and that the work of our hands growing food, growing seedlings for other folks who garden, and teaching folks to grow is excellent work, [this] is one kind of work that will ensure that future generations will have a secure food system …

But you know, one of the joys of teaching is learning!

I’ve surrounded myself with wonderful, smart and very smart-alecky, dedicated young people.  Sometimes it is all I can do to keep up with them, but I learn from them every day. I learn lots of seemingly irrelevant things, but it all serves to keep me up with the times and in turn be a better teacher.  And other days I learn real gems from them.  Sometimes it is simply a new way of looking at things, or an idea that we end up using every day for years.

But best of all, I get to laugh a lot.

Over the years many young people have worked at Whitehill Farm.  For most it is their first paying job.  We invest a lot in each one to find their strengths and help direct their energy in the best direction.  I never ask them to do things I won’t do – but there are times when I can’t – and then we work side by side to get the job done.

We’ve always paid more than Burger King, and as a result my kids come back year after year.  Even with very part-time jobs, they keep coming back. The average is three summers … one is up to eight!

Some of those kids have turned out to be engineers, one is in veterinary training, one completed a stint in the Peace Corps working with Central American families who received Heifer Project animals, one is finishing a teaching degree with a history emphasis, one is a track coach at Colby, one is a music teacher in Massachusetts, one is a doctor, one is a live-in caregiver for retarded adults

And three of them are farmers. One of those farmers, Chris Cavendish, was the Farmer-in-Residence here at Common Ground after leaving Whitehill Farm, and now he is farming 8 acres in southern Maine. He is doing very well at the Portland Farmers’ Market!

Another, Joe Hodgkins, is in his second year with a successful and growing CSA in the town of Temple, next door to Farmington. He is still working for me, part-time, and grows his seedlings in my greenhouse and puts up all his tomatoes in my kitchen.

The third, Leslie Bardo, is in med school part-time and with her husband has just purchased 60 prime acres in Livermore Falls with the intention of growing organic produce for their family and marketing when the time is right.  This young lady also worked for several seasons at the Food Bank Farm in western Massachusetts.

Some of the joys of working with my teenagers could be expressed in really dry and pedantic teacher-talk… about how I’m sure I’ll have a lifelong effect on them … but the  importance of teaching self esteem and self reliance and the need to pass on old simple skills far surpasses any pride I might try to have. It’s what we DO every day, side by side, that’s important.

We grow the seedlings, prepare the ground, plant, mulch, water, weed, make and spread compost. We sell seedlings to other gardeners. We give garden tours on Open Farm Day. We clean the barn. We mow. In the early fall we sift a mountain of compost. In the late fall and winter we inventory our seeds, repair and sharpen tools, and build new raised beds. We make tomato sauce and catsup, prepare herb mixes, filter homegrown cider vinegar, pack garlic scapes into jars to pickle, and we make dill pickles!

And along the way there are the funny things – and the stories that are successes – or are ridiculous!

Like the young lady who didn’t know potatoes grew underground … but then she planted, hilled, weeded, picked bugs, harvested those potatoes and made her very own mashed potatoes for dinner. What a success!

Like the fella who, with his teenage fear of nothing, decided my warnings about earwigs didn’t need to be heeded …  and then he lifted those pieces of damp cardboard over his head and it began to “rain” earwigs. I’ve never seen a 14-year-old boy strip so fast, yell so loud, and when, afterward, he realized he had stripped in the driveway right out by the road … well he didn’t question my advice so often any more!

… and there are dirt fights

… and hoses! Water fights are wonderful when it’s 95°, AND I think everyone knows what happens when you mow over a hose: You get real wet real quick!

A good part of the work at Whitehill is in the greenhouse. We transplant about 15,000 tomato and pepper seedlings every spring. Great music, good jokes, British Sci-Fi, teenage counseling sessions and occasional pizza breaks all make the work go quickly.

Another part is just plain lawn and landscape care. We dig, we weed, we mulch, and then do it all over again.

Everyone who has worked here over the years has constructed at least one flower bed. There’s Scott’s rock garden, Brandon’s steps, Erin’s flower bed by the deck, Ben’s daffodil garden, all the raised beds Joe has built, etc.

Part of the job is learning all about the products we sell.  Learning the particulars of 150 kinds of tomato seedlings, 80 kinds of peppers, and some culinary herbs can be daunting.  And then we are open to the public and my kids are right out front with the customers.  They learn to “talk tomato” and tell how mulch means there isn’t very much weeding to do for the rest of the summer.

They eventually are the ones giving the tours.

They participate in the anticipation of a great garden with every customer. It’s especially gratifying to watch as they gradually take on more and more responsibility and initiative, and to see their developing ease of communicating with adults, customers, etc.

And it’s equally amazing to see the look on the face of a 13-year-old who has just handled a LOT of money from sales on Memorial Day weekend.

So the question is, why pickles?

A simple homemade dill pickle offered at lunch, probably 15 years ago, began what has now become a summer ritual. My kids are welcome, and encouraged, to eat all the pickles they’d like. So there are daily raids into the canned goods shelves!

However, there is a caveat: Each and every jar needs to be replaced! That means they all, and this year all but one are boys, are in the kitchen! They’re making the pickles themselves, learning how to do it safely, and then having the privilege to eat them! Once again, this completes the circle from seed to the dinner table.  Even though they may never HAVE to do all their own food preservation, they have at least done it a few times.

And this gives them pride of “ownership” of the gardens and the products.

So – not a conclusion, because we will continue to do it every day at Whitehill Farm – but rather my gentle advice.
Listen to children, young people and adults alike …
Laugh and learn with them …
Work side by side with them growing good food …
Eat that excellent food in their good company …
Work hard, sweat, tell stupid jokes and sing …
and best of all make excellent pickles!

And after all, you might just be that unexpected teacher who changes a life forever!
Thank you!

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