Connecting Maine’s School Gardens with Agricultural Fairs
By Susan Sager, Maine School Garden Network
School Garden Grown!, a program of the Maine School Garden Network, has been connecting Maine’s school gardens with local agricultural fairs around the state since 2016. To date, over 500 entries from school gardens have been viewed, judged and awarded ribbons at exhibition halls in Maine. In 2022, 20 schools entered their produce at five fairs including the Windsor and Fryeburg fairs and the Common Ground Country Fair.
Promotion starts each spring with the MSGN sending a list of fair dates and detailed entry information to school gardens to help them make informed decisions about participating. Interested schools then determine what fruits, vegetables or flowers they would like to exhibit and schedule dropping off entries at local fairs. Once the judging has taken place, School Garden Grown! stickers with the name and location of the school are placed on the entries by volunteers.
Etna-Dixmont School found out how simple it is to participate when they entered their produce for the first time. “We went to the Common Ground Fair, submitted our school produce and immediately our entries had stickers that indicated ours was from a school,”says Maggie Blumenthal, the garden coordinator at Etna-Dixmont School. “When the fourth graders visited the fair they were so proud of themselves, we even got some first place ribbons!”
Some schools schedule field trips to the fairs so students (and their families) can see their beautiful bounty on display.
Selina Warren, 2023 Maine Agriculture in the Classroom (MAITC) Teacher of the Year from the Kingfield Elementary School Garden, says “The Franklin SING (Schools Integrating Nutrition and Gardening) Group is always excited to participate in the School Garden Grown! program and display their prized crops at the Farmington Fair. Many students attend the fair and experience pride showing their families the fruits of their labor.”
The Troy Howard Middle School Garden Project of Belfast, Maine, has been bringing vegetables, flowers and heirloom beans to the Common Ground Country Fair exhibition hall for many years, sometimes topping 100 entries in a single year. “Students take great pride in seeing their produce in the exhibition hall during their Friday visit to the fair,” says David Wessels, garden coordinator. “Our best haul was 62 blue ribbons! The exhibition hall is also a place to strike up conversations about preserving heirloom varieties, breeding new varieties and sharing those that we steward. Many a handful of dry beans have been swapped on the Sunday after the fair. It’s a simple tradition, but it dates back to the origins of agriculture and without it, many of the foods we take for granted simply would not exist.”
The Maine School Garden Network’s first display at the Common Ground Country Fair was in 2009, and the first year of School Garden Grown! was 2016. Kat Coriell, longtime MSGN board member, says, “It’s so much fun to walk around the tables after the judging, check the labels on the produce, see that it came from a school, and put the sticker on. I often hear people looking at the items behind me say with excitement: ‘Wow, this was grown at a school garden?’”
Rachel Solomon, MSGN program organizer, loves being able to make connections between schools and their local agricultural fairs. Solomon says, “The exhibition hall supervisors get really excited to see school gardens engaging with them and being able to showcase work being done by students. This gives students an opportunity to feel a part of the greater community and also teaches other visitors about all the great work being done in school gardens across Maine!”
Visit the MSGN booth in the Exhibition Hall at the Common Ground Country Fair to learn more about their work and see School Garden Grown! produce alongside the display of Maine farmers and gardeners. To learn more, visit msgn.org.
This article was originally published in the fall 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.