Growing Food, and Growing Up
One’s raising animals. One’s growing vegetables. Both are learning who they are and what they’re capable of.
“Why do you like animals?” The question brings an ambivalent smile to 15-year-old Elizabeth Eaton’s face, a smile that says something the kind-hearted 4-H club member from Hope, Maine, wouldn’t: She likes animals because they can’t ask her silly questions like, “Why do you like animals?”
Eaton says that with animals, there’s no trying to say the unsayable. Emotions aren’t unnecessarily complicated. Happiness is neck rub. Love is a lick. Fear is a kick—and despite the fact that Eaton’s cow, Cloe, has about 1,000 pounds on her, Elizabeth’s pretty fearless at Aldermere Farm.
“This is my second home,” Eaton says of the 136-acre preserve and working cattle farm protected by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the statewide conservation organization that turned this once-private farm into a community gathering place hosting ongoing programs and events. Eaton’s knowledge of the grounds, the animals, and the routine that keeps them safe, happy, and healthy is evident in every move she makes. She guides a lamb around on a rope leash as nonchalantly as most would a dog; later, she climbs a high wooden fence with a bucket full of feed like it’s a staircase.
By now Eaton has been a part of MCHT’s youth agricultural programming at Aldermere Farm for six years, first as a member of the Farm Hands program, an eight-week introduction to life—and death—on a working cattle farm, and, for the past three years, as a member of the 4-H Program, raising market lambs and showing cows and winning ribbons galore.
Most days after school you’ll find Eaton at Aldermere, haying fields or cleaning cow pens, or teaching a new crop of Farm Hands how to halter-break calves, which entails slipping a harness over their giant heads and teaching them to walk alongside you. Last year, Eaton was awarded a heifer by the prestigious New England Galloway group (a regional division of the National Belted Galloway Society), which she cares for at home along with several other cows, sheep, and lots of chickens.
Eaton’s farm animal story begins with eggs. Well, first chickens, then eggs (and ultimately a sizable nest egg that she draws from to invest in animals and feed). In second grade, when Eaton was having a little trouble with math, her mother encouraged her to put arithmetic skills to practical use and start her own business, Lizzie’s Eggs. Eaton raised chickens, collected their eggs, delivered them to customers on Saturday mornings alongside her grandfather, calculated the cost of running the business, and tallied her earnings.
It was around this time that Eaton met Heidi Baker, who is now general manager at Aldermere Farm. Baker, who was Eaton’s school librarian as well as a part-time farmer, remembers a girl practically paralyzed by shyness, who could hardly look her in the eye—except when the talk turned to animals. Eaton took out book after book about chickens, wrote stories about farm animals, and timidly asked Baker questions about raising them.
“I knew she should be a part of Aldermere’s programming one day,” says Baker, and boy was she right.
By the time Eaton was in fifth grade and eligible to participate in Farm Hands, Baker was running the youth agriculture programming at Aldermere Farm. Through the Farm Hands program, and then through the Aldermere Achievers 4-H Club, Baker watched Eaton transform from a shy young girl into a quiet but confident master of animal husbandry, showing cattle before judges, practicing public speaking, winning awards, and being elected president of Aldermere Achievers by her peers two years in a row.
“She has confidence in her ability to succeed, which will help her throughout her life, no matter what she does. I’m not sure she would have found that in school,” says Baker. “There are so many young people like Elizabeth, who need alternative programming and project-based learning opportunities to find out what they’re capable of.”
Eaton has benefitted from the opportunity to work with animals especially, to acquire the sense of responsibility and purpose that comes from caring for other living things. 4-H also teaches young people how to deal with loss. They learn to raise animals for market and let them go to the highest bidder at the fair. Sometimes cows they’ve cared for die unexpectedly at night. Every two weeks, when Baker brings steers to the butcher, she does not go out of her way to hide her tears from the kids.
“I want them to know that it’s okay to be sad and go through something hard,” says Baker. “It’s also important for the kids to recognize that they gave their animals a good life, and to feel proud of that.”
Eaton certainly gives her animals a good life. She wakes up early and cares for them before school. After school, she goes to Aldermere Farm, exercises and washes her animals, cleans their pens, and supports younger 4-Hers and Farm Hands. Recently she’s picked up hours at another farm, where she works for hay to feed the animals at home.
“People know I’m in 4-H. It’s part of my identity,” says Eaton. When asked to imagine her life without 4-H, she shakes her head. She can’t. She doesn’t want to.
A different group of people is growing a different kind of food about two miles west of Aldermere Farm at another MCHT preserve called Erickson Fields. After conserving the land and opening it to the public in 2008 and 2009, MCHT launched its Teen Ag Crew Program, through which a group of teens from the MidCoast spends the better part of a year planting, gardening, harvesting, and distributing tens of thousands of pounds of produce to local food pantries and small businesses.
Eighteen-year-old Hallie Arno of Camden, Maine, is one of them. Arno has been a part of MCHT’s Teen Ag Crew for most of her high school career. She started in 2015 as a freshman with an interest in farming and spending the summer outside. She figured it would be hard work—monotonous, especially uncomfortable on hot days. She had no idea she’d learn so much about soil composition, sales and marketing, the unique properties of different kinds of plants, and the conditions in which they grow—or don’t.
Like 4-H, Teen Ag Crew also teaches young participants responsibility. While they might not have a cow or lamb’s well-being on their hands, crew members are working for pay, in most cases for the first time in their lives and contributing to something larger than themselves in the form of hunger relief initiatives that address food insecurity. Like most first jobs, this one teaches them to show up on time prepared to work hard. Unlike most first jobs, they go home at the end of the day knowing they helped people in their community put healthy food on the table.
“I’m a vegetarian and I really enjoy eating and cooking local food. It’s part of my identity,” says Arno. “Now I understand how that might not be part of someone’s life at all, how so many people don’t have access to fresh vegetables. I really like knowing the vegetables are going to people who might not have them otherwise. That helps you get through when it’s 85 and really humid and you’re just working and working. We can always come back to why we’re here, why we’re doing this. We’re growing food for people.”
This spring Arno began her fourth season farming with the Teen Ag Crew. In her first season, if the program manager, Aaron Englander, told her to put down fertilizer she did it without thinking twice. The next season, she paid attention to what happened when they forgot. By her third season, she knew it was time to put down the fertilizer before Englander said so. In fact, in her spare time she reads articles about soil science and its relationship to climate change. She hopes to study marine biology in college and to always spend some amount of time at work in a garden.
By now she knows about every square inch of Erickson Fields Preserve. She points out where she’s seen the most incredible butterflies and where they grow the kale and the pumpkins, which are a new addition this year.
“Aren’t they adorable?” she asks, holding one to her chest and grinning.
Just before the bridge that leads to and from the Teen Ag gardens, she pauses. “Walking along this bridge—it’s just really relaxing and peaceful for me,” she says. “A lot of times high school can be stressful so I really like coming here after school and being able to be with the plants and just be outside.”
Just being outside. That’s no small part of what makes these MCHT programs work, and why they bring out the best in Eaton and Arno and so many young people. On well-used and well-loved conserved land, these young women are mastering deeply practical skills. They’re learning what it’s like to be hot and cold and wet and physically exhausted. They’re tuning into the weather, nature’s patterns, and the joy that comes from caring for living things. These two get it: there’s no reward without work.
And that about sums it up.
Sophie Nelson is a native of Western New York, who studied English and creative writing at Bates College, travelled around Rome and Taipei, before finally deciding to settle in Portland with her partner and their dog, Max.