The pool of applicants for this year’s Russell Libby Agricultural Scholar Awards left us feeling particularly optimistic about the future of sustainable agriculture in Maine. The state’s young and future farmers are full of passion, practicality and a commitment to community, highlighted by this year’s winners.
These $1,500 scholarships are named for the longtime, beloved, late executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and are awarded to people in three categories who share his vision: a Maine high school senior planning to study sustainable or organic farming at a college in Maine, a student of sustainable agriculture at Kennebec Valley Community College, and a MOFGA journeyperson program participant.
The Maine Sunday Telegram partnered with MOFGA to offer the scholarships with support from Lee Auto Malls. We talked with the winners (their comments are edited here for length and clarity) about their commitment to agriculture and their future in farming.
Why agriculture? My freshman year of high school, I was in (Portland Arts & Technology High School), but I was in the new media program. By the end of the year, I still wanted to go to PATHS, but I didn’t know what program I wanted to do. I shadowed the horticulture program and fell in love with it.
In your application, you said working in agriculture has changed you personally. How? It’s made me more introspective. I love watering my plants in the morning and sitting there with them. The patience of trying and failing to get something to grow helped me to have a little more patience with myself and (gave me) confidence in myself. When I started the horticulture program at PATHS, my grades went from being a D range to being a B and A range, and I’ve kept that consistent.
What will you do with the scholarship? I actually just got my acceptance letter from the College of the Atlantic. I’m waiting for my (financial) award letter from them. I’ve been accepted to Unity College, as well. I know that I would be happy at both schools. They are both phenomenal and sustainable schools that would make it worth (the cost). Either way (the scholarship) will help me make up the difference (between financial aid and tuition).
In your essay, you wrote about wanting to be both a farmer and an educator. How do the two fit together for you? I’m in the Teen Ag Program at Wolfe’s Neck Farm. I work in the fields and grow vegetables and take care of chickens. I also get paid, but while I’m doing that, they’re teaching me how to grow things. When I was in PATHS, I really liked helping the people that I was in PATHS with, with their transplanting and feeding and all of that. A lot of kids in my class had disabilities, and I really enjoyed working with them. I think being a teacher would be really fulfilling.
Why agriculture? I’ve spent a lot of time around it, and it’s always interested me. In high school, I became interested in the issue of population rise, and how we are going to feed more and more people with less space.
You talked in your application about how you hope to become a vet. How did you develop that interest, and how do you see marrying it with sustainable agriculture? We always are going to eat meat, whether people like it or not, so animals are going to need a vet. I’ve always liked working with animals. I lived on a ranch, so I know how important vets are to the animal production industry and how important it is to have traveling vets. You can’t always bring a downed calf into a vet’s office.
In classes, we’re learning how people are mixing both (raising animals and growing vegetables), having animals that produce fertilizer to help produce the vegetables, with some of the by-waste going back to the animals. I think that food production, veterinary medicine and raising animals all can be tied together.
Your essay made clear that community is a major motivator for you. Why? My family, we’ve moved around a lot. My dad is in the National Park Service. I’ve been in 10 different states as I’ve grown up. I’ve been really lucky to move to different places and be welcomed into the community. Having strong and happy and healthy communities is something I’d like to give back to, either as a vet or as a food provider.
What will you do with the scholarship? My big goal is to get the first two years of school (in sustainable agriculture at KVCC) done with as little debt as possible, because when I go on to the next degree (in biology or a pre-vet program), it will be a lot of student loans and additional costs.
Town: Monson, where she and her family grow vegetables and berries and raise dairy cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and ducks.
Why agriculture? One of my first memories is helping my grandfather plant his garden. Sometimes it’s just ingrained in you, and it becomes part of who you are and how you view life. Doug (her husband) and I met at the University of Maine. We worked together at the university farm. His dad actually grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, so I think it’s in his blood, as well.
It was something that I always wanted to do when the kids were little. We would get bull calves and raise them for the summer, because we weren’t prepared for long-commitment animals, but our second daughter, when she turned 4 – 13 years ago – she was a bookworm and all she wanted for her birthday was baby chicks. It was probably one of the best things that we ever did, because she spent the entire summer outside. We went through a period where my husband wasn’t sure what I would come home with. I came home with a sheep. Another time, I came home with a jersey calf. It came to a point where every inch of our former property was either gardens or pastures.
When did you know you wanted to make it a larger venture? We went through a 10-year period of knowing we were outgrowing where we were, but nothing was available. Two years ago, Doug and I were both approached in the same weekend by different people we knew who said, “You should talk to the Nelsons in Monson.” This was a farm that Doug was familiar with. He had met two generations of the family. When we moved here originally, he would take me by this farm and say, “If only we could find a place like this.”
We moved in December (2014), not the easiest time of year to move with animals. On Jan. 1, I had a baby. We have eight children, so life is always busy and sometimes very chaotic.
Your application referenced both your passion for farming and the practical challenges you face. What did your first year on the new farm teach you about the balance of those two things? We had a very rough year last year, and we discovered that sometimes you can plan and you can dream and you can have things in what you think is order, but it doesn’t always work out that way. We were so excited to have more space and the soil, on a map, looked good, but it was not what we were used to on our previous place. We struggled, growing things. We thought ballooning numbers, animal wise and acres wise, would not be a problem for us, but there’s still quite a learning curve in managing more acres.
Many different people will say, “You need to begin with the end in mind.” That’s kind of the philosophy we’ve had, so that all along, even if we get set back, we still know where we’re going.
We hope to be able to eventually relax and enjoy this and be able to share it with our family, with our friends.
What will you do with the scholarship money? Our operation is really diversified. We want to be able to use this to go and look at farms that are doing a top-notch job, that are raising vegetables that are organic, a micro dairy, offering blueberries and organic strawberries. Farmers hold an amazing amount of knowledge and experience, and for me it’s fun to be able to visit farms and it’s fun to be able to ask people what has worked for them and what hasn’t worked for them. We want to do some hands-on learning and to be able to take some of our kids with us at different times.