Young farmers learn & earn

Eli Dagostino
Eli Dagostino and other WISP campers weeding in the FARM Institute field in Edgartown. Photos by Mary Baker

By Pat Waring - August 2, 2007

Shoppers pouring into the West Tisbury Farmer's Market are often surprised by the enthusiastic greeting they get at the first produce booth. A band of energetic youngsters stand ready to not only fill their orders but also to describe each fresh offering and politely recommend that they buy it, and even suggest recipes. Once choices are made, the young clerks handle transactions with great politeness and professionalism not often seen in people their age - and even older. Customers continue on their way with bags of fresh produce and big smiles, as if nothing could be better than getting good treatment along with your good food.

The boys and girls of the FARM Institute's Work Income Sharing Project (WISP) experience real hands-on learning about agriculture from farm to market, and make a tidy income for their considerable labors. Some attend for the whole summer, others only a week or two, but all the youngsters seem to be delighted with their activities, even though the hours are long and the physical work is demanding.

Whether they're attracted by the fun of spending days on a farm and making new pals, the thrill of seeing the vegetables they harvest on market shelves and in customers' shopping bags, or the promise of a paycheck at week's end, they are happy to be here.

Coco Brown
At the Farmer's Market in West Tisbury, Coco Brown makes a sale.

From farm to consumer

At a recent market, Aaron Rabinowitz from Bethany, Conn., encouraged customers to buy parsley, saying it goes well with everything, and rhapsodized about turnips: "They're delicious! You can chop them up, and this is a little adventurous, but you can fry them like home fries."

Arthur Berman of Greenwich, Conn., delivered an inspired talk about lemon cucumbers while Islander Eli Dagostino took a big bite to show that the unusual cukes are good to eat "like an apple." Others told astounded customers about the growing requirements of the vegetables and the grazing habits of the cows and sheep whose meat was for sale in a nearby cooler. Charlotte Lowell-Bettencourt carefully added up purchases and made change, and others bagged orders and replenished the bins. Program manager Robyn Hosey and assistant manager Alexis Schoppe kept an eye on the action, giving advice when needed.

When asked, the campers waxed eloquent, encouraging people to visit the Edgartown farm and to enroll their own youngsters in WISP or one of the many programs for younger children.

Colorfully painted posters graphically spelled out the importance of eating locally grown food and a hand- written sign listed that morning's abundance of produce along with prices - kale, chard, cabbage, turnips, potatoes, peppers, and much more.

"It's just amazing. For someone who just turned 12 it's the perfect first job," said Nellie Rabinowitz, Aaron's mother, one of several parents who came to purchase groceries. "It makes them understand not just where food comes from but this is a non-profit organization and they are working for a cause. They're not just selling vegetables, they're selling a whole concept of healthy food."

Ms. Rabinowitz learned about the program at the Living Local festival last spring and knew at once it was right for her son. "This program is giving him freedom, a sense of responsibility and ownership," she said. "I love this program and I'm going to support it any way I can."

Along with supplying and operating the Farmer's Market booth twice a week, the WISP kids grow and harvest produce for the institute's Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Customers purchase shares in advance, entitling them to an abundant selection of garden-fresh produce each week. With contributions from paying customers, the institute made two shares available to low-income families, and one share to Vineyard House, a residential program for individuals in recovery from substance abuse. The campers also harvest and prepare food for several restaurant accounts.

Planting the seeds

WISP is the brainchild of Robyn Hosey, a FARM employee who recently competed an agriculture course in Santa Cruz, Calif., at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, part of the University of California there. "I love working with kids and growing food," says Robyn. "I wanted to gain confidence and really know I was doing it the right way."

Educated at St. Michael's College in Vermont, Robyn had spent three summers working at the then-fledging institute. Immersed in her studies in California, she found herself envisioning how her newfound knowledge and ideas might fit in here. "I was always raising my hand and asking, 'Now, say you were in, I don't know, Massachusetts, how could we make this work there?'" she says.

Gaining support from FARM staff and encouragement from local educators, farmers, and residents, she began to solicit campers.

WISP got off to a slow start with youngsters still in school, so spring planting fell to local young people already involved in other FARM institute programs. But once schools closed and vacationing families arrived on the Island, enrollment began to fill. Most are between the ages of 11 and 13.

Robyn says the diversity among the campers is one of the pluses of the program. Youngsters with very different backgrounds and interests, from both on and off the Island, get to be friends as they work together on their common project.

All work, all rewarding

Typical days center on work in the field whether weeding and maintenance, or harvesting and preparing produce for sale. Along with the outdoor work, they make specialty products like pickles and zucchini bread to be sold at the farm stand on institute grounds. On market days, WISPers arrive by 7 am to pick and load produce and supplies onto the big flatbed truck for the trip to West Tisbury. On Fridays, families are invited to come out to the farm for a potluck lunch where everyone shares good fresh food and conversation.

One sunny Thursday morning recently, campers were busily preparing for CSA deliveries. In the cool barn baskets of beets, bright green pickling cucumbers, shiny zucchini, yellow summer squash, and bunches of rainbow carrots in shades of yellow, orange, and sometimes purple were waiting. Youngsters in the field completed last-minute harvesting. Some were in the big kitchen making pickles with garden assistant/teacher Carly Milkowski. Soon the group would gather in the CSA shed to put together orders for customers to pick up. To make the transactions more personal, the campers photographed and interviewed all the CSA members for an exhibit to be posted in the shed.

"You guys are awesome," says Sam Feldman, FARM co-founder and former board president, paying a visit to the shed.

The young farmers get 30 percent of Farmer's Market, farm stand, and restaurant sales, receiving paychecks of approximately $50 to $75 per week. The rest of the money goes back into the FARM budget to pay expenses and fund programs.

Most camp days are six hours long and feature little of the down time, game playing, and lounging around found in other camps. There is plenty of fun and many new friendships are forged, but all this takes place in the course of a busy work day.

Robyn says that the education the youngsters gain here goes far beyond gardening skills. They discuss how to serve customers in a professional way, learn how to cooperate with one another to get the job done, and rather than complaining if issues arise they discuss them openly at two weekly "straight talk" meetings.

Robyn has some big dreams about how WISP could grow. More teachers could mean more kids, more work, more food. She envisions a sleepover camp where inner city youngsters could come join in the fun and learning. But for now she is delighted as she marvels at the campers, laughing at their antics, admiring their determination, and respecting their hard work.

"There's no better way to learn," she says.

For more information about WISP and the FARM Institute, call 508-627-7007.