Heidi Witmer is no stranger to the Harrisburg community, having grown up on a farm in Perry County.
She has always been a “hands in the dirt” kind of person—even when she attended college and taught in Japan, then worked with the United Nations in Rwanda. When she returned to Harrisburg, she taught in a private school, but became concerned with the lack of employment opportunities for her students during the summer months.
So, in 2013, she founded the Leadership, Education and Farming (LEAF) Project.
“I founded LEAF on the premise that youth are a good investment and can be powerful change agents when engaged,” Witmer said. “We hire youth ages 14 to 22 and place them in positions of responsibility on farms, working with chefs, and in educating and feeding the community.”
It’s been three years since that pilot year. So, how are things progressing?
LEAF begins the application process on March 1, when youth from Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry counties apply. Those selected start an intensive, eight-week internship, which runs from mid-June to early August. Historically, LEAF has received three to five times the number of applicants for available positions.
Since that first year, LEAF has developed four steps in the employment process. Youth who successfully complete the eight-week internship may apply for longer employment (Level 2). These employees will be the first-line supervisors for the new interns and work from April through November. The new interns are divided into two, 10-person crews with a Level 3 employee heading each crew.
“Sometimes, we encourage competition between the crews,” said Witmer. “For example, we have weeding contests. For those of you who have done much weeding, you know this is not an easy task. Believe me, crew members get much better at weeding over the summer competing against the other crew.”
LEAF now has one Level 4 employee. This person helps develop the program and participates in the administrative tasks that keep LEAF growing. The development of these four levels has taken a burden off the staff, but, more importantly, has provided a career path for the interns.
“Our goal is to create a healthy ecology within the youth crew, as well as on the farm,” Witmer said. “I compare these young people to a red pepper seed. There is potential in that seed, but the seed needs help in reaching its full potential. Will it be a successful plant or a failed pepper? All of this depends on cultivation, watering and sunshine. The same is true for our youth. They need proper training and motivation to reach their full potential, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Over the past three years, LEAF has become better organized to take full advantage of the interns’ efforts and to help them grow.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, interns work on the home farm in Perry County, cultivating produce for customers and partners.
“The one thing that hasn’t changed over the three years is that, after a few weeks of this kind of work, the interns move with a new sense of pride, developing both competence and confidence through the work of raising and harvesting produce,” Witmer said.
On Wednesday afternoons, the interns participate in workshops in the outdoor classroom. For example, they might examine their lunch and trace the origins of each ingredient. This leads to a discussion about how our food dollars impact our community in positive or negative ways.
For many interns, the favorite day of the week is Tuesday, when they work alongside regional chefs making and taste-testing new recipes using the produce they have harvested.
Executive Chef John Reis of the Hilton Harrisburg runs an iron chef culinary competition toward the end of the internship each season.
“The interns’ challenge is to master five recipes composed of food grown at the farm,” Reis explained. “Then they must scale up the recipes to be served later in the day to approximately 100 people. The first year, the interns simply took food to the Salvation Army as a donation. Now, they cook the food and serve people at the Salvation Army.”
Thursday is “Partner Farm Day.” LEAF has six partner farms, where interns experience many aspects of agriculture, including fruit cultivation, milking and cheese and meat production.
“Spiral Path Farm is a large-scale organic produce farm in Loysville,” Witmer said. “I want them to observe the efficiency as well as the speed of the harvesting process at a farm of this scale and quality.”
In contrast, Piney Mountain Orchards is a one-woman operation. The interns help her with a variety of projects, such as planting, cultivating and harvesting crops, seeing firsthand the diverse skills needed to be successful in independent farming.
North Mountain Pastures raises pigs, cows, goats and produce. There, interns do everything from mucking stalls to making sausage by hand. At Keswick Creamery, a dairy farm and artisan cheese shop, interns arrive early and milk the cows, then, by the end of the day, see the cheese as it’s made.
At Three Springs Fruit Farm, the interns learn how to harvest cherries and peaches. The Ellerman Family Farm offers hard physical work as they learn how to gather hay.
LEAF youth now participate in an extensive rating session with staff and their peers, receiving feedback in the form of “positives” or things that they are doing well, and “deltas,” or things they need to work on or change.
“Many of the LEAF youth are now involved in community outreach and education programs,” Witmer said. “This includes providing meals and snacks from our farm to preschool programs, a weekly vegetable subscription program for local families, and feeding needy people through the Salvation Army.”