Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Cultivating the Future: LEAF Project teaches Harrisburg-area teens agriculture, life skills

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On a beautiful sunny summer morning, I took a scenic drive through Cumberland County to an historic family farm and homestead in Centerville. There to welcome me were Heidi Witmer and her team of hardworking young adults. When crew leader Audrey Scott greeted me by name, handing me some garden-grown flowers, I knew I was in for a special morning spent among a friendly group. I quickly learned that these teens have a serious thirst for learning and physically demanding work and an enthusiastic appetite for wholesome foods. This is the LEAF (Leadership, Education and Farming) Project.

When Witmer began organizing the six-week sustainable agriculture summer work and leadership program for 14- to 18-year-old teens, she was met with some doubts. People joked that it would be a difficult feat finding youth willing to hang with the physical, time-consuming responsibilities of growing fresh food and maintaining a farm, she explains. While adults may not always equate teenagers with hard work, Witmer knew better.

“I think there was a perception of youth not wanting to work hard during summer vacation. The reality was the reverse,” she says.

When Witmer opened a two-week registration period, more than 50 teens applied for her 12 available paid positions. And, when she finalized her work crew, she was met with great reception from her young farmers. “It was really exciting to hire them. They were so excited, raring to go,” laughs Witmer, who relays that some of the teens even reveled in celebratory cheers over the phone.        

LEAF Project team members spent a good chunk of their summer on their host farm, owned by Bert Myers, who represents the fourth generation to cultivate his family’s land. Along with Witmer, Myers helped to coach the teens through their summer farming experiences. The young farmers not only grew and harvested food, but they delivered some of their produce to food-insecure youth in Harrisburg, learned how to cook with seasoned chefs and shared their newly acquired healthy food wealth with their families and communities. Combining a paid summer job with agriculture education and leadership training, the LEAF Project allowed participants to be productive during summer break.

“It’s a good way to spend my summer, because I usually don’t have anything to do,” says Celeste Fenon, 16, adding, “I’ve always wanted to work on a farm and have that experience.”

On my visit to learn more, I met some impressive teens, who were at the ready to complete their farm tasks for the day. That morning, I watched the young farmers harvest cucumbers, lettuce and eggplant. When Fenon and her coworker, 18-year-old Avery Morrow, admitted they had never eaten eggplant, a surprised Witmer said, “Well, we’re going to have to have an eggplant week!”

The questions kept coming. “What does it taste like?” “How do you prepare it?” “What other veggies are eggplants similar to?” In just a few minutes, the teens had learned more about eggplant than they had in their entire childhood.

Other teens were hard at work weeding, getting beds ready for planting, setting up an irrigation system and washing freshly picked produce. With a drive to learn and an eagerness to help, many of them reported back to Witmer after they completed a task, ready for their next assignments.

Witmer says that, although many of the teens did not enter the work-study program with gardening experience, they have been surprised by how capable they are at growing fresh food. Fourteen-year-old Micaha Knisely echoed this important outcome of the project. “I am learning to use abilities I have but didn’t know I had [that will] benefit me and other people,” Knisely says.

Hands-on Growth

This past summer, the LEAF Project teens learned how to make specialty food items like salami and healthy homemade soda, using syrup from fruit. They taught Farmers on the Square market-goers how to cook and about the differences between processed ingredients and locally grown whole foods. During the program, they kept writing journals, in which they documented their experiences, goals and accomplishments—a personal growth aspect of the LEAF Project that Witmer says was extremely valuable.

“I was reading some of their journals, and many of them were writing about how fun it is to be dirty, and how good it felt to work hard and be sweaty,” she reflects. “It is profound that this is a rare opportunity for them.”

This fall, LEAF will take part in a fall work party that Witmer says will include large-scale gleaning (collecting leftover crops) and food preservation. The crew will then donate its efforts to hunger relief programs. During the winter, Witmer hopes to start a Youth Council to the Food System Alliance, in which teenagers interested in sustainable agriculture and healthy food will engage with each other to help build our local food system.

Having enjoyed a successful pilot year, LEAF will expand its program next season to include two internship levels, which will allow this past summer’s participants to engage in a longer internship with more responsibility. Witmer also hopes to make room for a larger number of participants.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of requests to expand the scope of our program to draw in more youth. I certainly see the need for this, and it is LEAF’s early development challenge to find a way to increase our impact while we maintain a transformative impact for the youth interns and a culture of excellence and craftsmanship in everything we do,” explains Witmer. “My dream is to continue to invest significantly in a youth intern crew and equip and empower them to have a larger impact on the community.”

Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders

Having grown up in a farming family, Witmer wanted to provide teens with an outlet for meaningful work to get them interested in and educated about how food is grown and raised.

“I believe in what a young person is capable of, and I wanted to provide the opportunity for people to see it,” she explains. “Over time, I believe that interaction with the food system stimulates personal change. In this region, we have access to locally raised food, and we have a remarkably robust food system. I would like to weave the youth into the web of that food system.”

Witmer also hoped to involve a segment of the youth population that she feels hasn’t yet been effectively reached in healthy eating initiatives: everyday teenagers. “I’ve noticed that there are so many opportunities for youth identified with huge needs, but there is very little out there for normative kids. Also, a lot of times, with childhood obesity in the public health arena, the focus is on the really young kids, which is great and absolutely necessary. But, I think a lot of great work happening would be made better if it was available to all kids of all backgrounds,” she says.

“I wanted to work with teenagers, to teach them how to make their own food choices. This will impact the individual [teens], and they will impact their families powerfully. I think a really effective way of looking at the family food culture is through the eyes of teenagers. Youth have such amazing things to say. What would it look like if they rewrote our food guide?”

Witmer’s dream to combine teaching youth with her passion for agriculture has proven a lot of adults wrong. There are plenty of teens willing to work hard if you provide them with an outlet. They do have a strong desire to help others. They do care about where their food comes from. Teens are excited about cooking and eating. And, through the LEAF Project, the members of this group have become environmental and healthy-eating ambassadors to their immediate families and Harrisburg communities.

In a time when our children are growing up with excess consumerism and hyper-technology, this group of teens is a breath of fresh air. Imagine a world with these exceptional teens at the wheel. It’s a future that I am personally more optimistic about having had the privilege of meeting them.

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