Preston Malmborg, 7, picks strawberries on his family's Fort Kent homestead.

When Ethan Malmborg was 5 years old, his father came downstairs at midnight to find his son at the dining room table eating Cheerios and toast, dressed and ready for a day in the potato fields.

“If anyone was born to be a farmer, it’s this kid,” his father, Kris Malmborg, said.

Now 10 years old, Ethan Malmborg got his start in farming much like his father and generations of St. John Valley farmers — hands-on experience as soon as he was able to walk and reach the pedals on a farm truck with his feet.

And he’s still often the first one up and ready to hit the fields on his family’s potato farm, the Caron Farm near Little Black Lake in Fort Kent.

The farm was started by Kris Malmborg’s great-great-grandfather Minal Caron, and so many of Caron’s descendents still live in a cluster of homes near the original farmhouse, the area is known around Fort Kent simply as “Caron Village.”

A farming legacy

It’s where Kris Malmborg learned his love and appreciation for farming with his grandfather Raoul Caron.

Hundreds of miles to the south, it was pretty much the same story for Randy Sullivan, who is just starting a family homestead in Waldo County.

“When I was a kid, I was with my grandmother in the barn,” Sullivan said. “My grandparents’ farm was right next to our house, so I could go back and forth as much as I wanted.”

Sullivan can’t remember a time growing up when he was not helping his grandmother feed livestock, shovel manure, work in the garden or any of the other countless chores that come along with life on a working farm.

Now, Sullivan is passing along that work ethic to his own children — daughters Jazzmine, 8, and Jenna-Vee, who turns 4 years old in two weeks.

“They help me water the rabbits and chickens and feed the goats,” Sullivan said. “They pull weeds in the garden but that whole manure shoveling thing? I’m on my own.”

Learning by doing

Manure duties notwithstanding, Sullivan said his girls are eager students.

“I try to keep things basic for them so they don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged,” he said. “They really enjoy it.”

If anything, Sullivan said, he needs to learn to allow his daughters the space to figure things out.

“I have a certain way I do things,” he said. “I’ve been learning to step back, be quiet and let them do their thing [because] if I don’t let them make their own mistakes, how will they ever learn?”

Learning by doing is exactly why Kris Malmborg was thrilled when a 5-year-old Ethan began to join him on the annual Caron Farm potato harvest.

His mom, Beth Malmborg, admits to having been a bit skeptical of her son’s stamina.

“I remember thinking he was too young and that he’d get tired by lunchtime,” Beth Malmborg said. “But he loved it and would work all day.”

Under the watchful eyes of his great-grandfather Raoul Caron, who passed away in 2015, Ethan showed up to work on harvest every day or whenever an extra set of tiny hands was needed on the farm.

“I started helping around the [farm] garage by bringing tools for [workers] fixing the tractors,” Ethan Malmborg said. “And I’d turn on the tractor if they were working under it and needed it started.”

Within a few short years Ethan Malmborg had graduated to driving the farm tractors and using it to help load barrels full of rotten potatoes into a dump truck.

Last year, he was put to work driving a full-size farm truck in the field to collect potatoes as they came off the mechanical harvester.

More recently, he helped his great-uncle Dale Caron repair an agricultural sprayer.

“What he’s doing is almost identical to what I was doing as a kid,” Kris Malmborg said. “Watching him is a total flashback for me.”

Last year Ethan’s younger brother Preston, 7, started working on the farm during the harvest running for tools, making sure all of the potatoes are out of the farm truck and helping his mom deliver meals to workers in the fields.

“He helps me out,” Ethan Malmborg said.

A strong work ethic

Working on the farm provides life lessons Kris Malmborg believes his children would not otherwise receive.

“I think the most important thing they get is a sense of responsibility, and that builds character and a strong work ethic,” Kris Malmborg said. “I know Raoul would be beyond proud to see them now.”

Unlike Kris Malmborg, Sullivan did not grow up on a farm, but he did grow up in a family of Maine loggers.

“I’m a third generation logger,” he said. “I don’t log anymore, but it’s in my blood, [and] my family always had equipment and old work trucks around that I’ve been driving since I was 8 years old.”

Now he’s passing that work ethic down to his daughters.

“Working on a farm is absolutely good for kids,” Sullivan said. “They all need to know how to grow their own food, [and] whether they continue as farmers or not, at least they will know where their food comes from.”

Sullivan estimates the family produces about half the food they need by raising their own pigs and chickens and growing a garden.

“I was real nervous about how the girls would be raising animals for food,” he said. “But it ain’t nothing for them [because] they understand we are raising the animals for food, and my oldest daughter helps with slaughtering the chickens from start to finish.”

Up at the Malmborgs’ homestead, Kris Malmborg could not suppress a grin as he watched his two sons walk to the edge of their large yard to inspect one of his large International Harvester tractors, their little sister Madeline toddling after them as fast as her 2-year-old legs would carry her.

“My tractor, my tractor,” Madeline repeated several times.

“See, we start them young here,” Kris Malmborg said.”My grandmother always says every kid should grow up on a farm.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.