PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — One Aroostook County farm is growing more than crops. It’s growing farmers and businesspeople.
Over the past three decades, the SAD 1 Educational Farm in Presque Isle has transformed from a greenhouse behind the high school to a 38-acre working farm with a locally famous apple orchard.
The farm-to-table movement has grown in Maine and beyond, particularly since the pandemic ground supply chains to a halt. More people than ever want locally produced food. And at the state’s only school district-run farm, that’s good not just for business but education, too.
“Farm families are not as plentiful now, and not everybody grows a garden. Here we teach them about what it takes to grow your food,” Farm Manager John Hoffses said.
Students can participate through the Presque Isle Tech Center’s agriscience program, but don’t have to be in the program to work at the farm.
Through planting, tending and harvesting crops, then packaging them and delivering them to local grocery stores, the kids see every moment of production and marketing, from seed to sweat equity to sale. The farm also operates its own store, which gives students another marketing experience.
It’s a chance for them to get out of the classroom and put the missing link into their education by having a hand in the entire process, Hoffses said.
The farm sells about 50 percent of its produce wholesale to local outlets. Students take orders, and those who can drive deliver the goods, interacting with local produce managers. The rest of the crops are sold at the farm.
Inside the farm store on an early October day, there were squash, pumpkins, peppers, onions and cucumbers ready for sale. There was farm-pressed apple cider, and there were apples in abundance. Half-peck bags of nearly a dozen varieties filled the store with the sweet scent of fall.
Presque Isle High School sophomore Abrum Jackson waited on customers. Working at the store enables a flexible work schedule for sports, activities or even family emergencies, Jackson said.
“It’s all interesting and I normally enjoy myself here,” Jackson said.
In the store’s freezers were packaged berries and apple pies.
Yes, pies. The students make those, too, and it’s a process that especially those who have never cooked before find fascinating.
“You ask them, ‘How many of you can cook?’ Some say, ‘Does that include taking a Hot Pocket out of the microwave?’,” Hoffses said with a smile. “It’s a cool thing to see them take pride in a product they create.”
Pie makers set up in the back of the farm building. They learn about kitchen cleanliness, how to read recipes and the process of cooking the fruit. In an assembly-line format, they mix and roll dough, place it in pans, add the filling, place the top crust and seal the edges.
The pies are flash-frozen and then stocked in the store’s freezers. Earlier in the year, they make other varieties, including strawberry-rhubarb.
But for now, it’s all about apples, which is by far the school farm’s biggest and most popular crop, Hoffses said.
Established in 1990 with a donation of land on upper State Street, the farm planted its first 900 apple trees in 1991. The expansive orchard now fills 14 acres and includes 2,900 trees with 25 apple varieties.
What’s good about having early, mid- and late-season fruit is that when one variety depletes, there’s another ready to ripen, Hoffses said.
Apple season lasts from about Labor Day, when the earliest apples like Duchess are picked, well into November. Customers’ favorites include Honeycrisp, Cortland and Macintosh.
Along with vegetable and fruit production, high schoolers also take part in giving tours and teaching agriculture to younger kids. The farm hosts around two classroom tours every day from Presque Isle’s SAD 1 and surrounding school districts, Hoffses said.
But no matter what each day’s job entails, the important thing is that students are taking what they learn into the world. It’s not just about science or a career. It’s about life.
“We’re teaching about what it takes to grow your food,” Hoffses said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand what it takes. You really have to have a passion for agriculture.”