It’s 11 o’clock in the morning and 18-year-old Corbin Bouchard is done for the day. He’s harvested almost 60 pounds of blueberries, sent off even more to the farmers market and will now load up his car with fellow teenage pickers to cart back home to Brunswick, where most of his friends are just beginning to wake up for another summer day in Maine. He wipes his brow.

Bouchard is a picker at Fairwinds Farm, a 61-acre farm surrounded by the Kennebec River in Bowdoinham. Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, you name it – he’s probably harvested them. He is among the almost 40 teens employed at Fairwinds for the summer season.

Nathan Thomas, 18, of New Gloucester, unloads a bucket of freshly picked cucumbers on Monday at Pineland Farms.

Years ago, working on the farm during the harvest season was the norm for many Maine teenagers. These days, it’s an anomaly, according to Lucretia Woodruff, who co-owns Milkweed Farm in Brunswick and whose own four children pitch in at her farm. “I think the focus has just changed to, ‘How are you going to get into college?’ ” she said.

It’s true, some teens opt for summer jobs in the service or fast food industries. Others don’t work at all – the number of Maine teens with jobs has been dropping for two decades, according to Department of Labor statistics. For these reasons, Bouchard and his counterparts represent the small fraction of young Mainers interested in connecting with the food industry at its source. The work offers the teens an opportunity to get outside, hang out with friends and make good money, too.

“Here, if you have a bad day, the next day you can triple it, double it, quadruple it, whatever it may be. It’s not hard, per se,” he said. “You can make up for it on other days.”

The day begins at 4:30 a.m., when Bouchard wakes and embarks on the carpool route that delivers him and five others to the farm by 6. There, they harvest what is needed – depending on the season – doing their best to finish up and beat the afternoon heat by noon. The teens are paid a by-the-pound rate, which depends on what they’re picking. For blueberries, Bouchard earns $1.35 per pound. He can pick about 60 pounds in just four hours, which translates to about $20 an hour. Olivia, Bouchard’s younger sister, started at the farm this summer and is saving her earnings for an eighth-grade class trip.

According to Maine labor laws, when school is out teenagers under 16 years old may work no more than 40 hours a week and no more than six consecutive days. The law puts fewer restrictions on older teens and on minors “employed in the planting, cultivating or harvesting of field crops or other agricultural employment not in direct contact with hazardous machinery or substances.”

At Fairwinds, the teenagers’ work four to five hours a day, six days a week.

Standing about 20 feet down the row from each other, Corbin and Olivia look like any other kids in the summer, sporting athletic clothes, close-toed shoes, and a lot of sweat. Just like any other kids, maybe, save for the plastic containers dangling around their necks, which they use to conveniently store blueberries before transferring the berries to larger buckets. Picking is a repetitive task, but the siblings say that though the work is tiring, it’s never boring.

“It is kinda nice to just be by yourself. Especially in the morning, you get to just go plunk down in the field and do your job,” Corbin said.

Since starting at the farm four seasons ago, Corbin said that he’s gained a greater appreciation for the quality of his food, as well as its source. “I’ve noticed, since I’ve started working here, that whenever we get a carton of strawberries from Hannaford, all I see are the flaws in the container.”

FIT TO BE TRIED

At other farms in southern Maine, hiring teens is a necessary part of phasing out contracted labor. At Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, for example, farm management began recruiting local teens last year in an effort to replace a group of Cambodian American immigrant workers who have worked at the farm for a few decades, but are getting old for the physically demanding work.

Employees, including three teenagers, harvest cucumbers on Monday at Pineland Farms.

Those laborers – most came to the United States in the 1970s, fleeing civil war – worked through a third-party contractor, according to Ariel Provencal, farm office manager in the produce division at Pineland. By directly hiring teens, she said, the farm can better control how its employees are treated and paid and ensure that both are fair. The teens are working out nicely, Provencal said, because they’re young, the live locally and seasonal work suits their school schedules.

If it’s a good fit for the farm, it’s a good fit for the teens, too. Across the board, farm managers agree that working on the farm imparts valuable life skills: patience, grit, a commitment to getting things done and a better appreciation for both manual labor and the process of growing and harvesting food.

“If you’re willing to work and help the team, it’s a good job,” said Provencal, who employs about 20 teens in the summer season.

Other skills are unexpected. Benjamin Dumont, an 18-year-old picker at Pineland, says that while the farm has certainly strengthened his work ethic, he has also picked up language skills from his fellow Jamaican and Cambodian workers.

“They just talk, and I’ll say, ‘What does that mean?’ ” he said. “And they’ll tell me what it means.”

Plus, the rewards are tangible.

“It’s rewarding,” said Makayla Gwinn, a 19-year-old from New Gloucester who’s wrapping up her first summer on the farm. “Because there’s a whole section, you know how much you have to get done – we have to finish these rows or pick this many strawberries – and then you’re done. There’s an end goal every day.”

PRODUCING A WORK ETHIC …

Only 15 miles away, a farm staffed entirely by teens takes root in the once-fallow farmland adjacent to the Brunswick High School parking lot. Their philosophy: Farm work is not only good for kids, but essential for the future.

“You mark my words: When you’re my age, this is what governments are going to be subsidizing – small, local, fresh, organic, sustainable. We’re going to have to, because we can’t go on the way that we are.” This is John Riggleman speaking, an English teacher and the director at the Brunswick High School Garden Club. The plot looks more like a farm than a garden, its quaint occupancy atop a small hill that overlooks neighboring blueberry fields.

Behind him, a flock of high schoolers crack jokes and pontificate about their future careers as sports coaches, hairdressers, avocado farmers. In the course of a summer, they’ll rake, weed, plant and gather.

Riggleman started this program five years ago after years of teaching students who were struggling academically and insisted that they’d do better working with their hands. Riggleman decided to put them to the test. Since then, an entire program has sprung into motion, enlisting teens who might otherwise spend their summers dishing up fast food, watching TV or playing video games. This summer, 12 teens signed up.

Most of the land for the school’s farm venture is owned by Brunswick High School, which covers about one-third of the $10,000 it costs to run the farm each year. Other sources of revenue include sales of the vegetables (you can find them at Wild Oats Bakery & Cafe and at Morning Glory Natural Foods, both in Brunswick), grants and donations. The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, for example, lends the high school kids the use of one-quarter acre it owns off of Baribeau Drive.

Makayla Gwinn, 19, of New Gloucester, hauls a bucket of freshly picked cucumbers to field boss Nelson Castillo on Monday at Pineland Farms.

On the morning I visit, fog hangs low over the farm on a hill. Riggleman hums a ditty in the weeds as his farm manager, Kim Bolshaw, fashions a deer guard out of twine. The teen hands harvest peas and scan the produce for potato beetles, earning $10 an hour for their work.

“I love the natural (world) because I had cancer when I was 11,” Madeleine Dostie tells me. She is now a 17-year-old at Brunswick High. “For my Make-a-Wish, I had decided I wanted to dig up dinosaur bones, so I found some bones and the tip of a T-Rex tooth in South Dakota.”

These days, Dostie finds healing in the natural world at the farm, where she likes to harvest produce and incorporate it into her cooking, recently bringing home a head of lettuce and a jalapeño.

Though most summer “get-ahead” programs, such as Brunswick-based Upward Bound, focus on academic preparation – the abstract knowledge needed to pass tests and earn college acceptances – Riggleman has tapped into another venue for instilling motivation, one that might feel more tangible and practical to high schoolers.

“The goal is not to produce vegetables – at least that’s not the first goal,” Bolshaw said. “The goal is to produce people with a work ethic.”

“High schoolers are capable of so much more than we allow,” Riggleman added. “They really get it.”

… AND PICKING UP AN APPRECIATION

Back at Fairwinds, Corbin Bouchard hoists his two-gallon buckets, bursting with blueberries, onto the scale to be weighed. After rallying his sister and fellow pickers into his car, they begin their daily sojourn home. The day, for most, is just beginning; for them, it’s a good deal done.

In a few weeks, he’ll start college at the University of Maine Farmington. Though it’s his fourth season at Fairwinds Farm, with summer internships and the job search closer on the horizon, he’s not sure when he’ll be back. But one lesson he’ll take with him whatever the future holds – a better appreciation for the food that he eats and the earth in which it grows.

“Because the food is better,” said Corbin. “And the money stays here.”

Surya Milner is a rising senior at Bowdoin College studying English. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: suryamilner

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.