Farmer Steph - An Earthy Missionary!
Updated: Jan 10
Good news is frequently under the radar these days, as the late Pete Seeger reminded us, but we can find that good stuff by putting our attentions on the countless wonderful projects, initiatives, and community-building efforts of our everyday neighbors and citizens in towns all across the country. It’s those things, he noted, which give us hope and inspiration. And not necessarily the focus of daily headlines.
In the small town of North Yarmouth, Maine an earthy miracle is underway. Children, teens, and adults have collectively come under the spell of Farmer Steph, the nickname for Stephanie McDonough, a 42- year-old dynamo in overalls whose love for nature and the glories of the soil is a force to behold. On a few acres of farmland on loan from a local land trust, Stephanie is co-creating with her students a kid-friendly wonderland and welcoming campus of giant sunflowers, planted vegetables, colorful flowers, and natural habitats of thickets and hideaways perfect for exploring.
Stephanie incorporated her work and mission recently as “Farm to Table Kids”, and on a visit in early November to the farm, we were fortunate to follow ten children, ranging in age from 6 to 12, during the course of an entire morning as they ran, played, harvested, and crafted. Among them was Stephanie’s 10-year-old daughter Autumn, and her 8-year-old son Joey, who had survived stage four cancer 2 years prior.
We gathered, with our masks on, in the new 20’ x 60’ cedar-framed greenhouse on a chilly overcast morning, the temperature outside 37 degrees, a factor the kids didn’t seem to notice. Stephanie’s focus today was to be on capturing and preserving seeds, a task she announced was “like receiving a wonderful present from Mother Nature.” Seeds are the most amazing gifts,” she said enthusiastically to her young audience, “because when plants are at the end of their lives, they actually give you your seeds back, and you can use them for next year’s garden. How cool is that!”
But first, there was some morning Yoga, some group stretches, and then a lively and spread-out hike, minus the masks, through the fields and up into the nearby woods to channel youthful energy while searching for salamanders in the creek, building mini-forts and artistic stick arrangements and arbors, and allowing for a lot of individual exploration. Stephanie and her aide, Diane Stein, gave some loose directions, but those focused on basic safety and not on what kids should be doing, as if in a directive classroom. As we adults stood along a trail and then a bridge above a tiny stream watching the seven girls and three boys playing and creating, the common denominator we observed was unrestrained joy and freedom. How wonderfully refreshing! And with the knowledge of so many children in homes and schools across the country, at this very moment, locked onto their computer screens during this unfortunate pandemic, the sight of kids playing freely here in nature was truly heartening.
We eventually made our way back, after about an hour in the woods, to the greenhouse and some healthy snacks like fresh carrots and celery sticks Then Stephanie addressed the kids, who were sitting on benches around wooden tables, with a question: “What do you think is one of the greatest games of hide and seek, and treasure hunting on this planet?” We heard answers like “capture the flag,” “finding money”, etc. “No,” said Stephanie, “its seed collecting! You go right outside to nature, search around the plants and flowers to find seeds, and then you plant them for your own organic food, or to give to a neighbor. It’s so fun! Mother Nature has done all the work. You’re just helping her out. Who wants to look for seeds?”
The kids immediately gave their cheers of approval, and then each child received a paper egg carton with pictures of 12 plants taped to each empty compartment. “Let’s go outside and I’ll show you a couple of plants that are now full of seeds,” Stephanie said. “We’ll start with the easiest, I think, which is the sunflower.”
Since the farm grows hundreds of cut golden sunflowers to sell at their weekly farm stand down the road, there were plenty of stalks and some seed heads left over from the harvest. Stephanie pulled down one which looked dried out and brownish, and then showed the wide face of it to the kids, all the while using her thumb to push away the many dark little flowerets or “pollen pockets” which cover the actual edible seeds. “Just take your fingers and rub this stuff off and you can find the seeds,” she suggested. She turned to us observers and said, “This is awesome texture work for kids, they love taking things apart!” After some very busy uncovering and collecting of seeds, we eventually moved on to see how Calendula, and then Marigold, Strawflower, Dahlia, all hide their individual seeds. In the case of Dahlia, we had to dig up the roots, which were small white potato-like tubers all clustered tightly together in the dark, rich soil.
As the kids continued to search for and collect a fascinating variety of seeds from around the gardens, Stephanie told us about some of her other projects. “We have a really busy summer camp here, and our 2020 camp registrations sold out within 24 hours. That’s 200 kids! Unfortunately, Covid 19 kept us from running the camp and it was a real heartbreak for me, a wrench in my plans. And it really cut our revenue stream way down. We decided eventually to sell our organic vegetables to area restaurants, and also did quite well at our farmstand. That was great, but on September 24th we got hit with a season ending supremely early frost. All 400 pepper plants, 600 tomato plants, basil, cucumbers, and the dahlias - ohhh the dahlias, were all lost to a hard frost a good month before expectation. Those were our money-making crops………..”
We moved deeper into the garden where the kids were picking some late-season leaf lettuce to eat and take home with them. “I know that not every child’s heart will be lit up by organic farming,” Stephanie said, “so I feel my role is to shine the light on all the gifts that come from mother nature and growing, whether its picking and making flower bouquets, or crafting with nature, or using our outdoor greenhouse to make farm to table snacks, or setting up and helping with our farm stand. I’ll let a 7 year old use a Cuisinart to make salsa, and give them access to things their parents wouldn’t do. It’s a rush. It’s a way to say to a child, ‘I trust you.’ It lights my heart to help a child find a place of belonging in nature. And what they learn here, they bring home to their families….”
I asked about her background, and to my astonishment, this most earthy, dirt-under the fingernails woman told me she had worked corporate for many years, in marketing, including a stint for the National Basketball Association and Shipyard Brewing Company. Even though Stephanie grew up amongst an extended working-class family in Woburn, Massachusetts that “ate farm to table where gardening was built in as a way of life,” she said,” my grandmother , who was a feminist, wanted me to go beyond our little world and work in the city and get a corner office, making real money.” After earning a B.S. in Sports Management from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst she was well prepared to work in that field and did so for a number of years, but after she gave birth to Autumn, in 2010, she told us that “I had time on my hands and so I started farming again and teaching, little by little, and then more and more.”
She continued, “I have so much I want to do. I want this campus to be a full farm to table experience, and I want to develop curriculum for schools, and show kids how to use tools and kitchen equipment. I’m blessed to know what makes my heart full and feeds my soul, and I’m so grateful to be able to share that joy and passion.”
Lunchtime was approaching here on Skyline Farm and the seed collecting had come to a close, but there was still one more major activity – making seasonal bouquets and wreaths out of dried plants and flowers that Stephanie and Diane had collected beforehand and had separated by species: mint, eucalyptus, thyme, starflower, sweet Annie, multi-flora rose berries, etc. The seven girls immediately focused on their first task of picking out just the right colors and shapes of plants for their craft, while the seven year old boys drifted a bit. Work continued for the next half hour or so and wreaths and bouquets were being finished and readied to take home.
Moms began showing up just before 1 pm to pick up their kids, and Stephanie mentioned that parents who come to the farm and greenhouse and see what things their children are excitedly doing often tell her that "I wish I could learn this stuff myself.” “So this fall, she said, “I started offering "how to" classes, right here, and connecting with my community. That’s the stuff that makes my heart glow, and the people coming to classes feel it too. I had 15 moms here the other day making wreaths. Can you believe it? It was so meditative. One mom said to me, “This is exactly what we need right now. It feels so good to be doing this.”
As each of the youngsters was met by a parent here at the greenhouse and warming outdoor fireplace, kids were showing off their wreaths and bouquets and giving their last cuddles and strokes to Stephanie’s very playful young golden retriever, Tractor, who had accompanied us all day. The temperature was still only about 40 and the sky overcast and gray, but the spirits were high and joyful.
I asked Stephanie how it was that kids could be here during a school day, and she noted that the local school district gave students every Wednesday off so that they could participate in different kinds of learning, a strategy in response to the constraints of the pandemic.
“Right now, with winter coming on” she told us, “me and my children will be carrying the torch and so I’ll start diving into projects I've always wanted to do but never had the time. We recently started growing the Farm to Table Kids online library with "how to videos" for families wanting to learn more about organic farming, nature crafting, and cooking with kids. Check them out! I also partnered with a local company, Coast of Maine Organic Garden Products, to shoot some videos and online content to inspire children and families in nature and gardening. And, of course, I mentioned the classes for adults here, which really light me up.”
I asked about the great pressures of trying to operate a shoe-string operation during a time of Covid. “Something in my heart is telling me to stick to farming,” she said,” even in the middle of this very stressful year. This mission…….now it’s so relevant. I would kick myself if I went back to corporate. Covid has made me turn up the fire even more. I don’t want to leave this earth without a legacy. I'm so excited for what lies ahead, a little tired, but so excited and always grateful.”
Readers: You absolutely have to see Stephanie in video! Go to www.farmtotablekids.org and also the Facebook page for this wonderful organization.
All photos by Steve Morello