Countless parents are deeply anxious — and rightfully so — about how their children will be able to afford college, even if they diligently contribute to education savings funds for them. To help, many teenagers find jobs as soon as they are legally old enough, which usually takes time away from their families and schoolwork for even more hours a week. The kids of one Western Michigan family decided to try a different route to help contribute to their college educations — they started growing a garden together.
I first learned about this family while talking to the owners of the Making Thyme Kitchen about basil (see previous post). When I heard the story, I decided I had to meet these young upstarts.
Last summer, the Emery family worked together planting, harvesting, and selling the produce from their first garden. Matt, the dad, had purchased 20 acres of land north of Grand Rapids for hunting use, but set aside 8 acres for a garden at the prompting of his eldest daughter, 17-year-old Rachel, who's read Michael Pollan’s "The Omnivore’s Dilemma" and is considering studying nutrition at one of the four colleges she's applied to. Becca, 15; Nick, 12; Jacob, 10; and a step-brother Aiden, 11, wanted to help.
"We're learning as we go, for sure!" said Matt. "I lived in a rural subdivision as a kid and we did have a garden but I don't remember a lot." He worked occasionally on a farm across the road from his house, putting up tobacco in Kentucky.
The Emerys all admitted they bit off more than they could chew their first year, but the whole crew is excited about this next one; they plan on scaling back on the 300 heirloom tomato plants they tried this past summer, to something “a little less insane,” as Matt put it. One memorable day for all of them was spent going through the tomatoes and picking hornworms off of each plant, something we can empathize with. But even that wasn't as bad as the hot, humid day they forgot their mosquito repellent. In desperation, they took dryer sheets they found in the car and tried rubbing them on their skin.
Hornworms and mosquitoes aside, the kids seemed to enjoy gardening together. Matt remembers planting corn and beans and looking down the row at all of the kids lined up, each working on a task together. Becca loved driving their compact utility tractor, and both girls remember a pair of fawns that would come to the edge of the woods and watch them. The boys were a little less enthused about the garden but had fun building a tree house and catching frogs to race. However, Nick said he will be more interested in the garden next summer. When the kids tallied up how much they had earned, after the last day of the farmers market, they were quite surprised.
The garden reaped more than vegetables and the kids' pleasure of knowing that they are making a contribution to their futures. Becca and Rachel said that they have a new appreciation of the food they eat and the work it takes to get it to their table. Nick and Jacob were amazed by how much work goes into growing just one potato. At first, Jacob questioned why you planted a potato to grow a potato, but after their harvest, he understood how one potato could make many more. They all loved the camaraderie of the farmers market and meeting the other farmers who came there to sell.
Next year they hope to plant blueberry bushes and strawberries and maybe some fruit trees. Matt wonders if the boys could start harvesting Christmas trees by the time they graduate if they plant them soon. Maple syrup making was on the horizon for the spring, but they forgot to mark the trees this year while the leaves were on them, so that will have to wait for the spring of 2010.