Oct 02, 2018

Farming project cultivates young leaders

Aerial shot of farmland

For many kids, summer vacation is a chance to kick back, relax and take a break. For the youths who spend their summer working at the LEAF Project, this is their time to get up early, work hard and bloom into the leaders of tomorrow.

Launched in January 2013, the LEAF Project, which stands for leadership, education and farming, is a farm-based youth employment program in south central Pennsylvania. Youths ages 14 to 22 work alongside farmers, chefs and their peers to develop knowledge about the food system while broadening their self-awareness and building leadership and communication skills.

“LEAF’s ultimate goal is to cultivate young leaders from diverse backgrounds through meaningful work in the food system,” said Heidi Witmer, founder and executive director of LEAF. “At the core of it, we equip youths to build the world they want to see by putting them in positions of real challenge, real responsibility and real complex situations. We give them the support and resources to see things in a different light and see how they would change that.”

Teens debating in front of blackboard in LEAF classroomLEAF develops leadership skills and workforce readiness through a program that builds progressively over four years. All youths start in an eight-week summer internship program and then can apply for fall, winter, spring and future summer seasons. Youths who choose to continue in the program move into leadership roles, taking on venture management, marketing and business responsibilities.

According to Witmer, about half of all first-year youths move on to subsequent years or even the full program at LEAF. The program has employed more than 100 diverse youths during the six years it has been operating.

No matter how many years youths have been at LEAF, they are all immersed in every aspect of the food system, from cultivating and harvesting crops to cooking and to educating and feeding the community. Half of their time is spent doing hands-on work in the food system and the other half is spent participating in workshops about farming, food security, nutrition and diversity.

“In the food systems workshops, youths learn about how we farm at LEAF and the farming system in general,” said Shane Kaplan, assistant director at LEAF. “Then we have workshops that are about nutrition and hunger and homelessness, so they get a sense of who they are in the world and how they can make the biggest impact.”

That impact is far-reaching. The food raised from LEAF feeds a lot of people in the community. About 60 percent of all produce is sold to eight local chefs, 10 restaurants and 41 households as part of a Community Supported Agriculture program. LEAF also partners with numerous hunger relief organizations and two pre-schools to feed more than 3,000 people in need each year.

During the eight-week summer program, LEAF’s diverse team of youths work, collaborate, and learn together, motivating personal and social change while increasing knowledge about and access to locally raised food in the community.

“We want these youths to have truly different life experiences. We want to help young people see their potential and the potential of the world around them. We want differences to be part of their learning process and shape their ability to work with people who are truly different from themselves,” said Witmer.

Jake, an assistant crew leader returning for his second season, was surprised by how much he has learned at LEAF.

“I spent the summer learning how to work on a farm, grow vegetables, visit other partner farms and learning practical skills like cooking and money management,” said Jake. “I was rewarded with all that knowledge as well as the opportunity to work on my leadership skills. LEAF helped me see that there’s no right or wrong way to lead people and build a community.”

Dailah, an aspiring environmental researcher and third-year LEAF leader, summed it up best.

“The most important thing that I have learned at LEAF is that creating safe spaces for people to be themselves and to really value them for who they are is really important and a big part of what we do here,” she said. For more information about the LEAF Project, visit: leafprojectpa.org/

Grants from PPL Foundation have contributed to the programming at LEAF. For more information about PPL Foundation and the grant program, visit: pplweb.com/communities/ppl-foundation/