A camper attending Blueberry Cove Camp (BBC) off Hart’s Neck Road in Tenants Harbor—whether taking part in day camp or living in one of the cabins—gets to experience everything a beautiful coastal setting has to offer in terms of summertime fun: boating, swimming, exploring islands, drama, pottery, canoe trips to the marsh, games like capture the flag and campfires.
It used to be, according to BBC director Ryan LeShane, that even the vegetable gardens at the camp were about fun, with the focus on experimentation. “Some years we had 20 different crops so we got just a little bit of everything.” But because Blueberry Cove is part of the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension 4-H program, food systems education for kids with a priority given to putting food on the table has become an increasingly important ingredient of the camp’s mission—and, practically speaking, a good way to reduce costs.
“So now our goal is to get the vast majority of our fresh produce either from our own gardens or from other local sources,” LeShane says. “Last year we finally got to the point we wanted to be with that. We focused on heavy production on a certain realm of crops, mostly different types of fresh greens. I don’t think we ordered in any lettuce all season.”
The heavy lifting in this year’s vegetable gardens has already begun. LeShane says Hart’s Neck resident and current BBC board member Jane Bracy is key to this effort. “Jane heads up our volunteer gardeners army—six to 10 volunteers who come to plant the gardens and then come once a week to weed and to keep up succession planting. It’s a huge aspect of the work.”
Once camp is up and running—the eight-week summer season runs from the last part of June through July and then for three weeks in August—the campers become part of the garden work force. They help with weeding and watering the gardens.
“We have salad offerings at lunch and dinner every day. The kids get a chance to get down into the garden, harvest peas, beans, carrots and bring back the produce. We find that when kids have that connection they are more willing to eat what’s offered on the tables. The kids especially enjoy our potatoes, onions and garlic.”
Livestock is also a part of the food system picture, LeShane says. “Last year we also raised some small animals in the summer—two pigs and five goats. We have a connection with a local goat dairy farm up by Ellsworth where we get a couple of their young goats each year and then find families for them. The pigs were great, too, because they could eat whatever we couldn’t compost along with food scraps from the dining hall.”
Last year’s pigs were “processed” by Curtis Meats and will come back into the camp food stream this year. “We want to be honest with kids while we’re educating them about where their food comes from: This is where your pork or bacon comes from, someone raised those pigs somewhere and these are the ones we are raising.”
Fruit trees also figure into what the campers learn about food. The camp has 10 peach trees and a pear tree. The campers also harvest blueberries, raspberries and rhubarb to make into pies and other dessert treats.
Still, the camping season at Blueberry Cove is short and by September, when the residential and day campers are gone, LeShane says, “We still have lots of tomatoes coming on.” That kind of reality, along with the fact that the camp has reached the limit of its summer-camp capacity, has led the camp’s board of directors to develop a plan for realizing a new, ambitious goal for expanding the camp’s mission.
“We’re now at 85 to 90 percent of summertime capacity, averaging over 600 campers a year, so there’s not a lot of growth in that area possible—nor do we have the desire to go beyond what makes our camp unique,” LeShane notes. “I think that the fact we only have 40 or so kids a week in our residential camp programs indicates the desirable position of where we fit in the camp world across the state. There are camps that have 100 or 200 kids at camp a week so some of those kids get lost—a camp like ours is on a smaller scale and that really builds a sense of community.”
Still, LeShane says, “Our question has been, ‘How can we reach more kids?’” The fact that Blueberry Cove is located right in the middle of a year-round community has suggested the answer.
“For me, who grew up as a camper, living and working in a camp that is inside a community has been a great experience. and I find that there is a great interest in Blueberry Cove from St. George,” LeShane reflects. “So our big dream is to become a year-round environmental learning center, a resource and asset to this and other Maine communities.”
The BBC board is now in the process of launching a fundraising campaign to realize that dream. It’s called the Campaign for Kids. One goal of the campaign is to expand the camp’s physical plant. “The idea is not so much to run a residential camp year round, but to provide what we need in order to be able to run a school program—basically a heated indoor space that has bathrooms,” Le Shane explains. “In this sense we’re looking at winterizing the dining hall as a key piece to our future.”
“There’s also a half-built building behind the dining hall which we got a grant from the Hearst Foundation to finish so that we can use it as a year-round science center and leadership training facility,” LeShane adds. “It will have remote technology so that we’ll be able to connect directly with U Maine to bring those resources down here.”
The Campaign for Kids also aims to create an endowment for scholarships. “We want ours to be an affordable environmental learning center for Maine kids, whether for a summer camping experience or for a school group, so we want to keep the fee basis low,” LeShane emphasizes. “Seventy percent of our campers already receive some form of financial aid, through money raised by our annual half marathon, our annual appeal and a couple of grants. But we’d like to do more.”
Finally, there’s an asset the camp already has in place that the campaign hopes to enhance, and that is its commercial kitchen, which was updated and winterized in 2008. If the campaign can raise enough funds to also bring a kitchen manager on board, the commercial kitchen could not only provide meals for school and other groups—possibly making use of those September tomatoes and other late-season crops that the Blueberry Cove vegetable gardens can produce—but also accommodate users who would like to do value-added cooking and teach young people about how to preserve food.
“Because U Maine Cooperative Extension is 4-H,” Le Shane points out, “food systems education for kids is always a goal.”—JW
Jane Bracy notes that gardening volunteers are always welcome. Contact her at email@example.com to find out more.
PHOTOS: Top, Ryan LeShane, bottom, Julie Wortman