PARIS — The University of Maine Cooperative Extension is seeking its next class of gardeners to take part in a program that grows food for the needy.
Every year the Paris-based program attracts between 25 and 30 applicants for its volunteer master gardener program, where seasoned farmers and would-be homesteaders are immersed in a 15-week crash course in farming basics.
Extension educator Barbara Murphy said volunteers participate at every stage, from seed to soup, growing and harvesting the crops to helping to stage cooking classes for the culinary clueless.
The catch? The food is free.
Every tomato, carrot and cabbage grown is carried in through the extension’s doors, where the extension trades in its agricultural hat and acts as a kind of grocery store for families in need, doling out the produce.
The program carries with it an altruistic dual purpose, Murphy said, where learning about farming runs hand in hand with lessons on giving back.
“It’s great fun. We know most of the people coming in, and it’s the best use of volunteer effort in Oxford County,” Murphy said.
While the extension’s growing season runs from July through October, it has begun searching for its next volunteers now. The extension operates two ¾-acre farms, one each in Paris and Rumford, where volunteers split their time between classes. The cost to sign up for the program is $220, though scholarships are available, Murphy said.
On Monday, Murphy announced that statewide produce grown or donated through their program tallied approximately 241,000 pounds this past year. Oxford County contributed 13,300 pounds, about 8,000 pounds of which was grown on the extension’s plots.
During peak growing season, she estimated that about 100 families come to their Olson Road location, where their office building has been turned into a mock grocery store, to pick up the goods, learn how to cook them and meet the farmers.
While the gross poundage of crops is down from last year — Murphy cited a slow start to the growing season — the popularity of the program will see it expanded into Lovell.
Unlike other counties, Murphy said Oxford offers a unique twist by sourcing the food it grows directly to its clients. When the program started in 1999, food pantries’ hours were too sporadic to organize delivery of fresh produce in a timely manner.
The need has changed too.
“When I started, there would be 12 to 15 people here. A slow night now would be 90 families,” she said.
Volunteers need not have gardening skill, just a love of farming and the willingness to help.
“The purpose behind the whole program is a group of people who want to use their skills to benefit the community,” she said.
More information about the program can be found at umaine.edu/oxford/ or by calling the extension at 743-6329.