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Inspire: LEAF grows leaders through work in agriculture

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Inspire Leaf 1

Interns at The LEAF project work on putting together farm shares at the LEAF farm in Landisburg. 

A vision that was a long time building will enter its tenth season in 2022, continuing to grow leaders alongside kale, carrots and cucumbers.

The LEAF Project, which stands for leadership, education and farming, is the brainchild of Heidi Witmer who dreamed of putting a crew of students representing diverse segments of the community to work on a farm where they learn how to raise crops and prepare food while building their own leadership skills.

“It’s been inspiring every day,” Witmer said.

For its first three seasons, LEAF set up shop on a host farm in Centerville. In 2016, LEAF moved to Landisburg so it could grow crops and build a kitchen to diversify their offerings to include ready-to-eat foods.

“Not everybody is going to go on to be full-time farmers, but everyone is going to cook dinner so we wanted to continue to grow out what [students] were exposed to in the food system,” Witmer said.

LEAF logo

About 80% of the food grown by the students goes out in farm shares purchased by supporters who commit to the farm and receive a box of produce each week for 20 weeks during the peak season. They also offer a winter share and include options for adding in cheese, meat or fruit from their partner farms.

Students in the program come from up to 12 area school districts and represent not only the demographics of the community but also a variety of personality styles and leadership experiences.

“We’ve been really lucky that the applicant pool has been really rich and diverse every year so that it’s not hard to get to represent the community,” Witmer said.

LEAF started as a summer-based program and is now a year-round program that gives students the opportunity to move through progressively more demanding leadership positions.

Students start on the summer crew where they work on the farm from 9-4 Monday through Thursday for seven weeks. Then, if they meet certain requirements, they can apply to a seasonal internship during the school year and, from there, to a special team focused on the farm, outreach or programming.

“By their second summer, they’ll be specializing in a certain skill set on a team and then they keep moving up through there and can eventually apply to being a lead to that team,” Witmer said.

Heidi Witmer

Heidi Witmer

Q& A with LEAF Project Inc.

  • Purpose: The LEAF Project’s mission is: to cultivate youth leaders from diverse backgrounds through meaningful work in the food system. LEAF accomplishes this by hiring a truly diverse set of youth ages 14-18 into year-round paid internship opportunities working on our farm and within the food system. Each year, the youth of the LEAF Project feed and educate thousands of people throughout South Central PA.
  • Address: LEAF Project Inc., 554 Warm Springs Rd., Landisburg PA, 17040
  • Website: http://www.leafprojectpa.org
  • Contact: or general information, contact: info@leafprojectpa.org. For youth who are interested in applying for an internship (applications are typically open February-April for entry-level summer positions), contact: ricki@leafprojectpa.org
  • How old is the organization: The LEAF Project is entering its 10th program year in 2022.

What role does your organization play in the community?

It’s hard for most adults to remember just how challenging it is to be a teenager. For youth, life is changing constantly, there are persistent questions of identity and what the future holds, and peer conflicts can feel all-consuming. The LEAF Project believes in the power and promise of these young people; that they don’t have to just be consumed by these challenges but are capable of truly great things if we invest in them. We get there by hiring youth into paid internship positions that provide real responsibility for growing food, feeding their community, and taking 100% responsibility for themselves. The result, as we’ve seen over time, is young adults who are more confident, more skilled, and more engaged in their communities — and our South Central PA region has in turn benefited from the food produced each year by these youth.

What is the toughest challenge your organization faces?

Our greatest challenge is getting the word out about the impactful work that we are doing. Our program is a truly unique model for this region- a paid youth internship that both develops the capability of the youth and also expects a great deal from them. This model could only work with a relatively small number of youth each year: 25-30, but our investment in these youth (and our community) is profound. Many youth will continue to work with LEAF for up to three years in roles with ever increasing responsibility, which studies have shown increase their effectiveness and productivity for their lifetimes. However, it is challenging to communicate that our impact with youth is designed to be deep and lasting with a smaller cohort of youth vs. quick and broad with hundreds of youth at a time.

Something you would like the public to know about what you do?

The youth of the LEAF Project all start in an intensive seven-week summer internship Monday-Thursday, but our deepest impacts happen for youth who continue to work with us throughout the school year. During the school year program, we work with our paid youth interns two afternoon weekdays and one longer weekend day per week in order to continue their growth as leaders. As youth gain skills and knowledge, they move up the ranks into peer leadership positions with more pay and responsibility. These positions eventually provide the opportunity for specialization such as fellowships in farm management, culinary production, marketing, accounting, or education.

What’s your proudest accomplishment so far?

One accomplishment that makes us proud is proving the efficacy of the LEAF Project over the course of the last nine years. Because this model is so novel, we spent the first several years proving to parents, funders, and the wider community that this program could work. At the beginning, we were underfunded and unknown and we went about the hard work of designing the program that we believed would be most impactful for youth and our community. This has paid off over time as we have seen through data we’ve gathered and the stories of the youth who have grown in our program and afterwards.

What do you think the keys are to having an impact with young people?

Farmers know that an essential step for plants raised from seeds is “appropriate adversity.” Once a seed germinates, you can’t perpetually keep it inside where it’s safe and protected from the elements, it needs challenges in order to get strong in the form of wind, water, and fluctuating temperatures. So, once it is ready, farmers move seedlings from the nursery into the world and adversity triggers the plant to get strong and grow its roots. We think youth are similar to the plants we raise in this regard: if they don’t ever experience challenges they will never grow and become strong and capable. Youth at LEAF work harder than they’ve ever worked, are presented with challenges that require their full mind and heart, and get regular feedback with the goal of self-improvement because that is what “appropriate adversity” looks like.

What goals do you have for the upcoming year?

In 2022, we plan to hire a new cohort of youth, expand our advanced youth farming Pre-Apprenticeship, and increase our outreach into the community with the use of community/ family gardens built by youth, produce delivered, and food prepared and preserved.

Email Tammie at tgitt@cumberlink.com. Follow her on Twitter @TammieGitt.

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