Six Northern Michigan University students and recent graduates are completing summer internships at Partridge Creek Farm in Ishpeming. They are helping to advance the farm's tri-fold mission: improving access to locally grown, affordable fresh produce; building a healthy community; and promoting education on sustainable food systems to area students and community members.
The NMU interns engage in activities as a group and also work on individual projects that align with their academic interests. Their service will culminate with an Aug. 12 Partridge Creek Farm Showcase open to the public.
Ideal soil is required to produce bumper crops in the challenging U.P. environment. The NMU delegation works at a six-acre site where Partridge Creek Farm (PCF) manufactures its own high-quality vermicompost, a mixture of vermicast—essentially worm poop—and composted organic matter such as vegetable waste, leaves, lawn clippings and manure. Food waste comes from NMU Dining and “West-end” restaurants. The farm also sells the material to support the NMU internships and other education programs with Ishpeming Public Schools and community entities.
Other group activities include Volunteer Wednesdays, which strives to reward those who turn out to help with a free bag of produce, and Farm Fresh Fridays, an idea the interns developed that allows community members to pick up pre-packed bags of washed produce from noon to 2 p.m., or while supplies last. More than 100 people have visited Farm Fresh Fridays and about 300 pounds of produce, primarily greens, herbs and peas at this stage of the growing season, has been distributed.
Individually, each intern manages one of the six sites in Ishpeming that were transformed from vacant lots into garden sites with unique purposes. Responsibilities include planting, trellising, weeding, maintenance and harvesting. Interns also invest four to six hours per week in special projects relevant to their respective academic majors.
Allison Fron, a May 2020 graduate with a degree in environmental science, wants to be a plant/soil researcher.
“My special project deals with testing physical aspects of soil, such as compaction and infiltration,” she said. “Both have an important role in the health of plants. Ultimately, through my results I will give recommendations to improve the soil quality. This internship has been valuable to me because it has helped me gain more experience in the research sector before I head off to grad school. I have learned a lot about growing plants and soil dynamics, which will help me in my future career.”
Fellow May 2020 graduate Brendan O'Connor is using GIS to map all of the farm sites and the plants growing in beds to create an app. Student Calista Rockwell is applying her interest in environmental writing to generate PCF social media posts and content for a newsletter.
Other students representing the NMU Earth, Environmental and Geographical Sciences Department and their projects are: Emily Bateman, who is coordinating Volunteer Wednesdays and helping with a project to build resiliency gardens free for those in need; Natalie Nesburg, who is assisting with soil analysis; and Lizzy Stark, who is putting her art minor to use designing all flyers and marketing materials.
May Tsupros is the interns' well-qualified supervisor. The former teacher and her husband recently moved to the Upper Peninsula after visiting for several years. In 2014 in Chicago, she founded the nonprofit Gardeneers, which built gardens at 22 schools and offered related educational programming in low-income food deserts. She served as executive director and supervised AmeriCorps service members.
“After five years, I just got burned out,” Tsupros said. “We decided to move up here and I very quickly found my way to the right people, as you do in the magical U.P. I'm supporting Partridge Creek Farm part time, trying to grow it a little more and working to build strategic partnerships.
“Dan [Perkins, PCF founder] had done a beautiful job of getting interns from NMU. It's been a really productive summer. There is no way we would be completing the amount of things we are without them. They are diligent, hard workers, great self-starters and communicative, all great qualities you want in an employee. They're also responsible and come up with many wonderful ideas. One of our part-time farm managers raves about them. He said one-fifth to one-third more food is being harvested because of their help.”
Tsupros said this summer's interns are demonstrating the possibilities of PCF's vision to build an agriculture pipeline program starting with pre-K and progressing to NMU and beyond. The organization also hopes to expand the partnership with NMU and inject more interdisciplinary elements such as community health and art.
The Aug. 12 showcase will comply with COVID-19 guidelines. It begins at 4 p.m. with self-guided walking tours and intern presentations at each garden site. A program will follow at 6 p.m. by Ishpeming High School. Tsupros said PCF will announce plans to expand its farm to school program beyond fifth graders and present certificates of completion to the interns.
Sign up for free showcase tickets by Aug. 8 at https://bit.ly/3eu6Rfk. All registered attendees will receive a farm tour map and further details about the event.