Sustainable food garden program takes root at Interlochen.
“It was the summer of 2016, and the Board of Trustees wanted us to do things more sustainably on campus. The initial idea was to put in a school garden, that summer,” Emily Umbarger tells me. “I said, ‘Let’s slow down. Let me give you a 12-month vision. Let’s start with a kitchen garden.’”
Umbarger works at the Arts Academy of Interlochen Center for the Arts (ICA) and is a woman who epitomizes the phrase “if you need something done, ask the busiest person you know.” When I first met with her it was spring of 2018, and the geothermally heated, solar-powered R.B. Annis Botanical Lab, student garden and composting project at Interlochen were just getting going. Umbarger had worked for a year in a volunteer capacity over and above her day job as an academic and college counselor, alongside other members of the faculty and staff including grant writers, science teachers, the dining services, maintenance and facilities teams, and the finance department. Together they conceived not just the creation of a student garden, but a sustainable, long-term, multi-dimensional project that would bring the Interlochen academy, famous for its music and arts education and programming, toward sustainable eco-practices, a hands-on agricultural life-sciences curriculum and perhaps even a reduced-waste, 100 percent compostable goal. It was an ambitious plan, but one can always dream.
Fast forward a year and Emily and her team at ICA are the thrilled recipients of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School Award. They are the only recipient in Michigan this year, and one of only 53 nationwide. In the award’s history, only six other institutions in Michigan have won this coveted prize. And the Interlochen administration has agreed to shift Emily to a newly created full-time position (though she still counsels her junior class students) on the project in which she has invested so much thought, care and time.
Over the past couple of years, multiple grants have been conceived, written and won focusing on nutrition, outreach, education, and agriculture. The goal has been not only to build for the Academy but to be ambassadors to the community and an epicenter of education in sustainability and agricultural practices for the future. Year one, with the first grant from the Allen Foundation in Midland, Michigan, a hoophouse, a community garden, and a compost facility were built. Farmer John Dindia of Lakeview Hills Farm joined the team to put these in. A second grant from the R.B. Annis Foundation subsidized the building of the botanical lab greenhouse, installation of the solar panels and the geothermal system.
Interwoven with the construction of the major pieces are the permaculture raised beds, hugelkultur mounds, a mini-wetlands pond, a chicken coop, an aquaponics setup (with 13 wild-caught yellow perch and a couple of brave goldfish), an apiary of four beehives and an outdoor educational learning center pavilion to host classes and conferences. In the works are an adjacent outdoor teaching kitchen, two more hoophouses and an orchard of fruit trees, brambles and plants. This last will be the fruit of a design competition among the students who, with lessons in permaculture and sustainable practices under their belts, considered plant/tree light requirements, soil needs, spacing, layers and maneuverability for the human tenders.
This past year Christina Barkle has joined the team on a part-time basis as Emily’s right-hand person. Christina, having worked numerous seasons on Leelanau County’s Birch Point Farm, brings her farming skills, her degree in environmental science as well as her good humor and love of teamwork to the mix.
“There’s a lot of science involved and it’s the perfect way to grow if you’re a lazy farmer,” Emily says as she shows me the multiple components of the aquaponics system. “No weeding, no watering, no soil-borne diseases. It’s a closed loop, where the fish waste breaks down through a bacterial process, becoming the perfect source of nutrients for the plants,” she continues as we peek into the fish tank, observing the tubes connecting the water to another bath, a filter and the array of plants growing through holes cut in a Styrofoam top board, their roots swimming in the nutrient-rich bath beneath.
In Emily’s agricultural sciences class, students learn topics such as The Science of Composting, where the students work with the straw bale method, pallet bins, a tumbler and vermicomposting (a worm bin). In The Birds and Bees unit, about animal science and reproduction, they raise and handle chickens, hatching eggs in the classroom and discussing fertilization and life cycles, as well as build and maintain beehives, learning about pollination and these insects’ essential role in our ecosystem. There is also a unit on plant propagation, covering sexual and asexual, cuttings, cloning and growing from seed. And a unit on soil science, in which the students learn the essential role of healthy soil as the very first step to building sustainable agriculture in the outside world, covering the importance of the micro- and macro-cultures of invertebrates and bacteria.
On every side and in every direction are carefully conceived and manifested projects, built with the sweat equity and willing hands of many volunteers, students and faculty. These include a sanctuary for monarchs with an array of milkweed ready to receive them and other gardens of flowers and plants that nourish and harbor beneficial insects, including one that has “cups” in its structure that hold water from raindrops, perfect for a thirsty butterfly.
A unit on integrated pest management (IPM) is in the curriculum, covering both “beneficials” and “pests.” Students learn how to provide native habitat to attract the beneficials, and to deter pests from ever arriving in the first place. They learn the importance of companion planting and how sustainable practices can preemptively benefit gardens as opposed to using synthetic chemicals to resolve immediate issues.
The R.B. Annis Botanical Lab at Interlochen Academy is not just for the students. Working with and reaching out to the community is a top priority. To that end, free classes are offered to the public in Beekeeping, Gardening 101, Season Extension for the Backyard, Composting, Natural Dyes and more. “The goal is to make learning accessible to all,” Emily says.
Partnerships have been formed with TBAISD, participating in their Farm to School initiative, and Emily and her team will be offering a teacher education summit this summer to bring area teachers to the site to learn their curriculum elements: container herbs, propagating plants, pollinator gardens and aquaponics, on the small classroom scale.
“The commitment we ask of the teachers in exchange for receiving this training is that they bring their kids out here for a free field trip. Through grant funding we are able to pay for the busing and lunch on-site,” says Emily. “In addition, the teachers who participate receive a no-strings-attached stipend. You participate, we support you. We value your time, your participation, and we want to help you cultivate ways to do small things on your site, as we’ve done on ours.”
The initiative toward sustainability is supported by the dining services director, Phil Fairchild, who has been working intensively with his staff to transform the dining experience at ICA. Over his tenure, he has switched out canned and frozen foods for fresh ones, prepared daily on-site and, where possible, sourced locally (not always an easy task when he needs 50 cases of spinach for one meal). ICA serves 1,300 meals a day during the school year and upwards of 7,000 per day in the summer.
Phil eagerly makes use of the vegetables grown in the greenhouse and the botanical lab gardens and looks forward to receiving even more when the new hoophouses are in place. There has been a tremendous push to educate the students and staff on food waste and composting. Real plates and flatware are used. The only disposable product is (compostable) paper napkins. Plans for cafeteria composting were set to roll out in June with the first group of campers and build momentum to the fall and beyond, with the 2019–20 academy students and staff. The cafeteria intends to display school waste amounts to help bring awareness to reducing food waste.
Meantime, all the food waste from the kitchen and cafeteria, as well as leaves gathered in the fall, wood chips and more, will be composted and turned into nutrient-dense black gold in the school’s brand-new composting facility, inaugurated in June. The facility is designed to pass municipal inspection requirements beyond those for a private institution, with the potential to be able to accept compostable waste from the greater Interlochen community in the future.
A last note, but most definitely not least: The production from the future hoophouses will be devoted to supplying the school cafeteria and the local food pantry with fresh, organic produce, 50-50. In this way, Interlochen will give back in the most meaningful way possible, sharing the wealth and the benefits of nutrient-dense, locally grown vegetables while teaching the next generation to sustain, improve and grow.
*This story comes to us from Edible Grande Traverse. Madeleine Hill Vedel shifted from the international photography art world to the world of food and wine during her 20 years in Provence. Back in Michigan these past five years she taps her admiration for all things culinary as she explores the region and pursues her writing. CuisineProvencale.com. Photography by Madeleine Hill Vedel.