Establishing roots

Establishing roots

Jackie Jahfetson

Marquette & Ishpeming community farms cultivate involvement

Using bare hands and shovels, two local groups strive to educate surrounding communities about sustainable farming, composting and gardening techniques. This is in an effort to reduce the amount of food waste produced and promote healthy learning environments.

Partridge Creek Farm

Shards of orange peels, onions and other remnants of kitchen waste pop out of the dark, earthy hill, revealing a slight pungent smell. Leaves, hay, cardboard and paper shreddings mix with horse manure keep the waste intact. Like making lasagna, every layer should be mixed with the right amount of ingredients and sauced with the proper measurements. Acting as the cheese of the entree are slimy worms, slowly munching the waste one bite at a time. Inside the compost lies a black pipe, letting oxygen seep through and contributing to the survival of the bacteria and worms. As the pile of layers heat and cool, that’s when the worms move in, turning the kitchen waste into vermicompost.

With 75-foot compost rows and gardening beds, Partridge Creek Farm (PCF) in Ishpeming works with surrounding communities to bring a more educational gardening perspective to the area. PCF Compost Contractor Aaren Joki spoke on the farm’s mission of utilizing farming as a form of healing.

“It’s therapeutic getting out with nature and working. There’s a lot of drug abuse in this town and a lot of troubled families. We think agriculture is a great way to get kids out together and doing something constructive,” Joki said. “Some kids don’t think they can do anything, but they get outside and find that, ‘Wow, we can grow our own food and be independent.’ Some of these kids after working with us [say], ‘Wow, this was really incredible.’ It’s changed some of their lives.”

The farm operates six garden sites and one compost area. Kitchen waste comes from Simply Superior, an NMU operated catering company. The compost rows take around a year to build. The process includes three months of heating, a three-month transition phase where the worm population starts to increase followed by six months of the worms feasting. After the year is up and the compost pile looks ready to harvest, it must go through a trommel screen, or what is known as a mechanical screening machine. The vermicompost falls out of the rotating screen, and the worms and rocks fall out of the end of the trommel, and are separated due to different density.

If a pile is doing well, most of the rotten food will decompose and the row won’t possess much of an odor. If the pile smells of earth tones, then you know there’s a good population of worms, Joki said.

Some waste items take longer to break down, such as egg shells and avocado pits. Joki said it’s important to spread the waste out. For instance, an abundance of coffee grounds or acidic items in one area will slow the worms’ consumption, leading to the overheating of bacteria—which dries out the pile, turning it white.

“There’s a very special way to mix these piles and if you do it wrong, it won’t cook right and it can be really bad,” Joki said. “The slower you can make compost, the better quality it is.”

Since joining the PCF team in 2016, Joki spends his days operating all of the different jobs in the business. But making sure the piles are mixed right is one of his main priorities. As the food waste is dumped and combined with manure and hay three days each week, Joki and his other farm employees and volunteers mix everything by hand, using pitch forks.

The business started in 2014 when PCF Farm Director and Secretary Dan Perkins noticed how neighborhood kids took an interest in his backyard garden and how it made a positive impact on their lives. Perkins teamed up with his neighbor and former PCF farm manager Ray Bush to provide a safe environment for children.

“[Back in the day], people didn’t have lawns to do just nothing, you had gardens growing or a lawn people were doing things on. I think we need to get back to that, getting kids outside. Soil is healthy for you, there’s a lot of research coming out that shows there’s a lot of microbes in the soil that help your immune system,” Joki said. “A lot of kids in this town, they go home [after school] and just play video games. This is a good way to get outside.”

Along with their compost site and six gardening areas, the PCF works with the Great Lakes Recovery Center in Negaunee to help adolescents recovering from substance abuse with their maple syrup tree tapping process. Some of the kids the PCF works with come from troubled backgrounds. During one school activity last year, the PCF had students draw circles to represent hard times in their lives, since smaller circles represent weaker periods of tree growth.

“Some of the stories that kids told us about their tree rings were not what you’d expect in class. There’s kids who said, ‘Oh the rings are small here because it’s when the cops raided our house for drugs. Or when I found out my dad wasn’t my real dad.’ Or just really awful, sad things,” he said. “A lot of kids only have each other, they don’t have anyone else. And I think gardening is a healthy environment to get people together and choose a healthy lifestyle.”

As someone who enjoys working with his hands, Joki said the PCF provides an environment for people to make a difference.

“I enjoy being outside and the cool people I meet all the time and the good food. Actually food is my favorite part,” Joki said with a chuckle. “Everyone thinks agriculture is bad for the environment but there’s ways to do it using modern technology that’s really innovative and can change the world.”

Marquette Growth

Summer days in the U.P. exhibit three strong months of outdoor activity from water skiing to swimming. For some, summer is a way to embrace the rays and show off a tinted pigment in the fall. For others, summer is three months of digging into the earth. Whether it be weeding or watering, the soil provides an environment of growth and sustainability.

The Marquette Growth (MG) is looking for some dirty hands.

MG provides the community with free access to educational gardening, with a large greenhouse along with an outdoor growing area. The nonprofit organization created in 2013, located at Graveraet Elementary School, began when Director Miriah Redmond was compelled to change the world’s food problems. As an NMU graduate from the environmental studies and sustainability program, Redmond was consumed with the amount of problems surrounding the food system.

“This seemed like a real feel-good solution that I could do alongside my community members, educating them and providing access to fresh, organic vegetables, so it’s kind of a win-win,” Redmond said. “It becomes a self perpetuating thing. You see the look of joy and pride on a child’s face who’s grown a tomato plant and then their first bite into a cherry tomato. The way it tastes, how excited they are that they grew it, then going home and sharing that with their families is always very cool.”

Having more hands on the gardening deck helps the summer days go by more smoothly, Redmond said. Adding, she is looking for interns to get their hands dirty this summer. With more volunteers, food production will increase and help support the survival of the organization. And “growing food is a labor of love,” she added.

The level of effort that it requires to create and produce food takes a lot of time and manual labor—and not many people realize that, Redmond said.

“Everybody eats. I think it’s very rare that folks have an opportunity to be involved with the food they ate and their food system at large. It’s a really cool experience to see how much time and work that goes into growing a simple salad,” Redmond said.

The organization is a way to get hands-on experience in a relaxing atmosphere, Redmond said, adding, music is always playing in the background during gardening shifts and there’s always food on hand. Unlike other community gardens, MG is a free space where anyone can help volunteer. And for people who are renters, many landlords don’t allow tenants to have gardens, so MG is a space to exercise that activity.

“It’s a really fun way to spend your summer. It’s super fun to grow flowers and eat vegetables in the sun with your friends,” she added.

Volunteer duties include: opening and closing the greenhouse windows [so the plants maintain an optimal environment], watering, weeding, harvesting and pruning.