By Carly Sharp
Each intern in the Nature Academy internship program at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum chooses a summer project to research and report on. The project culminates in a poster displayed in Matthaei’s public indoor spaces. Interns also write a blog post about their project concept or the research they’ve conducted.
Sustainable agriculture has many different meanings depending on whom you ask.
For me, sustainable agriculture is all about the human and natural worlds living in harmony. There are three main objectives in sustainable agriculture: healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Every person involved in the food system (growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, waste managers, etc.) should be valued and have livable work conditions such as access to health care, living wage, etc.).
I was introduced to sustainable agriculture when I started volunteering on the Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in 2015. The first Friends of the Campus Farm (a volunteer student organization) workday I attended was filled with smiling students digging their hands into the garden beds of the greenhouse, sunshine filtering in through the glass and warming our backs in the middle of winter, and the sound of the Beatles rising up through the rafters. Although I didn’t know anyone in the club that first workday, I felt a sense of community with those around me that has shaped my enthusiasm for sustainability and environmental science, especially around food systems.
Above: We grow and harvest microgreens in the heated greenhouse throughout the winter!
I began to attend the weekly Friday workdays at the farm my freshman year and since then have become more involved. I am now one of the Campus Farm student managers and my main responsibilities include managing small-scale food production (seeding, planting, harvesting, and distribution of produce), engaging students and classes in hands-on learning through volunteer workdays and tours, and establishing relationships with University of Michigan departments and student organizations in order to distribute produce. I have been working with the farm for three years now and have participated in farmer’s markets, set up drip irrigation systems, assisted in the construction of three hoop houses, and harvested what feels like infinite quantities of grape tomatoes and Swiss chard. This job has given me the opportunity to gain experience with organic food systems and it’s opened my eyes to the connection between where my food comes from and my daily eating habits.
Above: Student volunteers helping harvest produce to sell to the dining halls on campus.
My internship project this summer will take a look at the cycle of sustainability on the Campus Farm. There are many practices that we employ in order to ensure a sustainable food system. Specifically, we use methods to promote soil health, minimize water use, and lower pollution levels on the farm.
- Promote soil health: soil health is the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants and animals. In order to promote soil health, we rotate our crops (plant diversity increases soil diversity), use cover crops (increase carbon input into the soil and reduce erosion), and minimize tillage (soil disturbances decrease soil organic matter).
- Minimize water use: we are fortunate to have access to water in Michigan, but many regions around the world have very limited water access. In order to reduce the water footprint on the farm we use drip irrigation as much as possible. Drip irrigation directs the water supply to a plant’s roots and the drip lines lay in organized rows near the base of the plant so that the water does not irrigate blindly across an area.
- Lower pollution levels: soil management practices influence rates of nitrous oxide production, which is a greenhouse gas. Agricultural operations account for a large amount of N2O emissions throughout the country. Additionally, runoff of fertilizers and pesticides pollute water and air. In order to lower pollution, we minimize our use of fertilizers and pesticides. When we do use them, we make sure they are Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) listed (The institute is a private, nonprofit organization that determines whether or not a product qualifies as organic under the USDA’s National Organic Program) and follows strict protocol to reduce runoff and drift.
Above: Our Campus Farm Manager, Jeremy Mogthader, teaching us about the benefits of organic fish and seaweed fertilizer!
My poster offers a more in-depth look at the cycle of sustainability at the Campus Farm.
Carly Sharp, from Ann Arbor, is a Campus Farm intern this summer at Matthaei-Nichols. She is studying civil engineering with a focus in environmental engineering. Carly is fascinated by the intersection of food, energy, and water systems, specifically in urban settings. Her time working at on the Campus Farm and learning about food, energy, and environmental justice topics has convinced her that our industrial food system around the world is unsustainable as well as a major contributor to climate change. This has inspired her to discover more sustainable methods of producing food to feed people. Carly’s internship was made possible by gifts from Thomas Porter and the Porter Family Foundation that support interns who manage the Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.