2011 PFIG Recipient Rowan Sprague

Career Administrator

Rowan Sprague
School of Engineering and Applied Science
Civil and Environmental Engineering Major
2013 Graduation Year

Internship: Morven Farm

This summer I will be working at Morven Farms as a farm intern and researcher. Morven Farms was owned by John Kluge, and he donated this estate to UVA on the conditions that it be used by the University for educational and charity purposes. A group of students and I are starting an organization called the Morven Kitchen Garden Project, and we are working to raise awareness and participation of students and faculty in the local food system. With our one-acre plot of land at Morven, we hope to create an outdoor laboratory in which students and faculty can work together to conduct research experiments, supplement in-class learning with outdoor workshops, engage in the local food system, and enjoy hand-grown produce. We are aiming to close the loop of the food system for those who participate in the Project, thereby reducing fuel emissions associated with food production and encouraging and experimenting with sustainable farming techniques. Throughout the summer, I will be working with Michelle Rehme, the farm manager for our garden plot, and Judith Yang, the other intern farming with me at Morven. Marie Schacht will also help us out and be our supervisor.

As an intern at Morven, I will help with general farming tasks, including planting, watering, weeding, and preparing beds. I will also conduct my own research projects. I will start a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program for UVA students. In this program, students will be able to sign up for a month’s share of produce harvested from the Morven Garden. Every week, we will deliver the produce to a central location on Grounds for students to collect. In exchange for the produce, students will pay a small fee and work a certain number of hours a week at the farm. This CSA will be continuing throughout the summer sessions as well as into the fall semester for as long as we can harvest our crops. To monitor and measure the progress and success of the CSA, I will record the amount in pounds of produce distributed as well as the number of different varieties of plants we offer each week. I will also count the number of students who participate in the program and distribute surveys to them to find out what worked and what did not work in order to improve our CSA model for the next season.

Along with the CSA, I will also be conducting research on season extension techniques. Season extension is a method used by farmers to extend the growing season of crops beyond their normal time frame. Methods typically include structures or cloths made to trap the heat from the sun in order to keep the crops warm throughout the cooler days and nights. To measure the success of the season extension methods I will implement, I will count the number of surviving plants week-by-week as the temperatures become cooler and record how long into the fall the plants grow. I will compare this number and time period for the particular methods I am using and compare it to a control group with no extension technique used. I will also experiment with different types of crops to find out which crops grow the best and the longest with which method.

Notes on the first week

As I looked forward to my internship at Morven Farms, I created a list of both professional and personal goals that I would like to accomplish over the next few months. In terms of my professional goals for the CSA program, I would like to ensure the longevity of the program through successful season extension techniques. I would also like to use the suggestions from the participants of the CSA from over the summer to improve the program and start in again in the spring. For this summer, I would like to have about 15 students involved. By using cost analysis of the start-up and maintenance costs and the money earned from the CSA, I want to prove that this CSA model is feasible for our university setting. Then I would like to inform and advocate this model to other colleges and universities. In terms of my professional goals for the season extension research, I would like to find the optimal method to extend the growing season for different varieties of crops and then inform other farmers in the area of my findings. To inform these farmers, I will work with the Local Food Hub to contact them and explain the results of my research. My goal is to be able to extend the season of five different crops until the end of October.

For my personal goals, first and foremost, I would like to learn as much as I possibly can about how to farm sustainably and how to communicate and carry out an idea for positive change in the food system. The CSA program will be my first large endeavor of trying to reach out and engage students in the local food system. I hope both to succeed with the CSA and also develop my own communication and organization skills. I also plan to keep a careful record that I can refer to in years to come. In this record, I will keep track of the garden layout week-by-week, the obstacles we encountered and how we managed them, and the CSA statistics, such as how much produce we delivered each week.

Before my internship began, I had imagined my typical day to go as follows: around 7am, I would wake up and drive out to the farm; I would then help out with a variety of farming tasks such as planting, watering, and weeding around the crops; then around 10am I would go into the office and do some research on season extension or other CSA models; I would finally go home around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. My internship has fulfilled many of my expectations, although the actual experience has been even more fun and enjoyable than I thought it would be. Every day of my first week, I did wake up early; however, I did not expect to wake quite as early as I did. My days began around 4:45am when I woke up to get dressed, eat breakfast, and arrive at the farm by 6am. Then, Michelle, Judith, and I usually worked until 10 or 11am when we would then go home for lunch and a nap. Every other day, we went back out to the farm to work in the evenings as well.

I will describe one of my days in detail to show my typical daily schedule. At 4:45am I wake up, get dressed sleepily, and eat a bowl of granola for breakfast. After brushing my teeth and putting on lots of sunscreen, I am in the car by 5:35am to pick up Judith, and then we drive out to the farm. Michelle meets us at the gate to open it for us, and we meet up to discuss what needs to be done that day. Today, we plan on planting our Summer Squash and Patty Pan Squash seeds. First though, we start by looking over our plants for any bugs munching on them. I pick off Colorado Potato Beetles who are eating the leaves and stems of our potatoes. Then I plant the squash seeds, using a technique of creating small mounds of soil and compost and planting three squash seeds on top of the mounds. I plant 13 mounds of Summer Squash and 7 of Patty Pan Squash in about two hours. I did not expect tasks to take as long as they do in farming. Planting a whole row usually takes a while and activities such as laying newspaper and hay down between rows take equally as long. After the row planting, I help prepare one of the row beds for the beans which we will plant later that evening. Around 11am, we head home for lunch and a much needed nap. I check my email and continue to organize for the beginning of the CSA program starting June 13. At 5:30pm, Michelle, Judith, and I meet up at Southern States to buy trellis materials, watermelon seeds, and a transplant tomato plant to replace the one that wilted and died. We all head back to Morven to plant a row of pole and bush beans and water the newly-seeded squash seeds again. I get back home around 8:30pm, take a shower, check email, and easily fall asleep after a long but exciting day. I am loving my experience out at Morven Farms, and I have learned so much already about planting and farming. I am keeping track of what I do each day and of what we have planted in the garden. I take a picture each morning of our garden plot, and I am so thrilled to see our plants growing and sprouting. I wish that time would pass slower, so I can enjoy this experience longer!

Midway

I am now about midway through my summer internship, and I cannot believe how fast time is flying. Our garden still grows healthily as we continue to care for it each day. I did not expect to be building as many structures in the garden as we have, but I am really enjoying that aspect of this internship as my engineering background continues to come in handy in our designing and building.

The most noticeable structure is now our garden shed, an 8x12 foot building we constructed ourselves out of lumber, wood panels, lattice, screws, and nails. We have almost finished it, with the exception of a roof. We experimented a bit with the design of the shed. Our roof will be slanted, and my next project is to design and construct a rainwater collection system using gutters and a rain barrel, about which I am so excited. If we find that this design works well for us, I hope to recommend it to our small farmers and growers in the area. Other structures we have built include trellises for the cucumbers and tomatoes, bamboo teepees for the pole beans, and “crow discos,” which are two bamboo stakes with twine and CDs strung between them to scare off the crows.

Other than helping design and build these structures and caring for the garden, my big project has been starting a CSA program for UVA. In our CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, UVA students and faculty register and pick up the vegetables we grow and harvest at Morven once every week for a month. Besides our fresh produce, we also give our CSA participants cut wildflowers and a recipe booklet on every pick-up day. I also did not expect to be researching and learning so many new recipes through this internship as I am, but I have loved this aspect as well. It is really important to me that we provide participants with ideas for how to cook the vegetables since some of them are not familiar with the produce. The participants are also encouraged to come out and help in the garden. I love it when they do because then they see and experience how we care and grow the plants. I have enjoyed explaining to students how to plant pumpkins or mulch between rows because it makes me realize just how much I have learned and am continuing to learn.

Along with learning about farming and cooking, I have also learned more about my personal strengths and have been working on my communication skills. By creating so many Excel spreadsheets, I realized how competent I am at organizing information into tables and diagrams. I also realized that although I am usually quiet, I love talking to people about this internship, gardening, and food. Through this internship as well, I have been making more connections with students, faculty, and community members both with emails and face-to-face conversations. With this internship, not only am I learning about caring for the earth and its growth, but I am also learning about sharing its delicious…

Final Reflections

When I was younger, I remember reading stories about characters who finally had found what they truly loved doing and what they wanted to continue to do for the rest of their lives. In these parts of the stories, the authors would describe a particular sensation the characters felt, like a sense of purpose, belonging, and pure joy and optimism with each new day. With this internship, I have discovered how this sensation feels. I have never felt so sure of myself with what I am doing. I embraced every minute of it, and I am truly thankful for this opportunity.

Although our Summer CSA Program has now come to a close, we are already receiving sign-ups for our Fall CSA Program beginning with the first week of school. Our Summer CSA was a huge success; I could not be happier or more pleased with the positive feedback we received from our participants. Each week, I measured and recorded the weights of each type of vegetable we gave our participants. At the end, I totaled it all up, and our result is we gave almost 400 pounds of produce to our CSA shareholders! I cannot believe we grew so many vegetables this summer!

On a personal note, I have noticed that gardening has helped me with loosening up a bit. I am now much more flexible, and I can accept much more easily that events, and especially growing plants, do not go according to schedule. I have always been a positive-minded person, but I have learned to look at obstacles with more humor in addition to my positivity now. For example, our newly acquired chickens have lots of curiosity. We keep them in a pin enclosed with chicken wire beside our shed. The second day we had had them, some of them decided to go exploring in our shed by sneaking under the shed wall where it meets the chicken wire fence. Luckily we caught them before they explored the garden too, but the whole situation was very funny. I could not help but laugh as the chickens inquisitively pecked at the ground and boxes in the shed.

This internship has made me think a lot about farming as a potential career. While I do not want to start farming right after I graduate, I would like to be involved with gardening and connecting people to food. I think I am going to look into helping with urban gardening projects; for example, in Detroit, there are several urban renewal projects in which people are converting abandoned land into urban gardens to be farmed by the community. I would love to work more with people in under-served areas to bring them into the local food system and make local food accessible to all. For now though, I am so excited to continue our CSA program for students and faculty in order to get the UVA community more active in the local food system. I would like to challenge my fellow peers to begin to ask questions about where their food comes from and how it was grown, and to engage themselves more fully in the food cycles around them. It is through all of our participation and engagement that we can change and improve our food system and its environmental impacts.