2012 PFIG Recipient Rowan Sprague
School of Engineering and Applied Science
Civil & Environmental Engineering Major
2013 Graduation Year
Internship: Morven Kitchen Garden
Hello! My name is Rowan Sprague, and I am a rising fourth year studying Civil and Environmental Engineering. This summer, I will be interning at the Morven Kitchen Garden (MKG), a one-acre educational plot where UVA students can study food production cycles, sustainable agriculture techniques, and the impact our food choices have on the environment. Last summer I also interned at the MKG with the support of a Parents Committee Internship Grant. I am so excited and thankful to be interning at the garden again!
Since I have interned at the MKG before, I have a good idea of what my day-to-day tasks will be. However, with gardening and farming, a crop one year can grow very differently the next year. That is one part of this experience that I love; nothing is always the same in gardening and I definitely am learning the importance of adaptability with this internship.
Last summer, I established a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for UVA students and faculty at Morven. As we enter into the MKG's second growing season, it is one of my goals to expand our CSA, specifically by exploring ways to make the CSA accessible to a wider audience. Another one of my goals is to start a Farm Stand on Grounds. Since we are growing more produce this year, I would like to sell the extra produce that does not go to our CSA to any person who would like to buy it. On a personal and professional level, I hope to develop further my skills in effective leadership, management, and communication that will help me pursue a career path in sustainable agriculture and food access.
Notes on the first week
I am a morning person, but 5:30am still feels really early. I knew that I would not want to get out of bed just yet, but I also knew that it would be completely worth it. With this thought in mind, I get ready to go out to the garden. While most of my friends went shopping for business casual and professional wear for their internships, I stockpiled my old t-shirts and shorts for mine. All dressed for the garden, I drive by Libby's house to wake her up and carpool together to Morven. We meet up with Michelle, our garden manager and supervisor, and began our day around 6:30am.
Since we are still in the planting part of the season, much of this week has involved planting of some kind. In fact, everyday I planted at least one type of vegetable or herb. Libby will sometimes ask me for advice about how to plant a certain vegetable or how it will grow, and I love to share what knowledge I have gained from last year with her.
This week I started to advertise for the first session of our CSA program too. I created a flyer for it and sent the information about joining it to a wider variety of organizations than I did last year. I also emailed people who had expressed an interest in our program to me. I think my strategies for reaching a broader audience are working because I've had more faculty and staff sign up so far than all of last year combined!
We are keeping a detailed recording of our daily tasks, which is another one of my goals for this summer. We count and record the rows and types of the crops we plant, taking note of the spacing and whether we direct-seeded or planted transplants. This documentation has made me realize just how detail-oriented I am. I am learning so much from Michelle, who can easily see the garden in the big picture and identify areas that need work. I have started trying to observe more as I garden to keep track of the status of each crop. Sine they are all so different and our garden can feel very large sometimes, these observations help me stay grounded and in touch with what we are growing. Beyond being a useful skill in the garden, I feel these observation skills will be an effective management tool for me in whatever project I undertake in the future.
I look at the date and I cannot believe that it is already almost halfway through July. As the weeks zoom by, our garden keeps me rooted in the present and focused on its daily progression through the season. Throughout my internship so far, I have witnessed and experienced the cyclic nature of growing food. In the very beginning, germination and sprouting dominated my gardening time as Michelle, Libby, and I planted and laid compost around many of our new seedlings. Now in high summer, many of the plants in our garden has matured and tripled in size. I have realized how much comfort I find in the cycles of our garden and observing each crop’s progression. Although I knew from the beginning of my internship that I would have fun, I did not expect that I would feel so deeply gratified by these daily observations and recording them in our Farm Journal.
For the past month, Thursdays have been filled with excitement, adrenaline, and vegetables. On this day, my car transforms into the Veggie-mobile, packed with vegetables that we had just harvested. In other words, Thursdays are our CSA Days, or the day when all of the members of our Morven CSA program come to our station on Grounds and pick up their shares for the week. We just finished the first summer session and last week we started the second one. I am keeping a detailed recording of the amount and weight of produce that our CSA members receive. Not only are these numbers useful for advertising, but they also give us a quantifiable indication of the differences between our garden this year and last year.
Besides a successful CSA program, I have also been working on another one of my goals, a Farm Stand! For the past two weeks, we have sold our extra produce on CSA Days to passer-byers. In the second half of my internship, I hope to build a solid customer base as we keep publicizing our weekly Farm Stand. Another goal I have for my internship is to visit a local farm. I would like to explore the methods that other producers use to grow vegetables and compare them to ours. I would also like to learn and investigate how other farmers manage and plan their farms because I think our garden could really benefit from that knowledge.
A few weeks ago, Michelle and Libby traveled to California for a conference about schoolyard gardens. For this week, I took over the direction and management of our garden. I did not expect this challenge at the beginning of my internship, and I confess I felt a little overwhelmed at first. However, I remembered what I had learned in the first half of my internship about how detail-oriented I am. I walked through the garden every morning to familiarize myself what the progress of everything and I made a plan for the day. Throughout the week, I had help to care for the garden from friends, so I managed the garden very well. Even though it was a lot of work, I felt surprised and empowered that I could take on the garden management.
The okra is growing at full-force, the green beans are plentiful, and the cherry tomatoes are keeping us busy harvesting them almost everyday. Even though the late summer harvest tries to lull me into a peaceful repose, the MKG team and I have begun to plan for fall. Soon we are going to till under the buckwheat with its beautiful white flowers and prep rows for lettuce, cabbage, kale, and broccoli. I have learned over the course of this internship that there is rarely any downtime for a farmer. Even in the middle of one season, it is time to start planning for another. That is another reason I am so glad we keep a detailed record of our daily tasks because now I will not lose track of how the growing seasons are changing and how fall is approaching.
Our main challenge of late has been an invasion of groundhogs in our garden. So far, we have not been able to harvest many of our tomatoes or melons because a groundhog family has discovered how delicious they are. At first, we tried a Have-a-Heart trap to catch them and then release them somewhere far away. However, we had no luck catching any of the groundhogs, so we asked the guys who work at Morven for advice. They have years of experience catching groundhogs, and now they have caught about 8 of them around our garden. From this groundhog trouble, I have learned never to be afraid to ask for help when I need it!
The success of our CSA program has continued in the last half of my internship. We gave out about 350 pounds of produce to fifteen members. Even with all of the electronic communication methods we have, I have learned from the CSA and the Farm Stand that word of mouth and more personal communication are the best ways to advertise. Several of our CSA members for this new session signed up because they saw our stand and asked what we were doing. This knowledge of getting the word out and experience I am gaining from networking and publicizing our CSA and Farm Stand will be invaluable in the future for gathering support for student organizations in which I am involved and even for marketing myself as I look for jobs and another opportunities next year.
I came to a realization near the end of this internship. I was feeling stressed that I did not have a definite plan for after graduation, and part of me wished that I had done a typical engineering internship over the summer. Then I remembered how I feel when I walk through the gate door of the garden, sometimes sleepy but always excited even for the chance to be there and just inhale the distinct scent of the tomato plants. My decision to create a nontraditional internship at Morven and take an alternative engineering route may not lead to a secured job. There could be really low points for me, but there could also be really high points, when suddenly everything falls into place and makes sense in a way that I never knew could happen. However, here is where my big realization hit: Not only am I choosing this life, but also I also really want it. I challenge my fellow peers to make internship or career decisions not because they offer a secure and stable opportunity, but because they offer the potential for you to go to work with a smile, most days at least.