2013 PFIG Recipient Isabel Greenberg

Career Administrator

Isabel Greenberg
College of Arts & Sciences
Environmental Sciences Major
2015 Graduation Year

Internship: Morven Estate

Notes on the first week

I’m Isabel Greenberg, a rising 3rd year student studying Environmental Science. Since interning on a sustainable meat and vegetable farm in high school, I have become very interested in farming practices that mimic natural ecosystems by maintaining high biodiversity and recycling all inputs, from soil nutrients to water. I was very fortunate to receive that Parent’s Fund Internship Grant, which has allowed me to intern at UVA’s student-run Morven Kitchen Garden this summer.

The Morven Kitchen Garden is a 1-acre experimental farm at the Morven Estate created by UVa students in the Spring of 2011. Since that time, the garden has evolved and our role in the UVa community has expanded, but we have retained the same core mission: to provide an experimental and educational environment for learning about ecologically responsible and sustainable farming practices. Through the sale of our produce, the garden has also become an experiment in running a small farming business.

I’ve been involved with the garden since my first year at UVA, but I’ve been able to take on a much larger role in the garden for the 2013 season. We’ve had a lot of turnover in the garden this year, with three of the garden’s founding members moving on to exciting new endeavors. Luckily, Rowan Sprague (a past recipient of the PFIG!), has been a great mentor, teaching me the in’s and out’s of maintaining our garden from seed to sale. We are also in the process of hiring a new Garden Manager, Annie Hasz. She’s been working on small vegetable and meat farms in Pennsylvania and Virginia for 8 seasons and brings a wealth of knowledge to our operation. The diversity of her farming and marketing experiences and her connections to farmers and educators in the Charlottesville community will be a great asset to the garden.

Everyday in the garden there is a never-ending to-do list, which seems to be the nature of every farming operation. There are always more pests and weeds that must be kept at bay, more tilling and planting to keep up with, more staking, thinning, watering and pruning of plants, and more vegetables to harvest than we sometimes know what to do with! So far, we have been selling salad mix, kale, broccoli, radishes and herbs to the Boar’s Head Inn on a weekly basis. Next week, the first session of our Summer CSA begins, and hopefully our onions, garlic, beets, carrots, Swiss chard, and cabbage will be ready for those folks over the next few weeks. I’ve been in charge of advertising and organizing our CSA to UVa students and faculty. We cautiously capped our first CSA at 12 members. Running a CSA is a balance between wanting to make as much profit from our produce as possible, but also knowing that providing weekly food shares for 12 people is a LOT of produce to grow, harvest, package and transport. I am really looking forward to meeting our CSA members next week. They have already proven to be a very inquisitive group, wanting to know all about our practices and how they can get more involved as volunteers in the Garden.

The biggest realization I’ve come to so far in the garden is that only limit to the possibilities of what we can accomplish in a 1-acred garden is our physical energy and creativity. It’s easy to become exhausted laboring all day in the summer heat and very frustrated when projects fail, such as a crop of beautiful eggplant seedlings getting nibbled to oblivion by flea beetles. But I’m learning to combat mental and physical exhaustion by getting a good night’s rest whenever possible and putting time aside to simply think about what’s going on in the garden. Every morning when I get to the garden, I want to spend at least 30 minutes looking at every crop (so much can be gleaned from observation!), planning an agenda for that day, and also spending time thinking about how we can work towards our long-term goals and brainstorm new projects and ways to use our space. I’ve realized how essential it is to always have a notebook and camera for this part of the day.

Some of the long-term goals that the Morven Kitchen Garden Team has been considering are:

  1. Bringing laying hens into the garden. This would add another education dimension to the garden, more fertility from the Nitrogen-rich chicken manure, and awesome free-range eggs!
  2. Get our compost cookin’! We can do this by consolidating our compost pile, adding chicken manure for more nutrients, monitoring compost temperature, and turning the pile regularly.
  3. Get another soil test done to see how our gardening practices have changed the soil character. We got a test done roughly a year and a half ago, but Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium levels as well as Calcium and Magnesium can definitely change in that amount of time depending on how intensively a field is cropped.
  4. Use our garden space more densely. We want to experiment with inter-planting two crops side by side within a row that either come up in a nice succession or utilize different areas of the root zone and above ground zone. This will also make it harder for pests to find the crop they are seeking.
  5. Experimenting with making value-added goods such as pickling and canning vegetables, drying herb mixes and making tea.

Midway

Since my last post, we’ve had to deal with some unexpected challenges in the Morven Kitchen Garden. Although we had all but hired our new garden manager Annie when I arrived at Morven this summer, the processing time and background check necessary for officially hiring an employee of the University took over a month to complete. The hiring process was incredibly opaque and Annie was continuously given unclear and incorrect information about their progress on her application. Being a young person with bills to pay, Annie was forced to seek other employment and will no longer be joining us this season.

These past few weeks I’ve learned a lot about the nature of dealing with an enormous bureaucratic system. It seems that each individual becomes powerless to some degree. Everyone, from the garden workers, to Morven Programs staff, to the HR folks are each just a cog in the wheel and no one can fully understand the big picture of what needs to be accomplished and how long it will take. Hopefully by working with the heads of Morven Programs we can create a better game plan for hiring seasonal garden mangers in the future. We may have to accept that the hiring process will take over a month to complete, but this just means that interviews will need to be help in November of the preceding year so that by January or February the new manager is hired and on the payroll in time to start planning, purchasing seeds, and starting greenhouse planting. After all, the season doesn’t start in June, it really starts in the winter months. In an ideal world, we would also like to keep the same manager for several years. There is a steep learning curve to managing any garden and we would really benefit from some continuity over the years.

The effect of these complications is that we have had to scale back what we are trying to accomplish this season. The past two summers, the garden has been kept up by one garden manager and two summer interns supported by Parent’s Committee Internship Grants. Currently, I am the only official intern in the garden and we have no manager. Luckily, Rowan has been putting in as much time as she can on top of her full-time employment. Unfortunately, she will be leaving town in the next couple weeks and then I will be pretty much running the show. To prepare for this, we have been avidly seeking volunteers in the garden and have found a handful of people interested in working a couple mornings each week. Rowan and I have also created a Fall planting schedule and purchased all our seeds in advance to ensure that the rest of the season runs smoothly and we get as much of the garden seeded to cover crop as possible before the winter months set in.

Despite all the gloom and doom, our CSA program is going very well. We are three quarters of the way through our first session and I am already signing members up for our second session. I’ve really enjoyed interacting with our members this month. There’s nothing more satisfying than growing food that people love and trust. I’ve also enjoyed experimenting with new recipes and then sharing them with our members in a weekly recipe guide. I’ve been updating our blog as well! Check it out at http://morvenkitchengarden.wordpress.com/

Finally, I’d like to share a new daily ritual I’ve added to my work at the garden. Every day when I come home from the garden, I try to do some relevant reading. Lately I’ve been devouring a great book by Eliot Coleman called the New Organic Grower which outlines the tools, techniques and wisdom every small-scale organic grower should know. This book has really revolutionized the way I see our garden and taught me how we can increase our efficiency and yield while maintaining high soil fertility and biodiversity. Coleman says that from his experience, a well-run operation can feed 40 people year-round with the produce from just 1-acre of organically farmed land. Wow! Imagine the Morven Kitchen Garden with a year-round 40 member CSA! Now that is something to work towards.

Final Reflections

For my last journal entry, I’d like to review both our accomplishments in the Morven Kitchen Garden and my personal achievements this summer.

One of my primary roles as the intern at the Morven Kitchen Garden was to operate our small farming business through the sale of vegetables to the UVA community and the Boar’s Head Inn. This summer I ran two 4-week CSA sessions in which weekly shares of garden produce were supplied to students and faculty at a rate of $50/month. With a total of 25 members this summer, we made a $1250 profit. Our members enjoyed a wide variety of vegetables throughout the season and received a weekly recipe guide to aid in their culinary success. During the weeks prior to and following the 8 weeks of CSA, we made 4 produce deliveries to the Boar’s Head Inn at the request of Executive Chef Bill Justus. I really enjoyed the contrast of selling to individuals versus selling to a restaurant. With the individual, the goal was to provide a wide variety of produce, with good aesthetic presentation, and in quantities appropriate for one person to consume in a week. In contrast, our aim in selling to the Boar’s Head was to provide a few staple crops consistently and in bulk, packaged as efficiently as possible. This experience taught me the importance of understanding the consumer and targeting my product to meet their needs.

Another key aspect of my job was to promote the garden as an educational space for learning about food production cycles and sustainable farming techniques. I accomplished this by encouraging volunteers to get involved in the garden and help run the CSA program. We averaged about 20 hours of volunteer work per week from students of UVA, JMU and VA Tech spending their summers in Charlottesville. We also had a large workday one weekend with a Plant Propagation class from PVCC. In addition, I gave numerous garden tours to interested students and Charlottesville community members. Between all our CSA members, garden volunteers and visitors, I think the garden had a significant educational impact this summer. I also organized a tour of the Innisfree Village for garden volunteers and CSA members. The Innisfree Village is a residential, life-sharing community with adults who have an intellectual disability. Residents and volunteer caregivers live on a 550-acre farm in Crozet, Virginia and work together in various therapeutic workstations, including, but not limited to a vegetable garden, herb garden, and farm with a small herd of cattle and 300 free-range chickens. After receiving a tour of the gardens and farm, we shared a potluck picnic with some of the Innisfree volunteers. The Innisfree Village is an incredibly well-run and inspiring place in both their work as a sustainable farming operation and as a community.

Finally, to celebrate the end of the summer season, we held our 3rd annual Gazpacho in the Garden party on August 3rd. At the event, we served gazpacho, potato salad, a green bean dish, and green salad composed almost entirely of our garden produce. We also got bread donations from Ablemarle Baking Company and some vegetable donations from Maple Hill Farm. The event was attended by 35 guests and we received $400 in donations. We hope to put his money towards building a hoop house in our garden, which is essentially a mobile greenhouse structure to extend the length of our growing season. I got the help of a UVA mechanical engineering student to create a design for a 12’x16’ hoop house that would cost roughly $450 to build. Hopefully, we can move forward with construction in the fall.

In the end, I’m really satisfied with the way I spent my summer. I’m certainly a better leader and educator after this experience. I learned how to delegate, to describe a process clearly, and to explain the importance and reasoning behind every task. I learned that a little organization and planning beforehand eliminates huge amounts of stress and frustration later. But even once I learned to be incredibly organized, I must admit that taking care of the 1-acre garden space this summer gave me the most anxiety I’ve ever had in any work environment. There are a couple reasons for that. First of all, I was truly my own supervisor. I became the authority for every decision that had to be made in the garden, from what, when, and where to plant a crop, to choosing the scope of our CSA program and the price and presentation of vegetables. Often I didn’t know the right answers to these questions, but I realized that there is value in not being told by a superior. I was forced to do a lot more research by consulting books and other local gardeners, and I learned a great deal in the process.

Another cause for my anxiety this summer is simply inherent to farming. There are a few variables that, at least to some extent, are outside of our control; namely weather, pests and disease. If you recall, it was a ridiculously rainy and cool summer in Charlottesville. Not exactly ideal for hot weather loving summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, and squash! All the farmers I talked to in Charlottesville agreed it was a very difficult growing season. But what I learned from this summer is that to be a successful and happy farmer, I need to have faith that in the long run things will work out. Sometimes we must accept the loss of a crop, but never lose faith that nature is on our side and is working for us in a million ways, from the microscopic organisms in the soil to the energy of the sun.

For the upcoming year I will be studying abroad at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada in their Faculty of Land and Food Systems, focusing on Plant and Soil Science. I’m really excited to continue pursuing my interest in sustainable agriculture in the classroom, as well as by working on their 180 hectare experimental farm!

To view pictures of the end of our growing season at the Morven Kitchen Garden, visit https://www.dropbox.com/sh/td7jjktp7iexoj4/E4V7bu4WXh