by Sophia Hagen
Having grown up on Washington Island, I’m always seeking opportunities to go home during the summer, so I was excited to learn about Gathering Ground and their educational internship opportunity. While at the time I didn’t know enough about agriculture to have much of an interest in the subject, I have every interest in the island and the well being of the local community. As a nonprofit organization, Gathering Ground seeks to strengthen the relationships between people, their food, and the environment through education and sustainable agriculture. With these practices prioritizing the health and well being of both consumers and their environment, I felt Gathering Ground’s interests and goals were very much in line with the future I hope to see for the island, so I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to be part of it taking shape.
Lead by Russell and Alessandra Rolffs, this year our group of six interns planted Itasca grape vines, chestnut trees in the nursery, a section of perennial wildflowers, and a row of various shrubs and trees that will eventually be harvestable and also encourage biodiversity by serving as habitat for birds and insects.
In addition to planting, another primary goal of this summer was to make Gathering Ground a more welcoming place for visitors to come and explore. To do so, we’ve established some trails leading around the grounds and through the orchards, set up benches, and put up signs and information so visitors will know what’s growing and why.
Managing a vineyard organically in this environment poses many challenges, but the vines are producing grapes despite rose chafer damage. The fruit and nut orchards are still in the early stages of growing, though some trees are starting to produce fruit with more to start fruiting in the next few years.
With each tree being genetically distinct, the chestnut orchard is experimental so we will have a better idea in five years about which trees thrive best in this climate and environment. If successful, the orchard will produce 2,000 – 3,000 lbs of chestnuts per acre when the trees reach maturity roughly two decades from now.
Once the orchards join the grapes in producing fruit regularly, what’s harvested will be sold locally or as close to the island as possible. Chestnuts in particular have great potential for becoming part of island food culture due to their versatility; chestnuts can be eaten as is, used in cooking, and chestnut flour serves as a viable grain substitute having a similar nutrient profile while having less oils than other nut flours. The use of chestnut flour as a grain substitute would also be good for the environment because the trees produce perennial harvest for around 100 years without having to till soil annually. As a result, the trees will encourage soil health, help sequester carbon, and act as habitat for insects, birds, and small mammals all while producing food for people on the island and in nearby areas.
Everything that’s happening with Gathering Ground is really exciting, but what’s most exciting to me is that it’s happening here. In my experience growing up on the island, it was easy to feel that I would have no choice but to leave in order to find any sort of opportunity, but for me Gathering Ground changed this narrative helping me realize that even in a primarily seasonal tourist economy, we can create opportunity and resources here for the local community, and with those resources circulating we support and rely on each other a little more and the outside world a little less. With Gathering Ground, we can also learn to support our environment through sustainable practices, and in doing so our environment will support us in return.
Throughout the six week program, I ended up learning so much about a subject that had previously never crossed my mind, which has now sparked a deeper interest in agriculture that I hope to continue exploring. This experience was also a great way to reconnect with the place I was raised and build connections with newer residents who are helping shape the island’s future in a really positive way. Having been a part of the early stages, I’m excited to see the continued growth of Gathering Ground in the future knowing it means the continued growth of the island community as well.
Drone video of Gathering Ground taken by Sophia Hagen