Local ‘food hub’ eyed for tract in Ishpeming

ISHPEMING – Dan Perkins won’t be content with the Partridge Creek Farm becoming a gem of the state of Michigan – he wants it to become a national treasure, an example of the best things that can happen in the growth of the local food movement.

“We want to be world class. We don’t want to just be great Ishpeming, Michigan, we want to be great Ishpeming, U.S.A,” he said. “Ishpeming, U.S.A. is going to be on our logo, it’s the way we’re going to market ourselves.”

The proposed site of the farm is a long, narrow 8.25-acre parcel of land in Ishpeming’s Seventh Addition – the neighborhood bordered on the south by Greenwood Street and on the west and north by North Washington Street. Perkins started a produce garden on a portion of the tract a few years ago.

“I’ve got a farm here now … it’s got quite a bit of produce,” he said.

Perkins said that because the neighborhood is low-income, he saw the garden as it exists now as a good way to give back to his neighbors and community.

“We started gardening back there and … the local neighborhood kids in the summer were bored just stopping by, ‘Can we help?’ And the next thing you know we have a small crowd of kids working there, which is awesome,” he said.

Neighborhood kids would help he and his daughter tend to the garden and in return he would send them home with bags of produce they’d harvested.

The proposed farm is Perkins’ brainchild, who said he got the idea when the city tore up the land as part of the Partridge Creek Diversion Project, unearthing “rich soil and peat” beneath.

While the site of the farm belongs to the city, the city council approved a motion at its last meeting for Interim City Manager and Department of Public Works Superintendent Jon Kangas and City Attorney David Savu to work with Perkins to lease the land to the newly-created 501c3 nonprofit Partridge Creek Farm.

“This is a totally non-profit (organization),” Perkins said. “All the hours and all the money – and there’s a lot of money I’m putting into this, too – is completely donated. … There’s never going to be a nickel coming back out of this, except the sheer improvement of the town.”

With the approval of the city council and support from the Michigan State University Extension Service, Perkins launched the nonprofit that had what Perkins called a “long and productive” first meeting Thursday night.

The group hopes to build a teaching center and sustainable greenhouses on the site, capable of producing local food 10 months out of the year. And while the plans are only in the very early stages, Perkins said he and the board have a grand vision for the future.

“One of the things we want to do is really take cutting-edge technologies for growing produce in these really cold climates,” Perkins said. “You know, this is the 44th Parallel. We’ve got a two-month growing season and we need to really bring it along, and I don’t want to use fossil fuels to heat these buildings, I want them to be self sustaining, I want to figure out ways to use passive house-type technology.”

Perkins said passive house engineering began in Germany, and the technique is used to build in places with cold climates and long months of little sunlight.

The technology uses thermal transmittance – the measure of the rate of heat loss of a building – and thermal gain – the measure of the rate of heat entering a building – to create structures that require very little supplemental heat.

Perkins said he wants these greenhouses to be built of enduring quality and to rely as little as possible on heat from fossil fuels.

He said he believes this is very important, especially with trends of increasing heat and electricity prices.

“One of the things that I’m seeing really clearly is that the price of power is going to continue to rise at around seven and a half percent per year range,” he said. “All the utilities are predicting this, and it’s much faster than (the rate of) inflation.”

One of the ways the greenhouses could potentially generate electricity and heat is by incorporating the use of solar panels – but Perkins said he wants to leave these types of decisions to the board.

“I don’t want to be a little dictator, I want to see what the group comes up with,” he said. “I’ve got really good people on this board and I want (them) to have … free rein to do some creative thinking.”

Perkins declined to release the names of members of the board, what the farm’s budget will be or the designs of the greenhouses, saying the farm is in its preliminary stage and all plans are tentative. Perkins also said the composition of the board isn’t finalized, and people may be added or dropped going forward based on their commitment level.

“I don’t want to go too crazy with publishing facts that may change, especially when it comes to budgets and people,” he said.

Perkins said he and the board have a subcommittee working “aggressively” on the greenhouse designs, that they expect to have actual physical site and building plans completed in the next few weeks and intend to apply for a Cliffs/Rio Tinto Legacy Grant by the end of the month for funds to get started.

Some of the greenhouse design options Perkins said he and the board will consider include Walipinis – greenhouses built into the earth, thus losing little heat – and hydroponic greenhouses that grow fish and vegetables in the same structure.

Perkins also said he’s been in contact with Natasha Lantz, co-chair of the U.P. Food Exchange, to build a database of local producers and vendors to ascertain what produce is most in demand. Lantz’s input will help determine what crops the Partridge Creek Farm will grow once up and running, Perkins said.

He added he hopes the farm will make Ishpeming a “food hub,” capable of supplying local restaurants, stores and even schools with fresh produce.

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is zjay@miningjournal.net.