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Nurturing sustainability

With conservation projects, Earth Day art installations, eco-friendly facilities, and more, Interlochen continues to create a sustainable campus.

Heads of lettuce growing in a raised bed

Heads of lettuce growing in a raised bed.

One of the garden’s three hoop houses

One of the garden’s three hoop houses.

Emily Umbarger leads a class of Arts Exploration campers

Emily Umbarger leads a class of Arts Exploration campers during the summer of 2019.

Junior campers attend a class about pollinators

Junior campers attend a class about pollinators during Arts Camp 2019.

In the months after Interlochen Arts Camp was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Interlochen’s sustainability team handpicked hundreds of pounds of organic fruits and vegetables grown on the Interlochen campus and donated them to a nearby food pantry.

The partnership was made possible by the addition of two new hoop houses to the R.B. Annis Botanical Lab and Community Garden, a complex on the Interlochen campus where students study botany, agriculture, and ecology while growing fresh produce for the campus community. One-hundred percent of the produce grown last summer—including tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, microgreens, and peppers—was donated to the food pantry at Redeemer Lutheran Church of Interlochen.

The initiative exemplifies Interlochen’s commitment to creating an environmentally friendly and sustainable campus—despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. Throughout the global health crisis, Interlochen’s sustainability manager Emily Umbarger and her team continued their work, maintaining the momentum of recent sustainability milestones, which include the creation of a community garden and composting facility, and the U.S. Department of Education recognizing Interlochen Arts Academy as a Green Ribbon School, among many others.

“While the pandemic creates logistical challenges for some of our work, it also inspires us to recommit to fostering a sustainable campus,” said Umbarger. “In times of crisis, the natural world provides comfort, hope, and healing.”

Hand-on conservation at Interlochen Arts Academy

In recent years Interlochen Arts Academy courses such as the Ecology and Agricultural Science have mobilized students to take part in Interlochen’s sustainability efforts, while giving them hands-on conservation experience. In Umbarger’s Agricultural Science class, for example, students assist with seeding, propagating and growing plants, and harvesting.

This work often inspires students to lead green initiatives themselves. For example, Interlochen now boasts its own chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a youth effort focused on fighting climate change. Arts Academy students and Sunrise Movement co-chairs Mia Yiannias and Daniel Voight organized campus-wide trash pickups and assisted in the Academy’s composting efforts. “We’ve been gathering student volunteers to monitor a composting system that will allow for practices we had in place before COVID,” Yiannias said. “It’s inspiring to see my friends whom I didn’t know were interested in sustainability take on these roles.”

This year, the Arts Academy’s annual Earth Day celebration will emphasize the mental health benefits of being in nature. “We’re thinking of the wonderful effects of being out in the woods after a COVID winter,” said Mary Ellen Newport, ecology instructor and director of the R.B Annis Math Science Division. “We’re empowering students to find their way in the woods and enjoy these spaces for themselves.”

As part of the celebration, the Riley Woods section of campus will showcase student art installations and presentations that invite students to learn more about conservation practices and reflect on environmental issues. The walk will culminate in a bonfire where students can make prayer flags and celebrate the natural world.

Interlochen Arts Camp 2021: A summer in nature

This summer, students at Interlochen Arts Camp will take advantage of many opportunities to immerse themselves in the natural beauty of Interlochen’s 1,200-acre campus and get their hands dirty. “Sustainability will be a big focus this summer,” Umbarger said. “Many kids have been stuck at home this year, and we can’t wait to rejuvenate and inspire them through nature.”

Sustainability offerings will be woven into the Camp experience. During Camp Life programming, for example, cabin counselors can choose from several enriching activities, including classes on pollinators, composting, recycling, and growing vegetable gardens.

For campers in grades 3-6 enrolled in the Arts Exploration program, an ecology component called Environmental Exploration will teach them about the surrounding ecosystem through exercises, activities, and experiments. “Student campers will come to our garden site and learn in a really hands-on way,” Umbarger said.

A new chapter for geothermal energy

When the R.B. Annis Botanical Lab and Community Garden opened in 2017, it introduced sustainable energy to the Interlochen campus via a four-well geothermal system whereby underground water is pumped up and passed through a series of tubes underneath the flooring system. The water carries an ambient temperature that heats the lab in the winter.

This fall, geothermal energy will help further reduce Interlochen’s carbon footprint with the opening of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow House, a 38,000 square-foot lakeside facility with 36 student rooms, four visiting artist suites, four practice rooms, and multiple lounges. The Dow House will include a geothermal system that will both heat and cool the facility, with 16 400-foot wells.

“Installing a geothermal system is an enormous feat since it requires a complex system of wells and tubing,” said Umbarger. “We’re enormously grateful to our donors who made this new environmentally friendly facility possible.”

Located on the shore of Green Lake, the Dow House’s exterior design incorporates natural earth tone color and some exposed wood structures that allow it to blend in with the surrounding wooded area. Efforts were made to save trees along the shore, and to maintain a natural shoreline vegetation buffer alongside the property to help keep unwanted nutrients out of the lake.

Community sustainability hub

This summer, the R.B. Annis Botanical Lab and Community Garden will open its brand-new outdoor kitchen, which was made possible through a grant from the Allen Foundation. The kitchen encompasses a pizza oven, a 42-inch rotisserie grill, four burners, and two counters. “I can’t think of a better way to get people excited about eating their vegetables than to grow, harvest, prepare, and eat them together as part of a shared communal meal,” Umbarger said.

Community members will get a chance to enjoy the new kitchen during Chefs in the Garden, a planned program for adults that invites local chefs to prepare meals for attendees with local organic produce. Two additional upcoming programs will also bring community members to Interlochen’s community garden: Art in the Garden, featuring art classes by local artists, and Chats in the Garden, a lecture series focused on green topics such as gardening and composting. Due to the pandemic, admission will be limited and safety protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing will be required. (Registration will open later this spring.)

For Umbarger, though, the future of Interlochen’s sustainability efforts goes beyond campus. She recently initiated conversations with local organizations that focus on issues related to education, nutrition, conservation, and sustainability. These dialogues inform her application for Interlochen’s first USDA Food and Agriculture Service Learning grant to help the institution become a hub for community partners interested in sustainability.

“We have a really great foundation and infrastructure, and fantastic people who are passionate about these issues,” said Umbarger. “It’s a natural time to ask, ‘how can Interlochen do even more and spread this message in the community?’”