It’s a hot morning at the Cambridge School District’s Severson Learning Center, and Adam Gunnelson and Lizzie Niesen are on their knees, weeding vegetables planted by summer school children.
The children are long gone; summer school ended weeks ago.
But if the kale and cucumbers, eggplants and tomatoes and other produce are to be offered as intended to users of the Cambridge Food Pantry, someone needs to keep caring for them.
Gunnelson and Niesen are this year’s half-time summer interns at the Severson Learning Center, Cambridge’s 82-acre school farm on Oakland Road in the town of Christiana.
In its third summer, the internship program has proven a valuable seasonal effort, say Gunnelson, Niesen and SLC Director Jennifer Scianna.
Gunnelson, who graduated from Cambridge High School in 2015 and is now a senior studying chemistry at Northland College in Ashland, is spending his third summer as an SLC intern. Niesen, who will be a senior at Cambridge High School in the fall, is a first-year intern.
Their duties extend far beyond helping corral summer school kids.
In addition to weeding the food pantry garden, interns also weed and have laid down straw for raspberry canes in the Cambridge Farm to School program’s garden. They keep wooded trails mowed, make trail signs and feed chickens.
There are 17 chickens on site this summer, raised from eggs that hatched here in the spring.
The first job Niesen and Gunnelson tackled when they arrived this summer was assembling a pre-fabricated chicken coop.
In the past three years, interns have also cleared a space near a former limestone quarry, making an outdoor classroom space.
The property contains a wide variety of outdoor classroom spaces where students can learn not only about farming and gardening but also about geology, the woods, and with a spring-fed glacial pond, wetland ecology. There’s also an orchard.
The property has “so much going for it, but there’s so much more that it could do,” Gunnelson said.
They’ve assembled curriculum kits for school programs. And they’ve spent a lot of time removing buckthorn from the woods.
Scianna said in assigning projects to interns, she places priority on tasks that directly support learning at the center.
“Severson is a place for learning, so our projects should enhance the learner experience above all else,” she said.
Gunnelson remembers his first view of the woods a couple of years ago, before work began in earnest on the buckthorn removal.
“It was just so overgrown, and there we so many invasives in there. It was a haven for mosquitoes, and you couldn’t even see some of the trees that were right next to the trail,” he recalled. “It was really dense in there.”
Both Niesen and Gunnelson said they can’t think of a better place to spend their summer.“It’s been a lot of fun,” Gunnelson said, as she affectionately greeted a rooster named Pilot. “Every day you wake up and are like ‘I get to go spend my day in nature.’ There’s nothing better than that, on my opinion.”
The two aren’t completely alone at the site; volunteers from the Cambridge FFA Alumni, the food pantry and Farm to School are regularly around.
Scianna said the internship program, and the SLC in general, have been financially supported by the Cambridge FFA Alumni, local American Family Insurance agent Dean Lund and the Cambridge-based Rural Schools Collaborative. The Cambridge School District also budgets funds for it.
Scianna said thus far, there have been just two interns each summer.
But she hopes to expand that in coming years. Were there more interns, she said, they might be able to specialize, some focusing on animals, some on the garden, some on the woods and wetlands.
She said expanding the intern program, however, will take funding.
She said a big part of her job already involves finding funding for the SLC; this will be one more related effort. She said expanded programming, that brings in user fees, might be part of that.
She said she hopes as well in coming years to build a hoop house for growing produce and to improve the livestock areas.
“The vision is there to develop a larger program, but it will take time to develop,” she said.
She said both the school district and the interns benefit from the summer work program.
“There’s value on all sides. Our student interns get to contribute to the school district in a way not typically available to them. We get the benefit of making sure Severson is not only cared for, but continually improved upon. They are integral to the progress we are trying to make, and I can’t wait to see where we get in the next several years,” Scianna said.