Gathering Ground: It’s Official!

This article was first published in The Washington Island Observer.

We are pleased to announce that Gathering Ground has been granted 501(c)3 status, exempting the organization from paying federal taxes and permitting it to receive tax-deductible donations to help it achieve its mission.

Gathering Ground is a new Island nonprofit dedicated to agriculture and education. Our mission is to promote economic development through agriculture, to strengthen the health of individuals, the Washington Island community, and the environment.

Sustainability is the thread that runs through Gathering Ground’s mission. Our understanding of sustainability is informed by the concept of the Triple Bottom Line, which was developed within the business world to talk about a corporation’s responsibility to its investors and to the community and to the environment. When organizations measure success with the Triple Bottom Line accounting system, they take into the account the health of the community and the environment in addition to financial health. Inspired by this holistic view, Gathering Ground is devoted to promoting sustainability on the lsland in each of these three areas, especially as it applies to agriculture.

If we get right to the bottom of things, sustainability rests on healthy soil.As a self-proclaimed soil nerd, I was delighted that each of the age groups at the Island School is working with some aspect of soil or compost for its Voyages project. To kick off a partnership with Gathering Ground and the Island School, I visited with the teachers on April 6 to talk with them about our educational mission, and then met with students the next day to tell them about Gathering Ground and to advise them on their Voyages projects.

I was very encouraged by how engaged students were with their subjects! The elementary students and I excitedly discussed worm ecology and how to set up their own worm composting system. We decided that worms aren’t that different from us as they also need the right amounts of air, water, and food—though they are satisfied with more darkness than we care for. The middle school students and I eagerly reviewed the dos and don’ts of home composting. I was highly impressed with their questions about the finer elements of compost, like “How do you manage the pH and the levels of water-soluble salts?” and “Should my compost smell like this?” The high school students and I chatted about the story behind Gathering Ground, Alessandra’s and my path to Washington Island, and the process of starting a business. Since their Voyages project concerns soils on the Island, we also discussed the research process we are undergoing to learn about the soil at Gathering Ground’s site just east of the school at the intersection of Lake View and Airport roads. I was delighted to share with them that we have the right type of soil (low pH) to grow some of our favorite crops: blueberries, lingonberries, and chestnuts!

The topic of soil and compost is very relevant for the Island’s sustainability. What could be more sustainable than diverting waste from the landfill and turning it into black gold for our gardens and orchards. As is well-known, Island soil can be shallow and difficult to work with due to the rocks. But I don’t see this as a crippling shortcoming. In fact, the challenge can be seen as an advantage. If your topsoil is six feet deep, like in the former prairies of the Midwest, it’s easy to treat it as an infinite resource. But of course, it’s not. Here on the island we have the privilege of respecting every square inch of topsoil we have and improving it, for example, with organic material in the form cover crops, mulch, compost, and perennial roots in the ground.

Sustainability is about today and tomorrow. It is both prudent—conserve the resources we depend on—and generous—future generations will benefit also. Gathering Ground’s vision is to cultivate and inspire ecologically-minded agriculture and partnership with land and people, and we couldn’t be more excited that we’ve been given the green light through 501c3 status to do that here on Washington Island.

Russell Rolffs

President, Gathering Ground



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