More than 100 years ago, Mother Earth supplied so much iron ore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that Ishpeming, Michigan was a boom town. The population was over 13,000, mines employed many, and the economy was robust. They even had an opera house.

But over the years, the industry changed, employment and population figures dropped, and houses were left empty and tattered as miners moved on.

Now Mother Earth supports the struggling town’s rebirth, gifting them a new focus and a renewed sense of community.

In many ways, the town of 6,400 has struck gold.


Volunteers build raised garden bedsToday, lush gardens thrive on abandoned Ishpeming lots. Weekly Community Days bring families together for summertime cooking demonstrations, and then to help water and weed the gardens. Fifth graders munch on raw vegetables they grew in their Farm-to-School Garden, and this past summer, more than 3,000 pounds of locally grown produce was distributed to families. But it wasn’t always this way.

The U.P. imports 93% of its food from an average distance of 3,000 miles away, relying heavily on transportation networks and fuel, says Ishpeming Lion Dan Perkins. But he hopes to change that. And unbeknownst to them, it’s the children of Ishpeming who planted the first viable seed to help him do that.

Volunteers use brightly colored paint to decorate the gardenIt was the spring of 2013, and the little kids in Perkins’ neighborhood were standing around by his backyard, partly bored and partly because he’s a friendly guy, always outside doing something with tools. Sure enough, he was planting potatoes.

Questions followed: “What are you doing?” “Can we help?”

A lifelong gardener and the owner of a metal roofing company in town, Perkins was soon teaching them how to dig a garden and plant “taters” as his father taught him when he was 10. But what he and the kids didn’t immediately realize was that they were getting far more from this experience than just a break from late-day boredom.

“They were learning how to provide healthy food for their family. They were doing something for their community,” says Perkins. They were connecting.

In the months that followed, like-minded Ishpeming residents, including his wife, Lion PamChildren plant seeds in garden Perkins, shared his vision of a healthier community with nutrition education and access to locally grown food. And with their support, he founded Partridge Creek Farm (PCF), a nonprofit educational farm that is growing, well, like a weed.

Ishpeming Mayor Lindsay Bean says after years of tough times, their town is rebuilding, and PCF is a large part of the revitalization taking place.

“Their efforts are giving the community a unique character, warmth, and vibrancy,” says Bean. “What Dan and PCF are doing for the community of Ishpeming is simply amazing.”


Girl talks with gardenerProgress has been steady, one shovel at a time. In 2014, Perkins teamed up with the Grace Episcopal Church to lease their vacant downtown lot, and 100 volunteers helped build their first garden, the beautiful Incubator Garden with beehives and a hoop house. The Ishpeming Lions replaced 120 feet of broken sidewalk on the site, later voting to make PCF a club project. Later still, PCF became a District 10 project.

In 2017, PCF partnered with the Ishpeming Elks Lodge. Elks and Lions worked together building another large garden for the community on Elks’ land. And on Earth Day that same year, the owners of Carpet Specialists in downtown Ishpeming offered the nonprofit their empty side lot for yet another community garden.

“Dan Perkins is so passionate when it comes to this, to helping the community. We were just trying to help him out,” store manager Deborah Niehaus says. “Gardening is not hard, but it can be overwhelming. What the kids learn now will help them later. It’s good for them.”

In 2019, PCF staff and friends converted a blighted downtown lot where three houses once stood into Inspiration OrchardChildren plant seeds with fruit trees and berries. Past International Director Jenny Ware and her husband, Jeff, members of the Bay de Noc Lions Club in the U.P., were among Lions from four area clubs who came to help.

Perkins, environmental chair, and second vice district governor for Single District 10, says Lions have given far more than free labor.

“I have never felt the wind behind my back more than I do with the support of the Lions,” he wrote in a letter to fellow members. “You have cheered this idea and supported me in every way imaginable—from the donations and memberships to physical help when building gardens, to being the good friends who celebrate with me when the job is done. You have always had my back.”


boy works in gardenPID Ware says PCF has changed the way people make friends. “It’s exciting to see it grow from one garden on a single lot, to all these partnerships. With the happiness it brings the residents, and the education it brings to the children, I foresee it growing for years.”

It has been rewarding but not easy with hours spent applying for grants, setting up partnerships, and building a dedicated staff while also maintaining the gardens.

Thirteen miles west of Lake Superior and Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Ishpeming became known for mining iron ore – a necessity for steel making, not gardening. The soil is thin and rocky, and winters are freezing, snowy and windy, putting them in the USDA’s Zone 3. That means, says Perkins, that the growing season is short.

But the will of these gardeners is strong.

Children plant in garden bedsPCF gardens are boosted by the nutrient rich vermicompost they make using food wastes that Perkins and staff collect every week from restaurants and NMU cafeterias. With the added nutrients and worms, they can grow an abundance of produce for their town.

Through a PCF-Ishpeming Public Schools partnership, fifth- and sixth graders get in the act with 28 weeks of Farm-to-School education that includes the school garden and healthy cooking classes, says PCF Director May Tsupros. Tsupros, a teacher who previously developed school gardens in needy Chicago neighborhoods, is “brilliant,” says Perkins. “We were just hobbling along until May came.”

Pam Perkins, who owns the Rare Earth Restaurant & Cafe downtown with locally grown food and U.P. art originals for sale, has been her husband’s quiet strength.  “[She has been] supporting me from when this was just us helping kids who showed up in the backyard, inviting them in for dinner and teaching about cooking with fresh garden vegetables,” he says. The couple also host the popular Tuesday Music Nights at the restaurant, bringing families together for fun.


A dad combs girl's hair as they work in the garden. Billy Mercer, a single, disabled dad with two children, Dylan, 9, and Boyana, 4, celebrated Dylan’s ninth birthday at Music Night with the Perkins. Mercer’s PTSD limits his outings, his work, and his finances, and for a long time his family struggled to feel a part of the town. But that began to change when Dylan was 8 and his dad saw him with another boy tossing sand into an irrigation tank at Inspiration Orchard across the street.

The next day, Tsupros was at the orchard leading a children’s summer class, and Mercer walked his son over to “right the wrong.”  Instead of shaming the little boy, Tsupros showed him how he could help his community by watering the pumpkin plants every morning and evening and making sure the pollinator plants for their honeybees were cared for. Then she invited him to stay and join the class.

Girl shares veggies“He was invited to be a part of, rather than apart from,” remembers Mercer. “Her gift of teaching led us to become participants of the summer community days.”

It was also a stepping stone for Mercer, helping him regain his sense of community, he says. “I’m starting to grasp the sense of community that I didn’t want to be a part of. Instead of running from something, I am now running to something.”

He continued to go to the garden with his children and became aware of what his children had been missing, he says. “At the garden they are learning to be givers, not takers. The plants produced pumpkins for the community children to paint, but also friendships that otherwise would have been nonexistent.

“They know that everybody is working together for the common good there. It’s been a blessing for us, and I couldn’t think of better people to be with.”

At every PCF garden a colorful handmade sign tells visitors the rules: “Respect yourself. Respect others. Respect the Garden.”

In short, says Tsupros, that means, “Take care of yourself. Respect others. Be kind. And respect Mother Earth. Everything we need comes from the earth. She does so much for us.”


Girl picking veggies from gardenIn September, on the school’s first week after summer break, fifth graders eagerly visited the garden they planted in the spring, weeding the onions, and hanging on the words of PCF education coordinator Emily Bateman who crouched beside them, later offering them radish slices to sample. Reviews were mixed. Weeks later they gathered there to collect the harvest. It’s PCF tradition that all fifth graders take their fall harvest to the Fifth Grade Farm Stand to sell to the community.

The farm-school program is so popular with the school and the families that PCF staff this year decided to offer it to the youngest students at Birchview Elementary. On a cool, windy day, volunteers came from all around to help Perkins erect fences and build twelve raised beds—two for each grade that students will plant in spring. Excitement grew as the children put their hand stamps on their garden frames, then joyfully topped the soil with handfuls of PCF vermicompost.

Volunteers wave to cameraNow the Ishpeming community awaits spring and the completion of PCF’s largest project, a 3.75-acre Community Care Farm they broke ground on last fall next to Ishpeming Middle/High School and Jasperlite Senior Housing. With deep community investment through planning, grants, multiple partnerships, and local donations, they will provide vegetables for the seniors and the school cafeteria, but also give a voice to two more segments of their community.

“We can only do this with strong collaborations and good education,” says Perkins. “We want to help create in Ishpeming an example for the rest of the country of how a small town can take control of its destiny and make the society it wants to live in right here and right now. We’ve made a real impact on this place and the real payoff seems to be in the community built around this. We don’t leave anybody at the station.”