UMD farm explores sustainability
In 2009, the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Land Lab was founded by professor Randel Hanson. The Land Lab was created to represent a 21st century attempt to battle climate change and bring back the idea of sustainable living.
The Land Lab, also known as Sustainable Agriculture Project, was created on the revitalized land that was formerly part of the Northeast Agricultural Experimental Station. The mission of the farm is to strengthen food security in the Western Lake Superior region by promoting teaching, research and engagement related to sustainable food and agricultural systems for all the economic, health and ecological benefits it brings.
“The farm is a collaborative project with many inputs and outputs,” Hanson said. “It provides education, research, food production and community engagement as well as energy from its wind turbine.”
Professor Hanson grew up on a small farm; he’s taught environmental studies for twenty years and has been involved in campus food systems for fifteen years.
“I relocated from Arizona State University where I had some projects working with the campus on its food system, dining services and the physical plant, creating opportunities for students to learn about the environment, the food system and sustainability,” Hanson said. “When I moved here, I was interested in figuring out how to transfer that.”
It was through talking to faculty, students and community members that professor Hanson learned about the unutilized 30 acres that once was a part of the Northeast Agricultural Experiment from 1912–1976. After doing some research, Hanson realized the benefits that would come from turning those unused acres into a Land Lab for both the university and the community.
While Hanson and many others enjoyed the idea of the Land Lab there were a few unanswered questions as in how to go about creating it, but he knew its purpose.
“What the farm is really about, or rather the land lab, is social learning,” Hanson said. “How do we as students and faculty in collaboration with our community learn as an institution? How we can lower our ecological footprint of our food system and use that as a learning opportunity?”
Hanson wasn’t alone in his hard work in creating the farm—grad student Cindy Hale was working for the University of Minnesota’s department of forestry, but working at the Natural Resources Research Institute of Duluth when she met Professor Hanson.
“Randy understood the intersection of the ecosystem and ecology with traditional agriculture with human systems which is why the Sustainable Agriculture Project was created through the college of liberal arts; which understands human systems, economic systems, social systems, all which are really important parts of liberal arts education,” Hale said. “You can’t talk about sustainable agriculture without talking about those human systems and you can’t talk about sustainable agriculture without talking about ecological systems.”
Hale began working with Hanson in 2009 on a couple of projects out at the extension farm site. Hale brought to the table her personal expertise which was her knowledge and previous work as an orchardist, which came in handy when they discovered the remnants of the trial orchard that had previously been a part of UMD’s agriculture farm.
“Because the University of Minnesota is a land grant university it came with the obligation of providing outreach, education and training related to important agricultural issues that were also important to the economy and well-being of the state,” Hale said.
The outreach and training included research on various crops and developing new crops that would grow strong in Duluth’s climate and area.
“One aspect of that very diverse program, was that they had seedling trial orchards for apple and tree fruit. In its peak, there were five seedling trial orchards,” Hale said.
According to Hale, by the time she and Hanson got to the extension site in 2009, the field experiment station had shrunk to almost 60 acres from its original size of 280 and only one of the five seedling trial orchards of the five had survived. The orchard had become overgrown in conifers, which made it difficult to even know there were apple trees there.
After receiving grant money, Hale began removing some of the trees and started the restorative process of pruning the trees. That trial orchard has since been in recovery. Hale also worked to get a grant in order to plant a heritage orchard out at the SAP farm.
“We wanted to have an orchard that would be a resource for variety that perhaps would adapt well to our climate and soil but weren’t currently represented in the trees you would find in this area,” Hale said.
The heritage orchard was made up of five trees and ten different varieties of apples.
The most important part about SAP, according to Cindy Hale, is that it is a hands-on training place for undergraduate students to learn about all of the amazing things in organic sustainable technology, which may often be branded as new. Once you really start to learn about them you realize they are really old, sometimes even ancient techniques that are used to grow food organically and in a localized system, according to Hale.
“There are quite a few students from this program that have moved on to either farm directly, or work in food and local food system job positions,” Hale said. “It’s doing what we wanted it to do. It gave these students experience and training and then inspired them to get into a career.”
Graduate Cameron Gustafson who majored in environment and sustainability and minored in environment and outdoor education had been working on the SAP farm since the fall of 2014.
“I knew I was going to UMD mostly because I love the campus and I like the size and I loved the area, but then I came across the SAP farm when browsing on the UMD homepage and I thought it was cool,” Gustafson said. “So I sent Randy an email and basically told him I’d be up a couple of times during the summer, and so for a few days I would go up and work on the farm and that fall I got hired on.”
Cameron had some prior knowledge to farming before coming to work on the SAP farm after years of gardening with his grandma and baling hay with his uncle for several summers on his farm, but he believes he learned things on the SAP farm he could never learn in a classroom.
“I learned how many different fields of study have a role on agriculture, and how agriculture is really the commonality between everything on earth,” Gustafson said. “Everybody has a relationship with a landscape, no matter if the landscape is in the Central Valley in California or Arizona, or if it’s at the SAP farm up the road.”
On the farm Cameron said he did everything from sprouting seeds in the spring to harvesting in the fall and everything in between. Over the winter, students working on the SAP farm collaborate with Professor Hanson and Kevin Moris, SAP’s full-time manager, to figure out what equipment they will need for the next year.
Cameron believes that the campus is moving in the right direction with its sustainability efforts, but he believes there is more work to be done and that students are the driving factor in accomplishing those goals.
“The students are the main driving force in what the university takes action on, because if the students don’t want it then there’s no reason for the university to pursue it,” Gustafson said.
“The university is just like any other business, they want to satisfy their customers, and students are the customers of the university.”
Cameron graduated in the spring of 2018. He will be applying the skills he learned on the SAP farm in his job with Gale Woods farm in Minnetrista, Minnesota as a farm educator.
“You’re only here for four years, so I think it’s really important to become as active as you can, by utilizing the resources the university does have,” Gustafson said.
Hanson said that the farm has a unique collaboration with UMD’s Dining Services and acts as part of their sustainability mission which is in student life. Dining Services pays the salary of the farm manager and the farm workers which comes to ca. $50,000 a year.
Claudia Engelmeier, UMD’s Director of Dining Services, was also a part of the SAP farm’s creation and played a big part in incorporating the food grown on the farm into student’s daily meals by serving it in the dining center and food court.
“In 2011 when we first started, we had 4,400 pounds that we bought, and every year it just depends on what the product is,” Engelmeier said of buying produce from the farm to serve on campus. “Our biggest year was 2015–2016, we purchased 13,000 pounds. In total, we have purchased almost 65,000 pounds.”
According to Hanson, along with money raised from various fundraisers and grant applications the farm also uses revenue from ca. 20–25,000 pounds of organic produce grown on the farm to pay for the farm inputs, which include seeds, equipment, fertilizers and compost.
Before receiving produce from the farm, the school had been receiving all produce from food vendors. They tried to buy local as much as possible, but if Minnesota was to have a bad growing season the school would take what the food suppliers could provide them.
Much of the produce served on campus that has been grown on the SAP farm comes from the farm’s root cellar, things like: squash, tomatoes, beans, carrots, broccoli and watermelon.
“We don’t know as much about our food when it comes in from our vendors,” Engelmeier said. “We don’t know how long it has been in the field and we don’t know how long it has been in the warehouse.”
It is not just UMD’s campus that receives produce from the farm; the elementary schools also receive some along with others in the community such as the apples grown on the community based heritage apple orchard planted by Cindy Hale.
“We are really proud of our farm and our partnership with our farm,” Engelmeier said.
Graduate Megan Forcia majored in American Indian Studies and minored in Environment and sustainability had also been working with the SAP program for many years.
“I took Randy Hanson’s Sustainable Foods systems class and I had always been interested in the food system,” Forcia said. “I had been vegan before and a vegetarian for many years and as someone studying environmental issues I knew how big of a deal our food systems were to contributing to climate change and so taking the class was really the spark I needed to realize that I wanted to learn more and do more with the food system.”
Megan said that farming and food systems had always been something she was interested in, but aside from being a conscious consumer had never really seen a role for herself in the food system, but after working on the SAP farm her whole career trajectory changed.
“It just opened so many doors to so many opportunities, now I work with the Healthy Foods Healthy Lives institute out of the U of M on the Twin Cities’ campus and they want to keep me on after I graduate full time,” Forcia said.
Megan believes there is nowhere else she would have gotten the hands-on experience of working on a farm in such a flexible way to work with her school schedule and be so accessible to her.
The SAP farm allowed Megan to feel really close with the people she was working with, which as a transfer student helped her feel more connected to UMD as a campus community.
“By vocalizing support for the farm, [students] can have a tremendous impact on the future of not only this campus’ sustainability, but the sustainability of the city of Duluth and of our region,” Forcia said.
Megan believes the food system is the place to start, when trying to improve our sustainability efforts as a campus.
“The nutritional value of food grown locally is incomparable,” Forcia said. “I think for the long-term health of our students and of our community it’s really necessary that we look at eating habits and the food we are providing for students.”
A few years back when administration was considering cutting SAP from funding, Forcia and a few of her co-workers created a petition that was circulated around campus and the community to gain support for the farm.
“I think that it is increasingly important that students continue to voice to the administration how important this program is and that it should be given sustainable funding,” Hale said.
“The land lab represents an attempt to create a pathway to alter a twentieth century institution to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century and provide pathways for students to learn how difficult and rewarding it is to change these institutions,” Hanson said.
To learn more about UMD’s SAP farm visit their website.
This story was originally published in Lake Voice News.