Sustain the Land Lab

File photo: The Bark

File photo: The Bark

The UMD Land Lab, also known as the Sustainable Agriculture Project, or SAP Farm, was founded by Professor Randy Hanson in 2009. The work done on the farm has received funding through dining services but has also had to rely on grants, creativity, and hard work to make the budget work out at the end of each year.

The lack of funding for the Land Lab is an unfortunate reality for many departments and programs throughout the university, but to let this resource go unutilized would be a disservice to UMD. The Land Lab provides growing opportunities for students and brings many different people together to learn about agriculture and sustainability.

The Land Lab supplies Dining Services with 40,000 pounds of local and organic produce each year, making up about one to two percent of what Dining Services uses. Dining Services buys the produce, supplying workers on the farm with pay for their labor. This depicts a harmonious relationship of civility and cooperation that a higher institution is capable of. Choosing local food, like the vegetables grown by the Land Lab, greatly reduces carbon footprints. Organic farming practices build healthy soil, increase biodiversity, and produce food without the harmful effects of chemical pesticides and fertilizers on our water and soil.

The Land Lab is visited by more than 1,300 UMD students, researchers, community members and young people every year. The Land Lab hosts an annual Farm Fest, which is just a small part of providing a seat at the table for conversations about how to feed the region locally. The Land Lab additionally hosts field trips for all Duluth area seventh graders to learn about local food and farming. Not only is this crucial to community inclusion, but there is also a lot of media coverage or free marketing for UMD. Not many other schools have a feature like the Land Lab, or the frequent interest from news teams. It is also remarkable that the Land Lab was ranked the fifth best college farm in the nation by Best Value Schools.

The Land Lab is more than deserving of our support, but its future is not entirely clear at this time. Professor Hanson has stepped down from his position at UMD, and the loss of a faculty liaison leaves the farm in a difficult position. There has been no steady official funding from an academic department and the supply of grants is often unpredictable. Hiring a professor interested in food sustainability could prove beneficial for the Land Lab if they are interested in utilizing the farm.

Fortunately, the geography department will be hiring a new professor to teach sustainable food courses formerly taught by Dr. Hanson.

Image courtesy of SAP farm

Image courtesy of SAP farm

Land Lab advocates and student farmers, Cole Grotting and Alyssa Minder are working towards sustaining the Land Lab. They aim to increase opportunities for students at the Land Lab and create a sustainable funding structure so the cycle of fearing the loss of the Land Lab every few years can finally end. This is done by communicating with professors, departments, clubs, and students about incorporating the Land Lab into more courses and research, as well as looking at case studies for creating unique funding structures inside and outside of the university. These two students have created a blog, called the Land Lab Blog, to continue the conversation about the Land Lab and to keep friends of the farm informed.

After speaking to senior student farmer Cole Grotting, the situation of the farm became clear.

“We think CLA and the geography department is the place that makes the most sense to keep the farm, in terms of getting the Land Lab structural and continuous support. Unfortunately, the budget is tight with cuts and it seems every year is uncertain because of that,” Grotting said. “Going forward, we want the land lab to put more of our energy into outreach and education and a little less time trying to grow as much food as we possibly can as that is where we feel we can have the biggest impact.”

Grotting continues, “As far as funding goes, we have learned that there are many different programs and departments who have had to get creative to keep their programs running, so speaking with those folks can hopefully guide us towards some answers on that side of things.”

There has always been an eclectic mix of students participating in Land Lab activities. It is not limited to just students studying the environment. The Land Lab supplies multiple different ways for students to engage outside of the classroom and enrich their university experience. This eclectic array of academic involvement could allow new groups to fund and support the Land Lab.

“We want this space to be a new model of interdisciplinary education that just happens to take place around sustainable agriculture but can really be applied to any problem or topic. The challenges we face in the 21st century are not going to be solved by one discipline alone, so I think a place where students in different fields can come together to work on a single problem is of tremendous value to UMD,” Grotting said.

The Land Lab gives students an opportunity to be a part of the bigger picture and to do something very rare for a higher institution. It is incredibly vital to understand how to be both more sustainable and healthier individual. It is a true testament to sustainability and teamwork that the Land Lab has flourished with the help of students, volunteers, and those passionate about sustainable food systems. The time has come for more help in order to keep the Land Lab sustained.

VoicesAlaina Lawrence