Sustainable Agriculture Project on the UMD Farm:
Providing Internships and Experiential Learning and Research in Sustainability
When you drive the field road that runs parallel with the Sustainable Agriculture Project field site on the UMD farm, you forget about condos, grocery stores, and Highway 35. With 15-acres to greet you, the sweet Timothy grass blowing in the wind, and the birds and insects flitting about, it’s easy to forget that it’s the 21st century. And that’s part of the problem that UMD geography assistant professor, Randel Hanson, is trying to engage.
“Why is farming and food related skills considered something of the past? We have a lot to learn about how to live more sustainably, and growing more of the food we eat is an important part of that process,” Hanson said. “Collaborating with successful farmers and others in our food system, we can learn to thrive more sustainably with our resources here in Duluth and the broader region. And every institution –colleges, universities, schools, and churches- has important roles to play in building a better food system. It begins with everyone having a better understanding of where food comes from and how it gets to the plate. Clearly, this is one of the most important issues of our time.”
Over the past few years, Hanson, along with Cindy Hale, research associate for the UMD Natural Resources Research Institute, Pat Farrell, associate professor of geography, David Syring, assistant professor in anthropology, and Stacey Stark of the geographic information systems, have focused on creating an experiential learning, research and demonstration farm affiliated with UMD that works with institutions, local farmers and provides internships for students.
“Students can experientially learn about sustainability,” Hanson noted. “Many students have had no exposure to growing food, but they are eager to learn. Here is an opportunity to learn what used to be second nature for people for thousands of years. Most of these students won’t be farmers, but they will all be eaters, and knowing more about our food system is increasingly important.”
With a combined effort from Hanson, Hale, Farrell, Syring and Stark, as well as other campus and community leaders, the Sustainable Agriculture Project at the University of Minnesota Duluth (SAP@UMD) was formed in 2009 to institute education, research, and community engagement around local food systems and food security in the western Lake Superior region. It is an interdisciplinary faculty collaborative that provides overall leadership housed in the College of Liberal Arts’ Center for Sustainable Community Development.
SAP@UMD was awarded stewardship over 15-acres at UMD's Research and Field Studies Center (formerly the Northeast Agricultural Experimental Station). The acreage includes a five-acre heritage apple orchard and a ten-acre field used for experiential learning and research. They also utilize the extensive 20th century agriculture archives of the region housed in UMD's Northeast Minnesota Historical Center for faculty research and student teaching. The institutional partners for the farming initiative include UMD's Facilities Management, the Office of Sustainability, and the Office of Civic Engagement. SAP@UMD collaborates with a host of community organizations with interests and activities in food, farming and gardening issues.
“Our project here has two areas of focus both of which are key. First, it’s about the students,” Hanson said. “We work with academic courses and internships, and it has been a good experience for everyone. We have 94 incoming freshman coming out here in early September to expose them to these opportunities. How can we help them with the important life skills of knowing more about food and food systems? Secondly, it’s about helping UMD, as an institution, change its food system. How can we collaborate with areas like Dining Services and Facilities Management, making the physical plant the object for research, teaching, and transformation? All around the US, communities are searching for answers related to our broken food system, and we need a broad engagement to address these issues. Sustainability must begin at home.”
Although SAP@UMD involves faculty, community, and students, the UMD student group, Students for Sustainable Agriculture, is another example of an increased interest in sustainability. Started by liberal art students, Kevin Pexa and Ian Prock, the group has a similar motto that focuses on eating closer to home. “The origin of what we eat is really hidden from the community, we don’t know where our food is coming from, “ Prock said.
“It’s an amazing economic stability that you can have for yourself,” Pexa added. “You can sustain yourself and your family through these plots that we have.”
Back on the farm, a large fenced-in vegetable garden boasts chard, zucchini, collard greens, row upon row of tomatoes, and a variety of Duluth-hardy vegetables, as well as colorful zinnias and sunflowers. What is growing in 2011 was determined by what the UMD Dining Services felt they could integrate into their menus.
"We started out last summer by tilling up the area and planting a cover crop. We collaborated with Dining Services during the winter on what they wanted us to grow, and then we worked with local farmers who grew seedlings for us. The field hadn’t been tilled for at least six decades. This spring we built the fence around the area dedicated for vegetables,“ said Hanson. “Two weeks ago a well and electricity was installed, thanks to the efforts of Greg Fox [former UMD vice chancellor of finance and operations]. He invested his time, agreed with our mission, and found a way to fund a portion of our well through a grant from the Northeast Minnesota Sustainable Development Partnership, which was key, but only about a fourth of what was needed. L1ocal foundations have also contributed important funding, including the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation and the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation. Without their support, we wouldn’t have this amazing learning laboratory. Our CLA Dean, Sue Maher, has been very supportive, as have Candice Richards in facilities management and many others. It takes a village to create an institutional farm.”
The acreage under management by SAP@UMD includes a five-acre heritage apple orchard that dates back many decades. SAP is in the second year of a multi-year restoration process, and the community and the campus have participated in a variety of events over those two years, including brush clearing, pruning, pest monitoring, and harvesting and pressing apples for cider. Next spring, a 50-tree heritage orchard will be planted, which was won in a national contest thanks to Cindy Hale and 20,000 other area voters.
The size of the 2011 vegetable garden is 420-feet down and 110-feet, just larger than one acre. The fence keeps everything out except for the crows, and they tend to like the young plants in the spring. “They’re very smart, the primates of the bird world. We were pretty creative with scaring them away,” Hanson said with a smile. “We built scarecrows, set mouse traps…the crows have been the main nuisance, but they were here first.”
Because there are many factors that play into the work on the farm, there is always something to do. The students learn how to work collaboratively, how to tend the soil and how to take care of the plants. They learn how to recognize problems and how to avoid them, plan for them, and remedy issues as they arise. Toward the end of the farming season, there is also the harvest and the marketing of the produce.
“Courses from many departments have been integrated into the various tasks associated with pulling this together," said Hanson. "Including geography, anthropology, women studies, and the UMD Labovitz School of Business and Economics (LSBE). The LSBE students compiled a marketing plan that connected the farm with local businesses. Another wrote a business plan for us. It’s a good sustainability network. There’s lots to learn by students in an experiential learning project like this.”
Throughout each year, the learning curve has been different but one thing remains the same: the interns working with Hanson are learning lifelong sustainability lessons that go beyond pulling weeds and pounding in stakes.
“Yes, I’m learning about how to live off the land,” said Tim Isaakson, environmental studies major, who owns a small farm with his wife. “Everyday I’m bringing home new knowledge, but I’m also learning to look at things differently.”
For instance, when Hanson and the interns were thinking about inexpensive ways to support the growing plants, Isaakson had a revelation. “I realized that we could use the alder trees from my land. I needed them cleared anyway, so we all went out to my land and gathered them to use as poles. They’re stout, sturdy, and they grow back fast. In fact, you can’t even tell that we took them, so I’m just fine if we go back for more.”
While sitting in a circle during their weekly team meeting, the seven interns shared their daily projects, what they had done the previous week, what was left to do for the week, and how the vegetables were faring. The talk turned to the damping-off fungus on the tomatoes. Justin Gramenz, environmental studies major and garden coordinator, began to explain what was happening to the tomatoes and how the interns were working on supporting and lifting the heavy foliage up off the ground.
“We use what is called the Florida weave method. It’s pretty basic, but it does its job. We install the alders as stakes, and then weave twine back and forth down the rows.”
While walking through the rows of tomatoes, Hanson pointed to fallen tomato plants that were lush and green. “That’s what happens with the damping-off. It weakens the base of the plant. The leaves are healthy, the flowers are present, but once the fungus takes hold, a slight wind will knock the plant over. We benefit a lot from the local community engagement advising us on some of the issues we face.”
Even though the majority of the interns are environmental studies majors, the internship positions are available to anyone and everyone, no matter what their major is, or their future plans. “If they’re interested in knowing about food, food systems and sustainability,” Hanson emphasized. “They are welcome. If we had more people involved, the tomatoes would have been completely staked by now, the weeds would all be pulled on time, and we could focus on more gardening techniques. It has been challenging for faculty and students alike to align the agronomic calendar with the academic calendar.”
For now, they are using a grid pattern to organize the field, but next year they will shift to a contour system that aligns the rows with the topography of the land to thwart erosion. Pointing toward the middle of the vegetable garden, Hanson illustrated with his hand how the plot of land dips downward. “We have peppers and tomatoes at the top where it’s driest, while at the base we have vegetables that need more moisture. It works pretty well, but we’ve made our share of mistakes. But as Doug Hoffbauer, an area farmer we’ve worked closely with, keeps reminding me, ‘this first year, there will be a big learning curve.”
Are you interested in an internship? Are you curious about the Sustainable Agriculture Project? Would you like to know more about growing food in the Duluth area, food systems and sustainability past, present and future? Contact Randel Hanson and be sure to check out these resources for more information:
— written by Christiana Kapsner with excerpts from the SAP website, 7/28/2011
Photography by Abby Schoenecker, 7/26/2011