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'A LAND LAB': UMD garden engages students and faculty to grow food for the university’s dining service

George Knutson (left) and Shane Omersa mulch a row of broccoli plants at the University of Minnesota Duluth farm fields recently. 1 / 6
Jenna Wagner (left) and Rachel Obed hoe a long row of broccoli at the UMD farm fields. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 6
UMD farm manager Kevin Moris carries two trays of seedlings. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Shane Omersa (left) and George Knutson load up another wheelbarrow load of mulch at the University of Minnesota Duluth farm. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Workers examine the wind turbine. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Randy Hanson, the University of Minnestoa Duluth faculty member in charge of the university’s farm. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Kevin Moris grew up in rural Pine County around cattle and row crops. But it was another part of the farm that drew his attention.

"I was into the garden," he said recently at the University of Minnesota Duluth farm off Jean Duluth Road. He's the farm manager at this "living lab" that joins the movement of people getting back to the roots of food.

On Sundays, the Moris family would celebrate the fruits of its labor with a big dinner featuring everything grown on the farm. It's that memory that has placed Moris where he is today.

He began as a student-manager of what officially is called UMD's Sustainable Agriculture Project, a restoration of the former 240-acre Northeast Experiment Station that dissolved in the 1970s.

Moris directs students to projects around the farm that grow food for the university's dining services — just one of its more than a dozen collaborations. "The students are so willing," Moris said. More than crops, the project involves engineering students on the mechanical aspects of the farm and future biologists, like himself, experimenting with crops.

"I have to be out in my green space," said the 2013 biology graduate.

A handful of faculty led the conversion of the abandoned station beginning in 2008 with meetings over coffee about what was happening in food and agriculture. One of those is Randel Hanson, the geography professor who spends lots of time working the farm and promoting the project.

The experimental station began in 1912 to test just how suited the region could be for agriculture. The economy was dominated by the mining and lumber industries at the time, and places like Duluth depended heavily on food coming from outside the region.

The Duluth Commercial Club wanted to change that, Hanson said.

Fruit trees were grown. Cattle and pigs were raised. Crops were tested. The station included residences for managers and lecture halls alongside barns. The first lecture at the station took place in the still-new and unused swine barn.

But after World War II, the region once again "lost the capacity to self-procure," Hanson said. Farms were getting bigger, with food consistently flooding in from warmer climes like California. Processed food began to take hold. By the 1960s, there was little interest in what kind of food could be grown in the region, Hanson said. It was "shortsighted."

Today, local food has once again captured interest. There are food share farms that are more than 20 years old in the region, but only in the past 10 years has interest exploded in knowing where food comes from. UMD had to be part of that, Hanson said.

Institutions like his are like ocean liners, he said, and can sometimes be slow to get with the times.

"We lost any capacity to teach food systems," he said, taking a break from mowing between vegetable plots on the farm. "'We have an opportunity here. It's a farm, but more than that, it's a land lab."

Institutions are needed to keep the trend alive, he said, "or it'll go slower."

What they learned 100 years ago isn't much different from today. The soils in this region are "not great," Hanson said. That's just one of the challenges here, how to amend the soil and find crops that are amenable to it.

The gardens at the farm are marked by a new wind turbine installed this past year. It stands as a beacon to the diversity of learning here, Hanson said. Students spent two years studying the winds. They calculated flight paths of birds. Engineering students had to look at the mechanics of the turbine. And, of course, there is the study of sustainability.

"It's all relational knowledge," Hanson said.

Other students are learning about distribution of goods from the farm. Others are working the campus farmers market. All are learning from local farmers and faculty.

"The students working out here," Hanson paused. "It's really transformational. When you're doing things like this, it changes you."

Many are learning for the first time just what it takes to get food to kitchens. The dining service model is the only one Hanson knows of. It shows that UMD is becoming a model, he said.

"Every year, it grows in complexity and size," he said.

Hay fields, contour watering and a compost system are all in the works. Hanson would like to eventually have a building on site for class sessions.

Hanson considers the project a community painting as well. It's a working farm serving as a valuable classroom and model, he said. But it's also a flexible space for students and the community. It isn't exactly public space — there are opportunities and barriers with any institution like the university — but the public is on the agenda.

Space was cleared this spring for a rhubarb plot that will supply stalks for the annual CHUM Rhubarb Festival. The farm is testing ancient tribal corns.

There are payoffs every day, Moris said. Another will be the celebration of the growing season this fall in the Bulldog Food & Farm Festival. There will be many fruits of the harvest there, something akin to those big Sunday dinners.

"I don't want to do that just on Sundays," he said.

SIDEBAR: Down on the farm

Dining Services at the University of Minnesota Duluth provides the funding to pay for labor at the Sustainable Agriculture Project on the UMD farm. Randel Hanson, the associate professor from the geography department who keeps things humming at the farm, called the partnership "unique and creative and a strong commitment to sustainability on campus."

The collaborative effort is one of more than a dozen projects taking place at the farm. Some others are:

• A wind turbine provides research and teaching opportunities for mechanical and electrical engineering students as well as those from the Office of Sustainability.

• A pollinator garden is used to study the habitats of native pollinators, like honey bees, which are still struggling for survival across the country. There is also an apiary.

• Crops of flint corn are being tested in a shared effort with the region's Intertribal Agricultural Council.

• A rhubarb garden was started this year and is intended to provide stalks for the annual Chum Rhubarb Festival.

• A community orchard includes the heritage apple trees found at the farm when it was reinstituted in 2009.

• Working with the Duluth Community Garden Program, the Duluth Public School System and Community Health Board, K-12 teachers are trained on starting school garden projects.

• Keyline water systems, which use topography to best utilize water for crops, are being studied with people from area sustainability projects and faculty from the University of Minnesota's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and Extension Service.

• Amending soil using biochar, a product of biomass technology, with local farmers, the main university, and UMD's Natural Resources Research Institute.

• Field tests of organic dry beans.