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Faced with budget cuts, UMD students get behind sustainable farm

University of Minnesota Duluth students look over some of the vegetable crops that are being grown by the sustainable agriculture project at the UMD farm in Duluth in 2012. (file photo / News Tribune)

University of Minnesota Duluth students are rallying to ensure a 30-acre farm that serves as their classroom stays intact during the coming academic cuts.

More than 500 people had signed a petition on by Tuesday night asking that the university continue to operate the Sustainable Agriculture Project Farm and Land Lab, a site 3 miles from campus that provides a classroom for students to learn to grow and harvest food which is then used by UMD's dining services.

Land Lab Director Randy Hanson said cutting the Land Lab would be "a short-term decision that's going to hurt (UMD) in the long run." He noted that the farm manager's salary is paid by UMD's dining services, but his director position is on the chopping block. Despite UMD's dedication to sustainability and collaboration, "it seems to be not able to walk the talk that it has espoused," Hanson said.

He pointed out that his sustainable farming classes at the Land Lab are full, and he has turned students away. The Land Lab, which opened in 2009 and is the only one of its kind in the University of Minnesota system, has both internal collaborations at UMD and community partnerships, Hanson said.

"A number of the students that are affiliated with it came to UMD because of the farm and made a decision to come to campus because we have this unique sustainability laboratory that looks at not just food, but sustainable food, water, energy and bio-diversity and is this really forward-looking, bio-regional project about, 'How do we learn to live sustainably?' And that's what all these young people are wanting to figure out," Hanson said.

UMD is planning to cut $2 million from its academic programs and final decisions on the reductions are expected in mid-October. UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said the university is looking at all options, and the Land Lab is an area that "needs further examination." A change in the Land Lab's staff due to the budget cuts doesn't mean the closure of the Land Lab will occur, and the university is piecing together what could happen with the Land Lab going forward, she said.

"At this point in time, no final decisions have been made. We have not made a commitment to or against the farm," Williams said.

Two separate conversations are going on at UMD with regard to the Land Lab right now, she explained. The College of Liberal Arts is in the process of identifying scenarios and options to reduce its budget by a total of $1 million, which may affect the employment of the Land Lab's director. Secondly, Williams said, is that UMD is discussing the direction and future of the Land Lab in order to make it financially sustainable, as well as consider its role in providing food for students through dining services.

"UMD is committed to sustainability and that will not change. We will also continue to remain committed to providing students with that active, hands-on learning. The farm is like an outdoor classroom; it's an amazing opportunity for students and we will continue to remain committed to that," she said.

UMD junior Megan Forcia said the university is being short-sighted in considering potential cuts at the Land Lab, when it has the opportunity to continue to be a leader on sustainability "in the face of global ecological uncertainty." The potential changes to the Land Lab are happening at a time when global food security is becoming a critical issue, and it will become increasingly important to have a sustainable food system in the region, said Forcia, who is an American Indian studies major at UMD.

Forcia said she's been interested in environmental issues, and the Land Lab was her first experience in sustainable farming. Taking Hanson's sustainable food systems class last spring opened her eyes to the role agriculture plays in a sustainable community, and she learned how little people know about where their food originates or what it takes to grow food.

"Even though we as a population have been de-skilled in a lot of things necessary to provide for ourselves, such as growing food, it's really — I don't want to say easy, it's not easy, it's hard work — it's extremely possible to regain those skills," Forcia said. "The amount of land that we farm and for the amount of students that are out there, we've grown an incredible amount of food and we feed a lot of people and that's something I just didn't realize, how big of a role just a few people can play in shaping and changing the food system."

Forcia said she hopes to go on to earn a master's degree in tribal administration and governance at UMD and then focus on shaping policies that promote agriculture and health in Native American communities. Her work with Native American youth on agriculture, food sovereignty and health issues this past summer was due to her involvement in the Land Lab, she said.

The Land Lab isn't only about teaching sustainability, it also gives students the skills they need for future jobs.

"A lot of these students are in their current careers because of the work they were exposed to at the Land Lab. A lot of them work in area businesses, in social media and food systems and agriculture and community change and they learn a lot of that in their engagement with the farm," he said.

Hanson noted that closing the Land Lab would be the second time UMD has closed such a classroom. The university previously operated the Northeast Agricultural Experimental Station from 1912 until 1976.

"Then, like regions all around the country as corporate ag systems grew and industrial ag systems consolidated control and we shifted all of our production to California and Arizona, we lost that capacity, and regions all around the country are trying to rebuild their ability to grow a greater percentage of the food that's consumed locally for all the ecological, all the health reasons and all the social and economic benefits it brings," Hanson said. "That's what the farm is about — trying to help our region re-embrace sustainable local food systems for all those benefits that it brings."