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Local view: Northland farmers, food system need UMD’s farm to flourish

Jenna Wagner (left) and Rachel Obed hoe a long row of broccoli at the University of Minnesota Duluth farm fields on June 30, 2015. (News Tribune file photo)

The Sustainable Agriculture Project at the University of Minnesota Duluth is at a critical intersection of university-community connections, project-based learning, and the past and future of the food system of the western Lake Superior region. I urge UMD Chancellor Lendley Black, Vice Chancellor Fernando Delgado, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and the regents of the University of Minnesota not to eliminate the farm’s funding as they make tough budget decisions (“Faced with budget cuts, UMD students get behind sustainable farm,” Sept. 28).

Clare Hintz

UMD is the only institution of higher education in the entire western Lake Superior region to support a learning farm. The farm already has nurtured a number of regional young leaders and beginning farmers and has educated hundreds of children and college students about food issues. Farm-to-school programs are increasing all over northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota at the kindergarten-through-12th-grade level. UMD is the only place students can go at the college level to further explore sustainable agriculture through project-based learning on a campus farm.

A significant number of these students have continued on to intern on local farms and are in the process of becoming farmers. Former students with experience at UMD’s campus farm have gone on to launch a local chapter of the Young Farmer’s Coalition and have brought a national sustainable agriculture movement to the region.

This may sound anachronistic in this age of technology, but to our local economy, this is no small issue. According to UMD’s own study of our local food system, our region loses billions of dollars annually because there are not enough farmers to supply the market demand. That translates to thousands of long-term jobs in farming alone and more in the processing and distribution chains needed in support.

Furthermore, local small farms have been some of the strongest protectors of watershed health, an important consideration on the shores of the world’s greatest body of fresh water. The UMD farm provides a crucial and unique learning environment for would-be farmers.

The Sustainable Agriculture Project farm also has educated hundreds of schoolchildren and college students about the process of producing food. In this age of climate change, agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions. People who understand what it takes to grow food are in a much better position to make decisions about what food they will buy and what climate-friendly farming practices they will support.

Keeping the Sustainable Agriculture Project farm means that so many more learners will have the means to become active citizens.

This plus the sheer quantity of food that goes from the farm to UMD’s food service is a major benefit to UMD as a signatory of the Climate Leadership Commitment (formerly the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment). Now is no time to reduce the university’s tangible commitment to minimizing greenhouse-gas emissions and supporting climate-change education.

As coordinator of the Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association, I have had the pleasure of working with alumni of the Sustainable Agriculture Project farm. They already are making important and unique contributions to the region’s local economic development and ecological integrity.

Both the experimental farms in northern Wisconsin and in Duluth have been decommissioned; as a full-time farmer, I have benefitted professionally from learning about many of the projects at the Sustainable Agriculture Project farm.

Rather than cutting the budget, I urge the university to support the farm as the only remaining research farm in the region. The farm is a leader in the interdisciplinary nature of its projects.

As someone who worked in higher education on the Climate Leadership Commitment and related benchmarks for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in colleges and universities, I have been proud of UMD’s commitment to climate action. As a citizen of the western Lake Superior region, I would be deeply dismayed if the university closed the farm and lost its progress on reducing carbon emissions.

Clare Hintz of Herbster is coordinator of the Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association, based in Duluth.