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The farm as a classroom: UMD students learn about sustainable agriculture

Malachy Koons reapplied sunscreen three times by mid-afternoon while working rows of potatoes on the farm. Keeping up his energy during a full day of work and getting all the dirt washed off can be challenging, too, but none of it compares to the...

UMD student Cole Grotting tills under weeds growing between rows of onions on the university’s Land Lab. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service
University of Minnesota Duluth student Cole Grotting tills under weeds growing between rows of onions on the university’s Land Lab. Steve Kuchera /


Malachy Koons reapplied sunscreen three times by mid-afternoon while working rows of potatoes on the farm.

Keeping up his energy during a full day of work and getting all the dirt washed off can be challenging, too, but none of it compares to the satisfaction the University of Minnesota Duluth senior feels about his work.

"Some of us have said that you don't feel good, but you feel good about what you did at the end of the day. Like when we were putting plastic down and putting rows in, at the end of the day, you can see that you did a lot of stuff. It feels really rewarding," Koons said.

Three miles from campus, seven UMD students are spending the summer working at the university's Sustainable Agriculture Project, also called the Land Lab or, simply, "the farm." Ten fields are home to more than 80 varieties of produce and the farm has a total output of about 40,000 pounds of food, most of which is served on UMD's campus by dining services.


Beyond the pounds of fresh produce, the farm has provided a space for students to learn about sustainable agriculture since 2009. More than 1,000 UMD students visit the farm in classes or internships throughout the year and all Duluth school district seventh graders visit for a life sciences lesson. The farm has a teacher training garden for teachers to learn how to manage school gardens. It works with the Intertribal Agriculture Council to adapt flint corn to the region. Birdhouses, beehives, bat houses and pollinator plants are also on the farm to enhance the biodiversity of the region's landscape.

These educational opportunities are in large part why UMD's Land Lab was ranked fifth in the nation for "fantastic college farms" by Best Value Schools in June.

"It's an outdoor classroom. It's a research laboratory. It's a production space and a space of community engagement," Land Lab Director Randy Hanson said.

Hanson has taught for 25 years and said he's noted an increase over the last decade of students interested in supporting sustainability and local food production forming part of a larger movement throughout the country. Colleges and universities, UMD included, are increasingly adding campus farms in response to that, he said.

"This generation of students has grown up, from the time they are cognitive, knowing that we live in an unsustainable world and yet, we give them few platforms to practically address that complicated problem," Hanson said. "I think universities can become more accelerators of positive change, leveraging their resources in collaboration with communities and regions to really anchor regenerative change."


Hands-on experience

The farm's student workers typically begin at the start of summer break, working into the fall semester. The planting for this season is now done and students have moved onto tasks such as weeding until harvestime in the fall. They were busy last week using a tiller to pile soil on top of the potatoes and creating low tunnels to cover the strawberry rows.


UMD senior Alyssa Minder called the farm "a collective of skills and knowledge" because each student working at the farm brings a different set of agriculture interests.

"It's really, really a land lab in that sense, where it's a collective of knowledge and we can go out and experiment a little on our own, experiment a little bit around here and then talk about it and innovate and make it more efficient," Minder said.

A high tunnel that houses a hydroponic production system is a recent addition to the farm and UMD senior Austin Parenteau has been working with Mike Mageau, director of UMD's Environment and Sustainability Project, on growing lettuce using hydroponics. Parenteau came to UMD to study environmental sustainability, not knowing the university had the farm. In addition to soaking up information on farming logistics, biology, ecology and marketing from the professors, he's learned about hydroponics and wants to incorporate it into his future plans to become a farmer. He was previously interested in hydroponics and researched it on his own, but it seemed "too intimidating" to try on his own before trying it with Mageau, he explained.

"The biggest thing working here overall is: just try. Try and if you fail, try something different because if you're always waiting to try and worried about failing, you're just never going to do anything," Parenteau said.

Minder didn't know about UMD's farm until she visited it in Hanson's class and became hooked when she helped with the harvest last fall. She said she'd like to have her own farm someday and she's focusing on food systems in her anthropology major. Working on the farm complements her coursework with hands-on learning about agriculture and she enjoys knowing she was a part of the process to bring food to students when she sees them eating on campus.

"It's kinda this unspoken thing where you're walking through and you have this pride. It's like, 'I gave this to the students.' How can I do more of that? It makes me thirsty to do more," she said.


Ripple effect


The land for UMD's farm was once the home of the Northeast Agricultural Experiment Station, which played a key role in enhancing the region's agricultural food system through applied research from 1912-1976, Hanson explains.

By the time the station closed, the American food system was evolving toward more processed food and concentrated food production, which people thought was a good thing at the time. However, the economic and health benefits of local agriculture are better known today. UMD felt it could play a role in educating the campus and community and reshaping the region's food system by reopening a farm on the land, he said.

Hanson said he hopes the farm teaches students what it means to put sustainability into practice and what the tradeoffs are when adding sustainability to key infrastructure. People know how to adapt infrastructure to be more sustainable, but work remains to integrate it into the social fabric where everyone collaborates on sustainability across governments, nonprofits, private businesses and educational institutions, he said. No one institution can do it on their own.

Higher education can accelerate that work, creating a ripple effect as students move into jobs in government, nonprofits and private businesses, Hanson said. Exposing students to the challenges of engaging institutions and communities to become more sustainable often gives them more questions than answers - but provides useful learning opportunities about engaging communities on sustainability issues. People today can "become good ancestors" by starting to make the world a more sustainable place, he said.

"It takes a village to become sustainable. Learning how to collaborate is key and it's very complex. How do you do that with large communities, like all of Duluth or all of the western Lake Superior region?" Hanson said. "It means we have to educate ourselves. We have to educate each other and learn how we collectively produce our individual and community health through food. ... What we're doing is just a piece of what's happening all across the United States and, really, the world in the early 21st century."

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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