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Cultivating a sustainable local food system across Northeast Minnesota

Executive Director David Abazs of the University of Minnesota Extension Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northeast RSDP) is no stranger to exploring  – and applying – models for sustainable agriculture. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Abazs has spent more time working from his farmstead in Finland along Lake Superior’s North Shore.

“I was up late, tilling cover crops into the soil. We only had a 48-hour window on our eight acres in intensive vegetable, fruit, nuts and small livestock production this year,” Abazs prefaced before digging into details and history of sustainable agriculture and local food systems efforts in northeastern Minnesota. In addition to his leadership role with RSDP, Abazs is a longtime farmer. 

Rows of crops growing in a greenhouse.
Greenhouse at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, Minnesota (photo credit: David Abazs)

In recent years, interest and work on these topics has expanded across the Iron Range and North Shore with participation, support and additional capacity from Northeast RSDP.

“The reemergence and importance of local food and food security has provided a platform for our work and efforts moving forward,” said Abazs. He credited community member and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer Sarah Verke, based in the Extension Grand Rapids regional office, with helping connect and integrate a variety of community-based efforts happening across the region. Verke has supported Northeast RSDP’s sustainable agriculture and food systems work through a year-long appointment that concludes in August.

“Sarah has been living here and is invested. It’s nice to have someone local who knows the area, who can help keep our food systems work spread throughout the region,” Abazs said. “Having support from Sarah has greatly improved our capacity in building a broader program.”

Rooted in community

Cultivating RSDP presence and relationships across the region’s diverse landscape and food system has not necessarily been simple, but Verke has not shied away from the challenge. She contributed to a broad coalition of local partners working on related topics and helped educate community members and deepen local connections to farm-to-school programs.

Sarah Verke standing in front of a wall map of the U.S. while putting a pin in Minnesota.
Sarah Verke, AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer

A community member, parent and self-described “noble workaholic,” Verke believes strongly in community organizing, public service and a food system effort led by volunteers and consumers to increase access to local food. For the last five years, Verke has served on the board of the start-up Free Range Food Co-op, which she credited as her “entry into local food.” She also helped convene a local food conference and community conversation in the region, organized around the 2018 report, Local food as an economic driver: A study of the potential impact of local foods in the Taconite Assistance Area.

“This work is about community members talking to community members and about how and why we have to support local farmers — building ownership and that understanding,” Verke explained.

“Having that presence, someone who knows the community, I could see how my connections in the community mattered, how I knew people and recognized people,” Verke said. “I had already built many of these connections, so reinforcing those this year has made my service work even more valuable to RSDP and memorable for me.”

Not starting from scratch

Verke is adamant about the importance of not “starting from scratch” in creating a more sustainable food system in the region, but instead learning from existing networks, resources and community efforts. Drawing on lessons learned from different geographies and existing partnerships has been critical to moving work forward.

Young apple trees growing in fencing to keep deer out.
Three apple trees planted as part of “Let’s Get Growing,” a Grand Rapids High School farm-to-school program (Photo Credit: Rachel Newman)

“I’ve brought learning from the statewide Minnesota Food Charter Network. Even though it’s no longer active, I’ve used their final letter as a guide to our work — understanding how to support regional efforts and the importance of telling stories of food organizations and stories of food,” Verke explained, referencing statewide efforts with a track record of promoting a healthier, more sustainable food system in Minnesota.

In addition to statewide efforts, Verke and Abazs noted how local models and project success stories can resonate even more with community members throughout the region.

One of these local models, The Rutabaga Project, which received initial funding from an Extension SNAP-Ed Community Partnerships grant and is jointly administered by the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency and the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability, has been working to “craft community-based solutions to make produce more accessible and affordable.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farmers Market Promotion Program recently awarded the project a three-year grant to expand its efforts, which will allow even greater regional collaboration.

Over the years, Northeast RSDP has supported a variety of ways for community members to participate in food systems work throughout the region. Funded projects have included joint research, outreach and education on the topic of Deep Winter Greenhouses through a prototype in Finland, “Farm-2-Family” events in Aitkin to connect local farmers to consumers in their communities, farmer’s market aggregation projects in Grand Rapids that help leverage existing market infrastructure to connect vendors to larger buyers such as area schools and hospitals, and an ongoing Grown on the Range blog and newspaper column that engages readers in local food topics.

Digging in and sharing farm-to-school resources

This year, Northeast RSDP expanded its farm-to-school work, helping schools increase access to healthy, local food grown or raised by Minnesota farmers. Local and regional programming helped area partners learn about this topic and strengthen connections between school districts and farms.

“One of the most notable things I worked on was an event in February that centered on the topic of farm-to-school,” Verke noted of a collaborative workshop that Northeast RSDP helped coordinate and convene with local partners and sponsors including Renewing the Countryside, the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA), Grand Rapids Farmers Market Aggregation Project, and the Minnesota Farmers Market Association. Financial support for the workshop came from Compeer Financial and a USDA Farm to School grant.

A total of 47 people participated in the event. Attendees included representatives from nine school districts ranging from school administrators and district superintendents to school board members and food nutrition staff. Community members and representatives from area hospitals and state and county agencies also attended.

A four person panel and a moderator speaking to a group of meeting attendees.
David Abazs (far right, podium) and Sarah Verke (far right, panel) with other panelists during the region’s farm-to-school workshop in February 2020.

The day’s programming posed questions about what makes farm-to-school programs successful, what barriers exist that make it challenging for local districts to implement and maintain these programs, and what roles existing resources such as the Farmers Market Aggregation Program and Grand Rapids Farmers Market can play in regional farm-to-school efforts.

“One of the biggest things a superintendent who attended told me was that he learned and took to heart that farm-to-school programs aren’t ‘all or nothing.’ They can be different from school to school and built upon to tailor to their needs,” Verke said.

In addition to this winter workshop, Northeast RSDP recently provided resources to support ongoing farm-to-school work in Grand Rapids through a project entitled, “Let’s Get Growing.” Rachel Newman, a local teacher, farmer and volunteer who helped lead the project, described how Grand Rapids High School students successfully grew microgreens, created kits to share with students and families at home, and incorporated related activities into other programming.

“We worked with partners to create clear microgreen growing and harvesting safety guidelines. Students grew microgreens at home with their families during distance learning this May, and we planted three apple trees near our outdoor classroom area,” explained Newman. “A student from the class works with me at the Grand Rapids Farmers Market to sell microgreens, with all proceeds donated back to the high school program for growing more food for the cafeteria during the school year.”

Growing kits for microgreens lined up in rows for distributions.
Microgreen planting kits for students and families distributed during distance learning in May 2020 through Grand Rapids High School's "Let's Get Growing" program (Photo Credit: Rachel Newman)

“I have been working constantly to adapt to current conditions, and get as many people as possible, especially youth, in our community to eat microgreens,” Newman said.

In addition to these recent regional efforts, RSDP staff and leadership were instrumental in early efforts to synthesize the needs of farm-to-school pilot programs and institutionalize such programming in the state over a decade ago. These efforts ultimately helped Extension increase its capacity and support for local communities working on this topic.

Today, farm-to-school programming in Minnesota has continued to expand. Numerous farm-to-school resources available from Extension provide entry points for communities interested in this work. They also illustrate the breadth and diversity of farm-to-school programming in the state — from coordinating and promoting the state’s annual Farm to School Month in October to building relationships with local farmers, supporting food skills development, cultivating school gardens and providing coordination and facilitation for local and statewide efforts.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may complicate ongoing farm-to-school efforts, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) released a Farm-to-School Rapid Response grant opportunity that can provide assistance to schools and farmers needing additional support to improve market access in summer and fall 2020. As this article was going to publication, MDA also announced it had received a major grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service to continue supporting farm-to-school initiatives in Minnesota. MDA will match the two-year federal grant to create a statewide Harvest of the Month program to support schools in accessing local food monthly in the cafeteria, classroom and community.

Boxes packed with a variety of things to grow.
Local plants, flowers and other supplies assembled for farm-to-school kits distributed to students and families during distance learning as part of “Let’s Get Growing,” (Photo Credit: Rachel Newman)

Looking forward

Even as Northeast RSDP has adjusted its programming this spring and summer to ensure the public health and safety of community members, Verke and Abazs remain optimistic about the future of farm-to-school, sustainable agriculture, food systems and food justice work in the region.

While her formal work with Northeast RSDP will conclude this summer, Verke stressed her commitment to stay engaged and serve as a resource on these topics and as partners develop more “shovel ready” local food projects. “I do plan to continue to participate, even [if] on a volunteer basis,” she said. “We’re a team and still in this trust-building stage, and I know I have perspective to lend as we keep talking about the needs of our region.”

Abazs will be looking more closely at how social, environmental and economic issues intersect throughout local food system projects and the importance of bringing a lens of justice to RSDP work in the region.

"There are a lot of equity issues in our region. Communities are varied and diverse, some ethnically, some economically. We really can’t build sustainability without justice; we can’t have one without the other," he said.

With this in mind, Northeast RSDP is prioritizing projects and partnerships that more explicitly address historic injustices embedded in agriculture and illustrate models for transforming inequities in the food system. Existing relationships with partners in the region that include Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and 40 Acre Co-op will help inform and co-create such efforts.

“We need to keep building these relationships, connect with and listen to communities most harmed, and not blow it,” Abazs said.

Learn more about sustainable agriculture and food systems projects supported by the Northeast RSDP. For an example of sustainable agriculture modeling in Northeast Minnesota, see The miracle of Finland: What a tiny northern Minnesota town can teach America,” featuring David Abazs in his role as a farmer prior to his position with RSDP

Marie Donahue, July 2020

Marie Donahue works as a statewide sustainability storyteller with the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs).

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