Geography Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota Duluth
Just a generation ago, most people in Minnesota had a one- or two-degree connection to a farm. Whether by growing up on a farm or enjoying fresh vegetables picked that day from a neighbor down the road or at the local market—people generally understood where their food came from and how it was grown.
Dr. Randel Hanson is restoring that awareness through cultivation of the Sustainable Agriculture Project (SAP) at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where college students and community groups experience working the land and growing food they will eat. A few students are paid; others take part as a component of classroom study through internships, volunteering, or special events.
“The concept here is a kind of social farm, where we want to change the long-term notion that agriculture should happen somewhere else, and that it should not be part of people’s lives,” said Randel, who teaches about food systems and regenerative agriculture.
SAP exists on a 30-acre farm that serves as a community food system incubator—or as Hanson calls it, a “land lab” where people learn by doing. He sees the university’s role as a place where students can learn about environmental stewardship, engagement, and gain problem-solving skills.
“We are all part of this,” Randel explained. “We are all creating the consumption problems. None of us are exempt. I am just trying to describe the problem and ask for honest engagement.”
Randel is concerned the current larger-scale agricultural system doesn’t fully meet everyone’s needs. Food is cheaper and more plentiful, but the production and distribution systems set up to support this model can have unintended consequences on local economies and place stress on the environment. And while those are big systemic problems that most of us can’t tackle alone, Randel believes that we can all become more informed consumers.
“We drive the systems by what we eat. Every analysis that looks at agriculture and food comes back to the fact that educated consumers and eaters are central to the work of strengthening our agriculture and food systems,” he said.
SAP teaches students about how to support agricultural systems that last, but also focuses on UMD as an institution, and its role in the regional food system.
“Our dining services at UMD deserve amazing praise for stepping up to the plate in recognizing the value of helping create a link between operations and academia,” he explained. The payoff is compounded in terms of the quality of student experience and health benefits of fresh food raised on nearby farms.
And, the model has inspired students and staff elsewhere to come to the table. “I have gotten calls from many institutions that are trying to figure out what their roles are and how they can respond to demands of students for a better food system,” Randel said.
Throughout each year, the learning curve has been different but one thing remains the same: the interns working with Randel are learning lifelong sustainability lessons that go beyond pulling weeds and pounding in stakes. The program is giving students knowledge that they can take with them and apply it to their own lives and future careers.