Wolf Ridge Organic Farm

Some of you who walk on the deep black soils of Southern Minnesota that were stripped from the Northland, deposited by glaciers and enriched by prairie grasses might question the idea of farming in the thin and rocky soil of Finland, Minnesota. Historically, however, Finland's roots are agricultural and the community supported its own threshing hall and farmer's cooperative. Its history of 160 residents, four schools and forty farms, is captured in The Geographical Review written in 1934 by Darrell H. Davis, noting "326 acres were in hay. . . and 165 acres in cultivated crops, the most important field crops being oats, 70 acres; potatoes, 65 acres; and barley, 10 acres."

Today, Finland has 195 residents, no public schools and has lost most of its farms. The few remaining fields are used for grazing horses and growing hay. Round River Farm is the one area farm that grows vegetables for almost 100 families by subscription. Wolf Ridge ELC is the one remaining school in the area.

There is a growing conversation about local and organic food in families, schools, and communities. Michelle Obama started an organic garden at the White House. In 2008, the Minnesota Department of Health established SHIP (Statewide Health Initiative Project) in part to "reduce the percentage of Minnesotans who are obese or overweight through better nutrition." The USDA's new Farm to School program hopes to "connect schools with local or regional producers in order to serve local or regionally produced foods in school cafeterias." The USDA food pyramid is now a plate, and food nutrition and safety is on the news along with health concerns about the rising obesity rate. The Wolf Ridge "Seeds of Change" class explores food history, food miles, food points of origin and genetics. These ongoing conversations led us to examine the idea of starting a school farm at Wolf Ridge, and to explore the opportunities such a project could provide to the Wolf Ridge experience.

Four years ago, a group of Student Naturalists and myself set out to put together a "farm assessment". We started by developing the mission to "establish an agricultural production system that will supply healthy, organic and affordable food for the center's meals and provide educational 'food' programs for Wolf Ridge."

In this assessment, we highlighted how a farm would deepen the Wolf Ridge experience by:
* Modeling values, behaviors and technologies which lead to a sustainable lifestyle
* Promoting the concepts of conservation and stewardship
* Providing greater nutrition and food security
* Broadening the educational programs and providing applied learning examples & opportunities

Our first outreach steps involved presenting our assessment to the Wolf Ridge Director and Assistant Director. We identified potential farm sites and met with teachers and staff, including the director of Dining Services and student naturalists, using their feedback to develop and refine our ideas.

We dug deeper into the project by testing soils and mapping the wetlands and forest type at the proposed site. After quantifying the amount and cost of the vegetables consumed at Wolf Ridge and using regional production research and experience from Round River Farm, we designed a potential farm for Wolf Ridge. It would be 7 acres in size, half in silvapasture and orchards and half in the vegetable production, including four greenhouses covering 12,000 ft2 (or quarter acre).

A budget and work plan was presented to the Wolf Ridge staff and Board and was incorporated into the 2010 strategic plan. It remained solely an idea on paper, however, until this year.

In the winter of 2012, a volunteer crew of staff, student naturalists and neighbors began clearing the bushy fields with handsaws and clippers. Early spring found us receiving a $20,000 donation from the Organic Consumers Association. We were also able to secure a greenhouse cost share grant with the USDA Conservation and Natural Resource Service. The fledgling farm began to grow roots. That summer, Guthrie Cunningham, a Finland resident attending Carleton College, became the first Farm intern. He kept the momentum going, clearing and pickaxing fields, seeding cover crop, and landscaping. An access road, well, and electric meter were installed and the first 30' x 96' greenhouse was purchased. An extended Wolf Ridge crew helped dig and fill the 58, six-foot deep footings for the greenhouse posts, and the frame of the structure was erected. Additional fill and topsoil was hauled in before the winter snows halted work for the season. Now we wait for spring to finish construction of the greenhouse and plant the first crops; spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, cucumbers for Wolf Ridge's Organic Farm, now a reality in the making.

The educational opportunities and disciplines this farm will add to the Wolf Ridge experience will extend from classes at the farm to meals in the cafeteria. The example of an integrated agricultural ecosystem will be able to be seen, experienced and tasted. Along with the ultimate goal of providing all the vegetables for the 319,655 meals consumed each year at the center, the farm will deepen participants' connection to the biological systems that nourish us every day. The seed has sprouted and now it is time to grow!

To talk about the farm abazs@round-river.com or call 218-353-7414 and ask for David Abazs, Wolf Ridge Organic Farm Manager

© Copyright    David & Lise Abazs, 5879 Nikolai Road, Finland, MN 55603    218-353-7736    abazs@round-river.com