Guest post: SFP taught me cheesemaking from the ground up

SFP grad at Northcroft Farm.

Left to right: Sustainable Food Production  graduates Noelle Harden, Kelsey Wulf with a goat kid, and Jessie Borkenhagen with a lamb at Northcroft Farm.

by Kelsey Wulf
Sustainable Food Production program graduate

After attending the Deep Roots event in Watson in September, several of us SFP alumn camped out along the Chippewa River for the evening. In our company were two young fellows who expressed an interest in the SFP program.

I don’t remember what question was asked in particular, but good company and the cozy fire had me feeling even more loquacious than usual. I launched into a long off-the-cuff dissertation about why I love the SFP program so much.  I reconstruct what I said to the best of my recollection in this post.

The SFP program teaches sustainable farming by providing a holistic understanding of what farming is. This is taught in a dynamic fashion.

Say you want to make cheese

Let’s say you’ve got a mind to make your own cheese.

Doctor Sue Wika will teach you how to make that cheese: what ingredients you need, what temperature it takes, how many times you should stir that glob around, and how you should season and age it so it will keep all through the winter, or it eat almost immediately because it is so tasty.

Blessed are the cheesemakers.

Emily McCune’s cheesemaking.

Then Doctor Tom Prieve swings in to break everything down so you really understand the science of what happens when you make that cheese.

He’ll zoom into the cheese-making process and explain exactly what is happening with the lipase and fats so when you are making that cheese it isn’t a bunch of steps and instructions for their own sake. As you make that chevre or feta, you’ll come to understand why doing Step 1 gets you to step 2.

Then Kent Solberg comes into play.

To have great cheese, you must have great animals

You want cheese? Well you had better have some animals that are going to provide you milk. Do you want goat’s milk cheese? Cow’s milk? Here is what you need to know to raise a dairy animal. They are going to need excellent forage. You are nothing if you’re not a good grass farmer. How are you going to sustain those dairy cows on grass and sunshine? By being a darn good grass farmer.

Solberg teaches you how to identify what forage is in your pasture and makes you memorize when and where they grow so hopefully you will have some good pasture stockpiled for when you hit that dry spell and growing slump in August. You’ll learn how to move those animals across the land using different fence techniques. Wear good gloves, for you will be installing fencing. You learn to move those cows before they eat that grass shorter than four inches down otherwise you are going to end up losing the growth nodes on the grass blades so it will take that grass longer to recover.

At some point Prieve swoops back in to take you down into the fascinating microscopic world of soil biology. Not only are you going to end up with excellent forage, you are stimulating the soil, feeding it, making it better and providing excellent habitat for wildlife in the process.

Visiting dairy goat and cattle farms

Now that you have a rough idea of what goes into making cheese from the ground up (literally), we’d better make sure you actually understand what it takes to make a living off crafting artisan cheeses. Load up in the vans, we’re going to go visit some farmers who are doing just that.

Marv Hoffman

Marv Hoffman of Fruitful Seasons (right) discusses milk processing and cheese production with SFP students.

We’ll visit a few different farms with goats or cattle or any other number of critters. You are going to talk with the people who are truly out there doing it. They aren’t going to sugar coat it for you. They will tell you if they are making money from their cheese enterprise. They will tell you about what they have had to sacrifice to make it work.

They will tell you about how their business is not just a business but a way of life and an integral part of their family. They will tell you that it is hard. They will tell you that it is worth it. You’ll hear how they lost a calf last year and what they could have done better and will do better next time. You’ll get to meet the new calves that are out grazing and playing alongside their mamas.

Managing farms, planning businesses

Still think you want to make artisan cheese? All right! Enter Ryan Pesch.

Ryan Pesch is going to teach you Farm Marketing and Management. Bust out your pens and keyboards, for it is time to write up a business plan and get some things straight. How much, realistically, is it going to cost you to start making this cheese? What do you need to buy? How are you going to buy it? What are your goals for your business? Is there anyone out there who is actually going to buy this cheese from you?

Now you’ve got your business plan. You’ve got your animals. You’ve got your cheese aging in the cave or basement or wherever. Now what? Are you going to eat that cheese all by yourself? I can personally tuck in quite a bit of cheese, but you’ve received such a stellar education in SFP you’ve got more cheese than you or your friends can eat so it’s time to share it with the world.

Pesch is going to teach you how to market your farm: how to get your name out in the community, where you might want to sell your cheese, how to be profitable. Wait a minute: aren’t there some rules and regulations you need to follow in order to make and sell cheese? Ah, yes: Wika already covered that a semester ago in the Value-Added Agriculture class.

By now you should be full of knowledge, but also slightly exhausted and overwhelmed. How on Earth are you supposed to get started? What about land? Resources? Support? Again, no need to worry. You’ve been through the muck, mud and manure with your classmates and they aren’t going anywhere. You’ve made a new family for yourself among other start up farmers. Not only do you have your SFP brothers and sisters, but thanks to all those field trips, you have a wide network and community of experienced farmers with resources and know-how that they are more than willing to share.

Next comes  your internship

You are armed with knowledge, a strong supportive community, and you still feel pretty confident you want to make delicious artisanal cheeses. Before you toss out your training wheels and tear off on a Harley, it’s time to intern on a farm.

Luckily for you, dozens of farmers are begging your professors to provide interns, so you have your pick of the farm you want to work on.

Feta in a jar.

Emily McCune’s finished feta.

I didn’t even cover half the information and knowledge you will need to produce, market, and sell (or eat!) that cheese. Again, don’t worry. The SFP program covers it. And what your professors didn’t cover, they’ll explain to you over the phone or in person when you visit years after you graduate.

Cheese is just one example of the amazing interconnected and holistic education students gain in the SFP program. I can discuss fiber, feed, vegetables, farmers markets, CSAs, family milk cow economics, sociology of agriculture, chickens (eggs, meat, feathers, in rotation behind your grazing animals), fermentation, diversified systems, processing, and on, and on, and on.

Want to keep going? Alas, I’ve got goat’s milk in the fridge and cheese to make. Find yourself another SFP grad and strike up a conversation. I guarantee you they can go on for as long as me and longer.

I didn’t even get to talking about our instructor Mark Boen and his wealth of knowledge in running a 2000+ member CSA based out of Fergus Falls! Like I said, talk to an SFP grad and you can go down that road of naturally improving your soil, farm machinery, cover cropping, the importance of worms, planting, harvesting….

Guest post: SFP grad Zachary Paige assists White Earth Seedsavers

 Anishinaabe Seed Project activity.

SFP grad Zachary Paige (left) and Anishinaabe Seed Project members process seeds.

By Zachary Paige
MSCTC Sustainable Food Production program graduate

As a seed saver and farm manager, I am working for the White Earth Land Recovery Project. I have aided in the formation of the White Earth Seed Library, a community-oriented seed library with three branches.

Seed libraries work similar to our public library system: we give out seeds for free to dedicated seed savers. They will return double the amount they took out to the library and document their location, growth, and story.

Sustainable farmers and gardeners are awakening to the importance of seed saving. This energy has helped bring people together under one idea–a great metaphor for germinating our new holistic generation of farmers.  I taught four seed saving workshops in the past two months and felt the excitement of people from different communities and reservations learning sound seed stewardship practices.

Young White Earth Seedsaver.

The White Earth Seed Library is helping to germinate a new generation of farmers.

Through a collaborative effort, experienced seedkeepers in our region are forming the Great Lakes Indigenous Seed Restoration Network. Seedkeepers in their communities can share their seed stories on a website as well as finding people to learn seed saving techniques and grow out indigenous seed varieties.

It took humankind over 10,000 years to create much of the world’s agricultural genetic diversity. We may lose most of that in one generation. As late as 1900, there were more than 1,500 cultivated varieties in North America. Today, only 30 crops provide 90% of the world’s nutrition. By growing and saving heirloom and hybrid seeds, we are actively participating in a 10,000 year-old ritual.

Saving our seeds acclimates them to our northern climate and microclimate. There are many reasons to save our seeds, including saving money and breeding food to your liking by changing the taste, color, frost tolerance, days to maturity, texture and more. Something to keep in mind when we talk about food sovereignty: we have nothing if we don’t have control over our seeds! Let’s close the loop of sustainable farm practices and start saving our seeds.

Another young farmer.

Another member of the next generation of farmers learns seedsaving technique.

Check out the Anishinaabe Seed Project website and my “Seed of the Week” radio show focusing on a different seed every week. Carol Deppe’s “Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’s & Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving” and Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy’s “Seed to Seed” are great places to start as well.

The White Earth Tribal and Technical College will host a day-long seed saving event in the spring. I will be helping organize the 11th Annual Indigenous Farming Conference, which will connect seed savers and sustainable growers of this region (learn about the 10th annual conference here). There will also be a five-day seed school in Shakopee in May hosted by Native Seeds/SEARCH. If you’re interested in attending these events, please email me at weseedlibrary@gmail.com for more information.

Stand for Food note:  Here’s a video of Paige and a young resident of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe talking about their work during a visit to Paradox Farms near Ashby, Minnesota:

Guest post: an area mother speaks up for M State’s Sustainable Food Production program

Katy Olson and Cedar Walters.

Katy Olson, her grandchild, and her daughter, SFP program grad Cedar Walters at the Fergus Falls Farmers Market. Photo by Emily McCune,

by Katy Olson, Fergus Falls

When I was a girl growing up on a farm in rural North Dakota, my mother and the neighboring women were my friends and mentors. I spent countless hours tagging along as they moved through the rhythms of their farm lives through the seasons. They took me under their wing and provided a practical guide for how to live on the land, teaching me how to provide for the basic needs of a family and much more.

As I grew up I took these skills for granted. I assumed that everyone knew how to gather eggs, feed the chickens and butcher one for supper. The produce from the garden filled the larder for tasty meals all winter long. The wool from the sheep, cream from the cows, all provided much needed income for our farms. I remember the pride with which Magdalena shared with Mom that her egg money paid for Ellie’s college and now she was a teacher! Ida’s wool from her sheep bought the family car.

These enterprises were an important part of the farm economy. As we moved away from diversified agriculture on the true family farm, women’s contributions were sidelined and as a culture we went so far as to question whether a woman could “inherit” the farm when her husband passed away.

I have made my own life close to the land, continuing to provide for the family table most of the food we eat. My husband Ron and I grew specialty crops for ten years and our daughter Cedar grew up in the field and market learning the value of working with your hands to provide for yourself.

Naturally, I was thrilled when M-State offered Sustainable Food Production, a farm program to teach these skills to young people who have had little or no connection to the farm life. Or, if a student had grown up on the land, it was a commodities farm where none of the food the farm family ate came directly from the work of their own hands. These young folks who would be farmers were eager to learn the skills that they would need to live on the land and grow food for themselves and their neighbors.

Much to my pleasure and surprise, the majority of enrollees in the farm program were young women. They wanted a connection to land and a sense of place. As a group there was a desire to repopulate the countryside and be an integral part of the community’s food culture. I opened my home to house students. Every day I was privileged to share in their new-found skills and enthusiasm.

To my even greater joy, our daughter, Cedar, decided to enroll in the program. She has longed to return to the land, but did not have a vision for how that might be possible. The Sustainable Food Production Program at M-State gave her the skills and courage to return to a rural life. “I want to farm!” she declared. In her city life she felt she had limited scope for influence but by returning to the land she could have the impact that she felt would contribute to a sustainable future for her and the larger community.

The learning community exemplified by the instructors and the farm partners they enlisted to mentor the students provided a rich base of experience to augment their classroom curriculum. Ron’s and my lifetime on the farm now had a context; our evening meals were spent discussing our life experience and the student’s new-found knowledge. Our larger community benefited as well with community potlucks, a new farmers market, and farm products for sale. I took special pleasure in their enthusiasm in learning new skills. “I drove the tractor and hooked up the three point hitch” was a cause for celebration.

I was saddened by the administration’s decision to suspend the program. Not only does it rob the larger community of its young folks but it also closes the door for these farmers and their desire for a life of connection to the land, of integrating animal and crop systems to producing, of sharing their passion with friends and neighbors. The lack of transparency in the way in which the administration made its decision  is unacceptable. We as a part of M-States tax base cannot stand by and let this decision stand. We must continue to demand accountability of the administration of this campus and the MNSCU system as a whole.

Editor’s note:  Here’s a brief version of Olson’s daughter’s story.  Cedar Walters spoke at the Deep Roots potluck in Watson.

MSCTC was wrong to suspend Sustainable Food Production program at Fergus Falls

Participants in the June 15 Holistic Management of Goats  Workshop at Paradox Farm learn to move and fence goat tribes. Dr. Wika led the workshop on her farm.

Participants in the June 15 Holistic Management of Goats Workshop at Paradox Farm learn to move and fence goat tribes. Dr. Wika led the workshop on her farm.

by Sue Wika
Crossposted from the Land Stewardship Project on September 5

As a farmer, sociologist and instructor in the Sustainable Food Production (SFP) diploma program at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls, I was stunned as I read in Agri-News on Feb. 5 about why the program was abruptly suspended:

“ …’people will move on and start their own farms,’ ” said Mary Devine, director of marketing and communications at M-State. Students don’t need a degree to learn farming skills and the knowledge can be gained in other ways, she said…She added that the college loves the philosophy of the program, but the charge of the community college is to prepare students for the workforce.”

The program that my colleagues and my students built as a national model for an accessible, affordable public community college-based one-year diploma program for sustainable food production is being mothballed because farms apparently just start themselves. That simply isn’t true.

Land Stewardship Project members and allies know the importance of educating and equipping the next generation of family farmers—and how difficult it can be for young and new producers to move into farming. The notion that farmers don’t need training is wrong, as very few young people have the benefit and skills of a farm upbringing these days.

Moreover, as Minnesotans strive to create healthful, economically sustainable local food systems that are community- and earth-friendly, there is a growing curriculum for producers and educators to share with that next wave of farmers.

The notion that agriculture isn’t worthy of post-secondary education flies in the face of over 100 years of American experience, beginning with the agitation that lead to the signing of the first Morrill Act by President Lincoln in the summer of 1862. Indeed, here in Minnesota during the last legislative session, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle promoted funding ag education and research. Moreover, MNSCU isn’t cutting ag programs across the board, only that for sustainable food production.

The logic of this decision—and the rationale for it—are baffling when Minnesotans can pick up any newspaper and read about the explosive growth of CSA operations, farmers’ markets, local food restaurants and community-based public health initiatives to build local food systems that will supply fresh produce, eggs, milk, cheese and meat to consumers. An MPR report on “Fighting for the Countryside” named local food as the first of five economic development (jobs) ideas that excite people.

Fortunately, the community partners, graduates and supporters of the SFP program are working to reinstate the program by developing the “Stand for Food” campaign. Stand for Food has built several social media tools for getting the word out (see sidebar) and providing the public a way to let M-State officials know that the SFP program is a critical part of the college’s educational offerings.

Another way to support this program is to attend the “Deep Roots” community harvest party co-hosted by Land Stewardship Project and Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) on Saturday, Sept. 21, beginning at 5 p.m., at the Watson Town Hall in Watson, Minn. It will be a country potluck social with music and fun catering to new-fangled ideas about sustainable and local food production.

That’s something to celebrate.

Sue Wika was director of M-State’s Sustainable Food Production program and is a member of LSP’s board of directors. With her husband, Dr. Tom Prieve, she operates Paradox Farm near Ashby, MN.

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Tony Baguss: Sustainable Food Production program skills engage me as employee and citizen

Baguss and cuke plant.

SFP program grad Tony Baguss stands behind his degree, as well as  this handsome cucumber plant.

by Tony Baguss
2011 Sustainable Food Production program graduate

While I was attending the Sustainable Food Production (SFP) program many people asked me the question: what kind of a job can you obtain with this degree? I feel this question misses the mark although I put my skills to practical use for the benefit of a local co-op.

The Sustainable Food Production program offers the student a myriad of life skills and will afford each person many niche areas to apply themselves. While I work the plan I developed for myself, I am using the skills I learned to take part in my local food shed by running for and being elected to the board of directors of my local food co-op, Anoka Grassroots.

Sustainability at Anoka Grassroots

I decided to take on this venture as a way to keep myself directly involved in the local food movement and continue to learn in the process. Once elected to the board I volunteered for the executive level position of treasurer and was elected to the position by the other directors.

I choose to volunteer for the treasurer position because finance is an extremely important cog in the model of sustainability; financial sustainability must be among the top priority or any system will eventually dissolve. Working with our general manager (GM) Sarah Super, I develop a budget for board related expenses every year. As treasurer I am in charge of recording all spending and must be a party to all board related financial transaction. This of course does not give me any more authority over other directors, except to be a part of all financial information.

Store culture and local food are also a primary focus for me while making board decisions. The SFP program included several farm and business tours. During the Artisan Foods class, for instance, we toured food co-ops and local food suppliers, small local food restaurants and small scale food producers.

While visiting with Joan Kohan, owner of Meadow Farm Foods in Fergus Falls, MN, we discussed the many challenges to financially sustaining a store with local foods. Among the problem areas were the distribution networks. As locally produced food comes into season, stores try treading that line to meet the consumers’ desires for local food, while also weighing all the pitfalls, such as availability, freshness and the demands of the main distributor. Larger scale food distributors, who carry the bulk of food stuff needed to supply a store year round, are not always so friendly to small scale food producers and subsequently to co-ops and the consumer alike.

As fresh locally produced food becomes available, larger distributors see their total purchases or profit start to drop and in order to maintain their own financial sustainability, some will try to push the local producer out of the equation though technical loopholes or even potentially dropping a store from their route.

Nuances like these were not areas that I was familiar with prior to my time in SFP and with these issues in the forefront of my mind I try to balance pressure on the GM and other directors to keep striving for more and more local food. Store culture is affected when management doesn’t work to separate our store from the big box food stores and one area co-ops can differentiate themselves is with local foods. Names and details about the local farmers and the farm where the food is produced may help the customers feel a connection to that farm or food producer and in many cases feel good about themselves too. The consumers can see how they are a part of the system, where their money goes and who is benefiting from their shopping habits.

SFP Program and my future

As a portion of any Sustainable Food Production class will be made up of nontraditional students, the program doesn’t only cover how to carve your own path in a new farming career. The instruction includes the holistic approach to life’s challenges and each individual’s current situation. Students find themselves presented with personal life choices; these choices are not test questions or even questions an instructor will ask students outright. Instead students are encouraged to be honest with themselves about their current situations, such as their financial situations and invest the others in their life with what we call “veto power”.

As a non-traditional student, I was challenged by these very questions, since family, finance, children finishing high school and entering into college, a home loan and very minimal land to work in the city of Anoka seemed like high barriers. With each student being different, the instructors were very helpful with all of these difficult challenges. In order to have a successful future I weighed all of my options and made the choice to re-enter the work force with a new charge of energy geared at paying down the outstanding loans and debt I have accrued so that in the future I could work the sure-footed plan taught by the Sustainable Food Production program.

Not enough can be said about Sue Wika and Tom Prieve, Kent Solberg and his wife Linda, Ryan Pesch and Mark Boen. These instructors are not teaching simply to pay bills or to go home to watch the game on television. They are living the class everyday on their own land and sharing space with students. Classes may have a start and end time in the classroom but the students who apply themselves will soon be found out on the land, outside the confinement of classroom experience, continuing to learn in real life situations. This is true dedication to the learning experience and we should all be grateful for teachers with dedication of this caliber.  I would be remiss to complete this article without mentioning the inspiration that each student brings to the class. My classmates and those in the years that followed are always instant friends and colleagues. I can find no downside with this program, and it was a sad day for me personally to find out that my inspiration was cut from the possibilities of future students.

All of my current success–whether it is food production, my role as production manager for Fitness on Request or my role as executive director for Anoka Grassroots–I attribute to the inspirational and straight forward instruction I received from the wonderful teachers of the SFP program. Not only did the SFP program better equip me for a job, it prepared me to become an engaged citizen who brings management competences to Anoka Grassroots.

Taken alone, either my vocational success or my engagement are arguments for reinstating the program at M State—Fergus Falls. Taken together, they’re powerful testimony for the vision of its creators.

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Kent Solberg: employers’ demand for graduates frustrated by M State’s suspension of SFP program

Solberg

SFA’s Kent Solberg (right), owner of Seven Pines Farm and Fence of Verndale and an instructor in the “suspended” Sustainable Food Production program at MSCTC Fergus Falls, leading a Sustainable Farming Association-sponsored fencing seminar. Photo SFA-MN.

Guest post by Kent Solberg
Former instructor, SFP, M State Fergus Falls
Co-owner, Seven Pines Farm

On Tuesday, August 13, I had the opportunity to participate in the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center Organic Dairy Day. The event showcased U of M organic dairy research, and provided producers an opportunity to expand their knowledge. Speakers also included a nationally recognized organic producer from Oregon and dairy researcher from California.

During a break a leader in Minnesota’s organic dairy industry approached me. He had two organic dairy farms looking for full-time help and knew of my connection to the Sustainable Food Production program. This person understood SFP students have practical training in pasture management and rotational grazing. He is aware that SFP students receive hands-on training in fence construction and livestock watering systems, topics not always covered at a four-year land-grant institution. Under federal regulations, USDA-certified organic dairy production mandates that the cattle are raised at least part of the year on managed pasture. Cost effective and efficient fences, watering systems and forage management are critical to successful organic livestock production.

Earlier this year I was approached by the executive director of an agricultural non-profit organization. He was looking to fill a full-time position promoting sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately, all qualified SFP already had jobs or were pursuing further training in sustainable food production!

I was also asked by the owner of a local meat processing facility when the next round of SFP graduates would be ready to hire for his expanding business. He had been impressed with previous SFP graduates he had employed. When I asked him why he was so interested in hiring more SFP graduates he stated “Because they care!” He became upset and frustrated when he learned that M-State administration had “suspended” the SFP program because of the perceived lack of jobs.

Students leave the SFP program with a comprehensive understanding and deep appreciation of the entire food chain. Curriculum covers the spectrum of local foods, from production to processing to marketing. Graduates can plug into or create jobs anywhere in the process.

As you have seen in previous posts on this blog, some SFP alumni are involved in production, others in education and community networking. Some are developing new markets. And still others are employed in processing, thus giving credence to the breath of opportunities the SFP program has prepared its graduates for.

Employers understand that often the best employees are passionate about their work. SFP graduates are passionate about local food systems. They recognize that whether sirloin or sausage, carrot or cabbage, food is a gift from the land entrusted to us. Because much of our food is one life taken to sustain another, it deserves respect from production to consumption.

Food thus produced is not simply fuel for the engine of a worker in the industrial machine; it is part of life in abundance. Quality work, whether food production, processing or marketing, is part of honoring the gift and an essential part of contributing to the broader community’s quality of life. This level of understanding is a large part of why SFP graduates care.

Biographical note: According a  March 14, 2012 “News at M-State” posting, Solbergs land top farming honor:

Sustainable Food Production instructor Kent Solberg has received one of the Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association’s highest honors.

He and his wife, Linda, were presented with the Farmer Emeritus Award in recognition of their long-time work in advancing sustainable agriculture. They received the honor at the farming association’s annual conference in St. Joseph in mid-February.

Solberg began farming in 1997 after a career with state and federal natural resource agencies. He teaches a number of classes in the SFP program on the M State – Fergus Falls campus, including courses in grass-based livestock, forage and crop systems, and practical farm skills.

The Solbergs operate Seven Pines Farm near Verndale, and in 2010 they were among eight nominees for the Outstanding Conservationist award from the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and The Farmer magazine. Solberg said at the time that their farming philosophy focuses on “leaving the land better than we found it” and helping others interested in farming methods that restore the land.

Editor’s note:  For some background on Solberg’s observations about the demand for SFP graduates, please check out AgriNews reporter Carole Stender’s Stand for Food continues to seek permanence and Sadie Luetmer’s post Sustainable Food Production Program remains suspended .  Stand for Food responded to the latter in Double standards? M State spokesperson comments on suspension of SFP program.

Two things that readers can do right now to help us persuade M-State administrators to reinstate the SFA program:  Like Stand For Food’s Facebook page for updates–and sign the Change.org petition SFA grad Jen Walla started when she learned the program was being suspended.

Nicole Moore: M-State’s Sustainable Food Production program training essential for Greenway Farms manager job

Nicole Moore.

SFP graduate Nicole Moore, farm manager at Greenway Farms in Roberta, Georgia.

Guest post by Nicole Moore
2013 Sustainable Food Production program graduate

“I’ve read about people like you,” she said, with more awe than accusation. I haven’t seen this woman in five years and there she sits, self-invited to my small library table, expression full of curiosity.

Really?

“Yes! My public health book had an entire section dedicated to sustainable farming. So what exactly do you do every day?”

Anyone in this line of work knows this question is inevitable… and also akin to a can of worms. But I took a breath and let the practiced response come out.

“Well, we do pasture-raised beef, pasture-raised pork, have laying hens and sell vermicompost. We have a diversified garden and a USDA-certified kitchen on-site where we grind non-GMO grains, bake breads and can pickles, tomatoes, jams and jellies. We make our own natural shampoos, conditioners, soaps and lotions. We sell weekly at farmers markets and also give farm tours.”

“Wow. That’s amazing. I’ve never met someone who farms that way.”

Praise from the general public about diversified, sustainability-oriented farming is becoming more common. This comes right on the heels of the official UN report which endorses diversified, small-scale agriculture as the way of the future.

And then came the other inevitable question:

“So then how did you become a farmer? Didn’t you graduate with a degree in French, or something…”

 Sustainable Food Production: How I became a farmer

Dexter cows

Dexter cattle grazing in Greenway Farms’ red clay pasture.

Why yes, yes I did. But I was lucky enough to graduate right when all of the appropriately-conventional, entry level jobs became nonexistent. I was forced to figure something else out. I took a yearlong internship with US Fish and Wildlife Service in Florida, one that could have landed me a permanent position. I opted to go hunting for utopia instead and landed in the middle of Minnesota where I met the folks who would change my life forever.

I’m now a proud graduate of M-State’s suspended Sustainable Food Production program. I live in Georgia and am on the payroll as Farm Manager of Greenway Farms, a diversified, sustainability-oriented farm just outside of Roberta, GA. Though Middle Georgia is somewhat different than West Central Minnesota, the education that I received through the Sustainable Food Production Program transfers flawlessly.

So now, a typical day finds me waking up with the rooster’s crow. Instead of a morning commute, I do morning chores. I call our nine cows and handful of goats home for a snack, giving shoulder scratches and exchanging witty quips where appropriate. I visually check gaits, bodies, eyes and butts for anything out of the ordinary. I check in with our laying hen army next, filling up feeders and watering stations. Hogs follow, though they usually are out frolicking by this time. I freshen their water supply and make sure the electric fence is still clicking away.

I water our house plants and then slip away to the garden. I physically and visually check all the plants, making mental notes of insect presence or suspected damage. I then water if no rain is scheduled (though what in nature and subsequently on a true farm runs on a schedule?) and give myself time to do a couple miscellaneous tasks like weeding, remulching, turning the compost pile or planting just a few more things.

After the morning routine I eat and prepare myself for whatever large tasks the day holds. It’s difficult to give a short answer of what I “do” every day. It all depends.

Farmall

Nicole Moore learned to drive a Farmall tractor while a SFP student at M State in Fergus Falls.

I think most non-farmers are curious about our daily activities and personal histories because we’re unfortunately such an anomaly. So for those curious few, let me give a better picture of who we are and what we do:

Sustainable farmers are true Renaissance People. We know the natural history of our landscapes, the composition of our soils, the needs of our livestock and life cycles of our plants. We are politically engaged citizens of our community. We run our own businesses. We know the demographics of our customer base. We use math every single day. We can drive and park trucks with trailers and perform basic maintenance on our machines. We know and follow the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the water cycle.

We live by the weather and the seasons. We have the flexibility to roll with the punches and the determination to stay the course. We can set goals and obtain them. We have the humility to work in shitty conditions and the intelligence to see the shit as black gold for our pastures. We are strong enough to take a life and gentle enough to help bring life into this world. We gracefully interact with those who take what we do for granted. We are educators. We are doers. We are resilient people.

Reinstate the Sustainable Food Production program at M-State-Fergus Falls

There should be more of us in the United States. We need the support of our post-secondary institutions to equip our next generation of sustainability-oriented farmers with both the knowledge and skill set to succeed. We need programs, like the Sustainable Food Production Program at M-State was, which recognize the holism of sustainable farming. We need programs that arm their students with tangible skill sets, that fill their heads with the life sciences and the social sciences, that don’t teach them what to think but instead give them a framework of knowledge from which to think, so that no matter if they become urban farmers or rural farmers, live in Minnesota or Georgia, they will succeed.

Please support the reinstatement of the Sustainable Food Production program at M-State and the creation of programs like it across the United States. Growing the next generation of sustainable farmers in the United States is absolutely essential to our personal health, our community’s health and our national health.

Editor’s note:  Two things that readers can do right now to help us persuade M-State administrators to reinstate the SFA program:  Like Stand For Food’s Facebook page for updates–and sign the Change.org petition SFA grad Jen Walla started when she learned the program was being suspended.

Emily McCune: For Fergus Falls’ sustainable and local food system to grow, SFP program can’t lie fallow

Potatoes
Emily McCune.

Sustainable Food Production program Graduate Emily McCune.

by Emily McCune
2013 Sustainable Food Production program graduate

Stroll down Lincoln Avenue to the Otter Tail County Historical Society Museum any Saturday morning from now until the end of September, and you’ll get a taste of the importance of M-State’s Sustainable Food Production program for Fergus Falls.

It won’t just be a taste. You’ll smell the delicious fresh baked goods; you’ll hear laughter, music and people exchanging recipes.  You’ll see lovely vine-ripe tomatoes, green basil and purple eggplant.  You’ll lift freshly-picked apples and artisan cheese.

And yet, while the town’s thriving new farmers market reflects the skill-building that graduates of the innovative program share with the community, bureaucrats at M-State have suspended SFP on the nearby campus. As I tell my story–as a new young resident of Fergus Falls and a SFP graduate–I hope you’ll feel the injustice and short-sightedness of that decision.  This isn’t just my story, but the story of many who find ourselves relocating to small towns, hoping for community and opportunity.

From rural refugee to small town champion

Potatoes

McCune learned innovative techniques for producing market vegetables, such as growing potatoes in straw and wire towers.

Having grown up as a city girl in Riverside, California, I had zero agricultural background before enrolling in the SFP program. From my start in the whole/natural foods industry in California, working for The Berkeley Bowl Marketplace, a natural foods market emphasizing local foods, to a stint in Pittsburgh, I’d spent the previous ten years working in the retail end of wholesome food, but I’d never forked over an inch of dirt.

When I relocated  to Fergus Falls, Minnesota to become a fulltime nanny for my three-year-old nephew in 2011, I fell in love with the stunningly beautiful landscape.  The rolling hills, farms and homesteads, and row upon row of corn and beans brought home a new calling: I wanted to get my hands dirty and play a part at the root of the process of food production.

While watching the child, I spent that spring consuming books and devouring every documentary under the sun about our country’s industrialized food system, then began reading about organic gardening and farming. In March, a friend shared news of a Slow Food potluck on M State’s campus. SFP grad Andy Hayner (another program graduate) presented a talk on topbar beekeeping, and I met  Sue Wika and Tom Prieve, who told me about the program they had pioneered at M State-Fergus Falls.

Their pitch seemed too good to be true, and going into the program, I had no idea what I wanted to do with the education I took away from it, As I read the course descriptions, I realized I would benefit greatly from the program, regardless of where it took me vocationally.

Shortly after the program began that fall, I knew I’d truly found my passion in life. I was 29 years old. While most of the students in the program had at least some farming/agricultural background, I had none. I hadn’t set foot in a garden since I was 12. Right away I made the decision to become a market gardener, and I set goals to acquire a little plot of land in Otter Tail County on which I would raise vegetables and chickens while milking one or two dairy cows.

When the semester begin, I discovered that the SFP program is a phenomenal way to enter into food production, regardless of whether or not you want to be a “farmer” or not. I still utilize its practical lessons regularly, including making my own cheese, which was among my favorite activities in the Artisan Food and Value-Added Agriculture class. I learned to save seeds, protecting heirloom varieties. In the SFP program’s Farm Ecology class, I got a start learning about soil health and biology, and the following semester, that knowledge was broadened by the Forage and Crop Systems class held at Blue Bird Gardens CSA near Fergus Falls.

Wika and the faculty designed courses to reach out to all types of students, regardless of background and education, or whether they’re categorized as traditional or nontraditional. The diversity of the students resembled the robust variety of an organic garden. I may have had just signed up for my first college credits, but individuals with masters degrees were planted in the desks beside me.

This program is a terrific way to bring new, young, inspired growers into the local farm system fold, along with older professionals tilling new ground. I’m baffled that it’s been “suspended,” left fallow.  I wish the administration realized what a one-of-a-kind program this truly is, and that it is absolutely necessary if we’re going to save ourselves and our planet. In the next ten years or so, these sorts of programs will continue trending, popping up all over the country. Continue reading

Shelter from the storm: Farm Skills 101 offered in October under the umbrella of the SFA-Minnesota

farmskills101While Stand for Food continues to work for the reinstatement of the Sustainable Food Production program that MSCTC bureaucrats suspended, we’re happy to share news of an opportunity to study with the SFP faculty.

The Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota stepped forward to support the award-winning beginning farmer educational program, Sustainable Food Production, which formerly was a part of M State Fergus Falls.  The Sustainable Food Production is a much needed beginning-farmer curriculum that emphasizes all three tenets of sustainability (ecological, social and economic) and provides extensive skills training.

While bureaucrats suspended the SFP diploma program, the people who created and shaped the program’s foundation at Fergus Falls remain committed to educating the next generation of sustainable and local food producers.  These instructors are all farmer-educators: Sue Wika, Tom Prieve and Kent Solberg. Each possesses both real world experience and the academic background to provide comprehensive sustainable food production education.

Check out the brochure below or visit http://www.sfa-mn.org/farmskills101/ for more information.

Double standards? M State spokesperson comments on suspension of SFP program

Tom Prieve & Sue Wika

In this still from Sadie Luetmer’s video about the SFP program suspension, co-founders Tom Prieve & Sue Wika discuss the ideas behind the program.

Editor’s note: The remarks below given by Mary Johnson, M State Director of Communications and Marketing, to freelance videographer and journalist Sadie Luetmer give us pause.   Johnson said there wasn’t a place in MNSCU for a program like Sustainable Food Production because of the sorts of small businesses SFP grads create:

“There are people that will spin off and go start their own farms or things like that, but…a pretty significant part of community and technical college education is that we need to be able to place students in jobs.”

This metric for assessing a program is most curious, given recent statements Stand for Food has read by MNSCU personnel. Indeed, MSCTC runs a Business and Entrepreneurial Services (BES) incubator program out of the college’s Detroit Lakes campus.  A recent email celebrated eight graduates spinning off new businesses in their communities.  We’re not sure why a CSA or farmers market isn’t equal to a therapeutic massage center. Perhaps Johnson can clarify that for Sadie’s readers.

Kim Lippert, chairperson of Ridegwater College’s agriculture department, told Barry Amundson of Partners in Agriculture’s Minnesota Farm Guide:

Lippert, who has lead the ag department for five years and also farms with her husband, said the higher enrollments are an indication of the strength of the ag economy, the job opportunities in the ag industry as well as a sign of the high amount of interest of young people to return to the family farm setting.

She said about 60 percent of the students in the department’s five technical programs are planning to return to their family farms. . . .

Given Johnson’s view, would that be a 60 percent failure rate since those graduates aren’t “placed in jobs”?

MNSCU administrators have no objection to graduates of other programs who “will spin off and go start their own farms or things like that,” so it’s a disturbing revelation to learn that there’s a unique metric that’s been created for the Sustainable Food Production program at MSCTC-Fergus Falls.

We do thank her, nonetheless, for sharing the fact that not all graduates’ new businesses are equal in the eyes of MNSCU. Do you have the ear of a MNSCU administrator,  a state legislator, Chancellor Rosenstone or a member of the Board of Trustees? Perhaps we should inquire what they think of this situation.

Guest post contributed  by Sadie Luetmer

The Sustainable Food Production (SFP) Program at the Fergus Falls campus of Minnesota State Community & Technical College was launched in fall of 2010 by Dr. Sue Wika, in partnership with Dr. Tom Prieve and other program instructors.

During the summer of 2012 the college withdrew support for an SFP construction project to build a sustainable greenhouse on the campus grounds. Program director Wika said that she was told, despite previous support for the project, that the administration was no longer prioritizing sustainability in the college mission, and the project would be shut down.

In October of 2012 program director Wika received a telephone call from Senior Dean of Academic Affairs, Dr. Gary Henrickson, informing her that the program was being placed on suspension. According to Wika, she received no other warning in advance and no one from the SFP Program was included in the decision making process. She noted that this does not reflect typical college procedure for program suspensions.

Mary Johnson, M State Director of Communications and Marketing, denied Wika’s claim, saying that program faculty were involved “throughout the entire process.”

Johnson said the suspension was due to a number of factors reflected in program efficiency indicators, but “primarily it was due to a decrease or decline in enrollment.” According to Johnson the program never really reached enrollment goals, which she specified as a 12 to 16 student minimum “across the board” for M State programs. The Sustainable Food Production Program had 13 students enrolled in Fall of 2010, 12 students enrolled in the fall of 2011, and 6 students enrolled in 2012.

According to Wika, the program has been offered limited opportunity to advertise, and that knowledge of the program was traveling slowly, “by an informal word of mouth campaign.” During negotiations with M State she informed administration that at the time of the suspension she was receiving more contact from prospective students than she ever had in the past.

According to Dr. Wika, the numbers for 2012 represented a “blip,” not a pattern.

“The other part of it, too, quite frankly is that the marketplace just isn’t really demanding graduates in this program,”  Johnson said. “There are people that will spin off and go start their own farms or things like that, but…a pretty significant part of community and technical college education is that we need to be able to place students in jobs. So while its a very unique education opportunity, and the college as a whole is supportive of it, there isn’t really a huge marketplace for graduates who want to complete the program.”

In the negotiations and communications that followed the suspension, through the end of 2012 and the first half of 2013, the administration changed its position several times. According to Wika, she was told on various occasions that financial strains, low enrollment and lack of high-profile partnerships were holding back the college’s support for the program.

At one point during meetings administration admitted the program was, in fact, fairly low cost, Wike noted. In the last year, she has also presented the administration with funding proposals and partnerships, including a partnership offered by the University of Minnesota, but reinstatement of the program has been continually refused. At one point earlier this year, members of administration said that they were unconvinced of the the legitimacy of the program, and that if the program could be made more “normal,” it may be possible to resume negotiations.

Community members including local farmers and previous students have expressed deep disappointment at the suspension of the SFP program. A change.org petition was organized late last year in an attempt to stimulate the reinstatement of the program, and a number of community members wrote letters to M State administrators in support of Wika, her colleagues and the students.

“The support is fantastic, and we appreciate that people are interested,” says Johnson.  “The biggest part of it comes back to the foundation of what we’re here to do, which is to educate students and find them jobs. So if there are opportunities for these people to help find people that would enroll in the program, and help to find job opportunities and support for the program, and help provide job opportunities and support the program from that perspective, I think we would welcome additional input and feedback from the community at large.”

She was unable to answer whether there are any current plans in the administration to reinstate The SFP program.

The Landscape Garden and Technician program at the Moorhead M State campus was also closed (the SFP program was suspended) last year.

This video was filmed at the end of March 2013.

This post is drawn from freelancer videographer and journalist Sadie  Luetmer’s Photoblog.