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Posted by on in Food & Water Security

During the planning process for the recent Visioning Meeting on Local Food, the early concern was that only three or four people would show up. Had we such meager attendance, the conclusion to this project would have been foregone. Investment in rebuilding a local food system, without broad-based support within the community, would not be financially viable.


The feasibility study on a Local Food Innovation Center for the Pine River Area has centered on several questions. Why does Local Food matter? Why isn’t more of our food sourced locally? What can we do to source more of our food locally? And will those efforts be profitable enough to be self sustaining and of value to the community? Much of our research has focused on these questions, and while it is valuable to look at the reports and data around local food and to talk to area growers about their challenges, it is strikingly obvious that local food systems can’t exist and don’t thrive without communities that support them. So as important as those questions are, we had to answer an even more crucial question: Do enough people living in the area care about where their food comes from and are they ready to take more ownership of it by supporting the growth of their local food system?


The answer to that last question, at least tentatively, is yes. We knew that growers in the area were already selling locally at the Farmer’s Market, and in small amounts to Pine River-Backus schools and the Pine River Family Market.  That was the extent of our knowledge of support for local food. Due to time constraints, we had only two weeks to get the word out about the meeting but the RSVP numbers went from 3 to 47 in a just a few short days. We began to worry that we would have more people than space.


The meeting room filled up with growers, community leaders, activists, economic development professionals, store and restaurant owners, and of course eaters. It is fair to say that we had a bunch of folks who just care. Who cared enough to come spend hours with us after a long day at work, talking about food


We had several goals for the meeting and through the efforts of the extremely effective and efficient facilitator, Dan Frank, We managed to accomplish each one. Attendees discussed and identified major Assets and Challenges related to producing and getting local food to our tables. They then identified Actions to take that would address the Challenges. Then the attendees voted on what they thought were the three most important Challenges, and what they thought were the three most important Actions. As a final activity, they then wrote their names on post-it notes and put them on any Action they were most likely to participate in as a primary step in moving those Actions forward.


The discussion around local food is gaining ground and by virtue of extremely engaged and passionate participants, the process of our primary goal has begun: expand and strengthen the Local Food Network in our greater community. We concluded the meeting with the conviction to go forward with some very simple next steps. We will take all of the ideas generated at the meeting and use them to inform the direction and progress of the feasibility study. We will look for patterns and themes and areas where small action can make great impact.


We have just begun to organize, analyze, and break down all of the feedback but the community involvement through the visioning meeting is a crucial part of the further development of this project. We came away from the meeting with not only a better understanding of the local food system in the Pine River area, but also with a feeling that potential exists for its revitalization and expansion.



We will keep you in the loop and when we need it (and we surely will), we will look to you again for input and help.

Click here to go to the public project folder to access the presentation power point, the lists, a report on the project, and other goodies!

Please feel free to write any ideas or comments you have on Local Food or the Innovation Center below. 


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Posted by on in Food & Water Security


They say that the forests are the lungs of the earth. They clean the air and water, store carbon and hold nutrients on the land. Forests provide habitat for wildlife, from large predators to the smallest microscopic creatures. Yet, for all they do, they provide little of our daily sustenance. This comes from our farms. Farms in America, and increasing elsewhere around the world, have lost diversity as factory model production of our food has become the norm. But our farms, lacking diversity and dependent on heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, don’t clean our air or our water. How can we farm like a forest, and restore the health of our planets lungs?

Photo: New Forest Farm

In fact, combining forests and agriculture is an ancient practice going back to the middle ages in Europe, with Finland and Germany practicing some Agroforestry systems up until the early 20th century. Agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.  In 1929, J Russell Smith wrote Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture. In it he argues that we must grow our food in the model of our forests. His followers include the likes of Hugh Hammond Bennett, Gifford Pinchot, and Aldo Leopold, early pioneers in the conservation movement. For many decades, from the dust bowl through several wars, agroforestry was relegated to windbreaks, buffers, and shelterbelts as chemicals and fertilizers from the war machine were incorporated into our agriculture system.

In the 1970’s “get big or get out” was the mantra in the US, but elsewhere people foresaw the folly in this type of farming. Several research projects around the world explored the potential of agroforestry systems. Many of these studies and efforts, although not coordinated, provided important scientific knowledge about the advantages of combined production systems involving crops, trees, and animals.

In the 1980's two Australian biologists, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison coined the word Permaculture, a design technique that is modeled largely on historical agroforestry practices such as sifting cultivation. Shifting cultivation is an agricultural system in which plots of land are heavily disturbed, cultivated temporarily, then abandoned and allowed to revert to their natural vegetation while the cultivator moves on to another plot. Also known as slash and burn agriculture, there are records of this practice dating to 1000 BC, and despite the nickname, has been an effective and sustainable production model in many cultures for centuries.

The 1990's saw the establishment of the United States Department of Agriculture National Agroforestry Center in Lincoln, Nebraska and the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry as well as initiatives by several other Universities and organizations. But maybe most importantly, farmers around the world began to establish real world working examples of agroforestrry systems that are now beginning to mature and come into their own.

The USDA recognizes five main agroforestry practices.

  • Windbreaks are likely the best known and accepted practice. The benefits of soil and moisture retention due to properly designed windbreaks are well documented. Unfortunately most are not designed to provide an economic yield, so they must be subsidized. Often, when the government payments dry up, the windbreak goes back to corn. Possible windbreak crops include native fruits such as aronia berry, hybrid hazelnuts, or fast growing trees or grasses for biomass. While I disagree with grain based biofuels produced from crops that degrade our soil and pollute our environment, cellulose based fuels have the potential to provide clean burning fuels while restoring soil health, protecting water quality and improving wildlife habitat.



  • Riparian Buffers are another practice who's ecological benefits are well recognized. Once again these are subsidized practices that are not designed to provide a yield. Research has shown that properly grazed riparian buffers can reduce stream bank erosion, increase plant diversity, and improve wildlife habitat, yet buffer programs prohibit grazing. Moisture loving crops such as elderberry or mixed perennial grasses for biomass could provide the valuable ecological benefits we need while providing an economic yield for producers.



  • Properly managed livestock grazing of woodlots, or Silvopasture, has been shown to increase weight gains on cattle increasing profitability. Cost of soil amendments are offset by forage growth and the additional tree growth, from taking up residual nutrients that could possibly leach to groundwater, is a free benefit. Pigs grazed in apple orchards at the right time of year have shown to reduce insect pest in the apple crop. Research out of the University of Florida has shown that intensively managed silvopasture systems sequester six times more carbon in the soil than properly managed open pasture systems without a woody component.





  • Alley Cropping, rows of trees spaced far enough apart to grow forage or annual crops in between, have been shown to improve resilience of crops to drought, and, if trees provide a yield of food or fiber, increase overall production and diversify farm income. Alley cropping systems planted on contours of established keyline swales have been shown to increase water holding capacity of the soil by as much as one-half acre feet of water for ever acre of production, restoring hydrological cycles, fisheries, and water quality.


  • Finally, Forest Farming, growing an agricultural crop under the canopy of a forest, can provide an economic return while managing your woodlot for other goals such as timber quality and wildlife habitat.



As our knowledge of ecology grows we will be better able to design agroforestry practices to be more productive and effective. Agriculture based on the science of ecology has tremendous potential, but to fully realize this potential will take a huge shift of mindset. We must prioritize diversity over efficiency. We must recognize our relationship with the natural world. Aldo Leopold, in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, espoused a renewed “land ethic” which “enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land”. I'm convinced we can solve environmental problems such as dead zones in our oceans, depleted and contaminated aquifers, and excess carbon and other greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. Nature is resilient and has tremendous ability to heal. A food system that relies on chemicals developed for war and technology that reduces diversity can only cause fear and dependance. Ecological based agricultural systems, like agroforestry, can restore our resources, create abundance, and perpetuate security. By farming like a forest, wecan restore thelungs of our earth.

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Happy Dancing Turtle gardens after our first big snow 11/6/14.

Over the past week, it as come to my attention that I am in the minority, in fact, possibly even one of kind, by being a person who doesn't just tolerate winter, but loves it! As snow fell from the sky last week and the beginning of this week, I found it extremely hard to get any work done. Andy Goldsworthy, a British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist, said "Snow provokes responses that reach right back to childhood." It's true - the joy that fills my soul when I watch those snowflakes fall is equivalent to when I was five. I found myself sitting with my back to my desk, face nearly pressed up against the glass of the window, daydreaming of strapping on my snowshoes in my near future. In fact, I was the only person I know that had to choke back a tear when I realized Pine River wasn't one of the lucky Minnesota cities that would receive a foot of snow from winter storm Astro.

I watched from my window as snow filled our garden paths at HDT 11/6/14.

It is the transitions of the seasons that revitalizes my interest in the natural world and offers new and exciting things to see all year long. Sure, in the spring, it will be refreshing to find my first wildflower. In the summer, I won't be able to wait to take my first lake dip. And that first autumn colored leaf is really going to brighten up my day. But no seasonal transition can even rival the excitement of waiting for snow to magically transform our landscape into what feels like an entirely different planet. This soft, white blanket falls, tucking our landscape into bed for the upcoming season. It is that blanket that I can thank for muffling my footsteps as I wander through the snow-laden woods in search of its occupants - a job that is made much easier with my newly acquired stealth! While this quiet season can make many feel like it is one of isolation, I feel just the opposite. I do enjoy the quiet, peaceful and serene hush that falls down over us during this season, but I won't be fooled into thinking I am alone in those woods! Signs of animals moving around, feeding, nesting, and other activities are everywhere! Tracks litter the ground - whether they are from the house cat at work, the mice running into our garage to gobble up stray chicken feed, or the wolves that frequently roam our driveway. Winter is not a lonely season, rather a reticent season, with time for appreciate and reflection. While I may not see animals on every adventure, I see clues that they have been there, and that puzzle can be much more interesting to piece together.

"But if wildlife appeared on demand, we'd be bored silly with the show. Humans have a disturbing habit of disdaining that which is common and easily experienced. I don't begrudge the down times; they provide the anticipatory stage for those moments of glory when you're somehow blessed by being in the right spot at the right time." - John Bates, Midwest Phenologist

Eagle perched near the highway, feeding on a deer carcass 11/4/14.

So who is around to leave those puzzle pieces? Animals have a wide array of strategies to survive through winter. Some leave, some stay and sleep a lot, and some stay and are very active (just like humans)! No matter the strategy, the ingenuity of what these animals do to survive is awe-inspiring! We have said goodbye to our reptilian and amphibian friends for the season. Many of our feathered friends have headed south (an incredible feat - check it out!), but a handful of hardy "winter residents" will remain to keep us company through the cold. It still isn't too late to catch sight of birds on their migration routes! Many Minnesota raptors, like the bald eagle above, will continue to hunt in our snowy surroundings. Our insects and spiders have found a spot to spend the winter, whether it be under the leaf litter, under the tree bark, in the ponds/lakes, in your basement, etc. Different species will spend the winter in different life stages - eggs, nymphs, larvae, pupae, or adults. The bees in our hives have disappeared for the season. The males, or drones, were forced out of the hive, left to freeze to death. The females, or workers, will remain inside the hive, huddled together in a tight ball around the queen, shivering to keep her warm. At her location in the center, the temperature will range from 64F - 90F.

Bee hives at HDT are quiet for the season 11/5/14.

Minnesota's mammals are doing a wide variety of tasks. The bats have either migrated to warmer climes or their hibernation spots for winter. The bears are in their dens, snuggled in for the long snooze when their metabolism will slow and their heart rates will drop to 8 beats per minute! Likewise, the ground squirrels, chipmunks and woodchucks are headed into hibernation mode. Other mammals, like porcupines, pine martens, fishers, raccoons, and skunks will be active all winter, but may sleep/den more frequently. The busy beavers won't stop being busy - but they will soon be trapped under the ice, relying on their underwater food cache to see them through winter. The beaver to the left is testing out the new, very thin layer of ice on the pond while enjoying a snack (11/10/14). While your keeping an eye out for beavers, make sure you are checking riparian areas and lake shores for otters, who seem to enjoy sliding through the slippery winter tundra. Squirrels and mice will be seen scuttling through our woods all winter long, as will fox, coyotes, wolves, bobcats (good luck finding one of these elusive cats!) and, of course, deer. The deer to the right were trying to find food under the snow during our first winter storm (11/10/14). Two other mammals will be sneaking around in the woods, though they have donned new coats for the occasion. Both the short-tailed weasel, or ermine, and the snowshoe hare have shed their brown, summer coats to be replaced by white, winter coats. This change is necessary for these animals to camouflage with our changing landscape all year long. In fact - snowshoe hairs have two entirely different sets of hair follicles, controlled by day length, to complete this feat - can you believe that!?


Left: Ermine with brown summer coat (photo credit: Bob Armstrong); Right: Ermine with white summer coat (photo credit: Les Piccolo).

Although the cold is knocking at our door, winter will be far more pleasant if you can find something to enjoy! If you winter survival strategy is more in line with those that hibernate - perhaps this means curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book (but don't forget to enjoy the sights out your window). If your winter survival strategy is more in line with the river otters, then join me in embracing the snow and getting ready! Finish chopping your wood, put your gardens to bed, winterize your home and then dig out your snowshoes, sharpen your skates, wax up your skis, and find your snow pants! Share the joy of winter with a friend - and bring 'em out on a hike to find those elusive critters slinking around our yards and forests! Check back to the blog throughout winter for animal specific updates and awesome facts! As always - Enjoy the outdoors!


Moon rising over a snow covered lake (1/7/14).

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