Frontiers: Crossing institutional silos

The Sustainable Agriculture Project (SAP) at UMD. Randel Hanson.

The answer to some of the food system’s most difficult sustainability challenges is sprouting up on student farms nationwide.

That was the topic of “Crossing Institutional Silos for Sustainable Solutions,” last week’s Frontiers in the Environment presentation by Randel Hanson, an Institute on the Environment resident fellow and assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

In the second talk of the Fall 2013 lecture series, Hanson discussed the Student Agricultural Project (SAP) at UMD, a 10-acre organic transition farm and five-acre apple orchard located on the site of the former Northeast Agricultural Experiment Station. With the help of dedicated, interdisciplinary faculty members and some hard-working students, the farm in 2013 has generated about 30,000 pounds of produce, 90 percent of which goes to the UMD Dining Services and Glensheen Mansion (itself owned and managed by UMD), thereby helping the university itself live locally, with all the benefits that brings.

At its core, SAP is an example of UMD students and faculty thinking globally and acting locally – a strategy Hanson believes is imperative to tackle some of the planet’s most pressing environmental issues.

“Working on sustainability at the most local levels is probably the only way we are going to add up to a more sustainable planet,” Hanson said. “You look at all the attempts at the global level for climate change negotiations, and while some of them are iterating slowly, for the most part they haven’t been very successful.

“On the contrary, cities, communities and so forth are making big steps in moving this forward because at the most local level, you have personal relationships, you understand institutions and you can create consensus over time in terms of doing the things necessary to harmonize these systems.”

By acting locally, SAP has truly become a community asset. While most of the produce remains on campus, the project works with a wide range of organizations and institutions, including Duluth Public Schools and the Intertribal Agriculture Council. Students also help sell produce to area grocers, giving them business and entrepreneurship experience.

However, navigating through a large university system presents its fair share of challenges, and while colleges are teaching students sustainability in the classroom, they aren’t always the first to embrace larger sustainable ideas on campus.

“[Students] are seeing campuses that are struggling to actually live the sustainable revolution, to walk the talk,” Hanson said. “That’s a real powerful challenge that we all face. How do we alter this giant system of change that is a university so that it can be an engine of transformative change in our broader society?”

While the institutional challenges can be frustrating, Hanson says they add to the hands-on learning experience. With more than 200 student farms cropping up across the country in the past decade, more students than ever are learning that sustainable solutions can start right on campus.

“We want students knowing the struggles with the bureaucracy,” Hanson said. “We want students understanding how to operationalize an organic rotation system. We want students to know how to interact with a grocer so that they bring these flexible skill sets wherever they go so that they can change other institutions. We’re harmonizing our greatest problem – the depletion of natural systems – with our greatest product: our students.”

Watch Hanson’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.