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RSDP Happenings - Spotlight: Sunny Ruthchild

February 2016

Sunny Ruthchild

Southwest RSDP Board member Sunny Ruthchild.

by Caryn Mohr

In the southwestern corner of the state, in the area where Little House on the Prairie gave a model of pioneer life, Sunny Ruthchild is building a model agroecosystem. On Merryweather Farm in Walnut Grove, Southwest RSDP (SWRSDP) board member Ruthchild grows organic apples, garlic, herbs, and vegetables, taking care to give back as much to the land as she harvests from it.

"I am learning how to live on this piece of ground recognizing it as an agroecology of its own," Ruthchild said.

But Ruthchild also knows that change requires more than modeling practices. Through her role as chair of the SWRSDP's Resilient Communities and Tourism workgroup, her past service to the Redwood County Soil and Water Conservation District board and Sustainable Farming Association, and the tours and community gatherings she hosts at Merryweather Farms, Ruthchild engages newcomers and longtime community members in conversations about environmental sustainability. In January, Ruthchild's efforts were honored with an Individual Achievement award at the Minnesota Climate Adaptation Conference for her work to advance understanding of climate change.

"While [Sunny] invests deeply in her own piece of earth, she also steps up to collaborate and invite others to see possibilities of restoration," said RSDP Statewide Director Kathy Draeger.

Model farm

On her 14-acre farmstead, Ruthchild focuses on crops that do well on her land, such as garlic. She grows 8-10,000 garlic bulbs a year and tends to over 700 apple trees in a three-acre orchard. Herbs and vegetables are grown for her own consumption, and she has started raising orchard hogs to clean up and recycle waste in the orchard.

"I'm trying to move toward a system that is balanced enough so [that] all the products I remove to sell [are] equal in some measure to the inputs that I put into the ecosystem," Ruthchild said.

This means harvesting resources such as waste, rainwater, and condensate for her agricultural purposes. Ruthchild captures water from the roofs of her barns and outbuildings to irrigate her crops. "I can actually harvest a couple hundred gallons of water a day when it hasn't rained for weeks just by saving the water that condenses on metal surfaces," she said.

Sunny Ruthchild at Merryweather Farm in Walnut Grove.

Ruthchild also avoids leaving her soil bare, which allows carbon to escape into the air. She mulches heavily with straw and uses clover to add nutrients to the soil, nurture the pollinators, and keep the ground covered. "I try to cover all of the wounds I inflict upon the ground," she said. "This is how you grow food that is fresh and clean and tasty and vibrant -- by keeping your soil healthy and happy and resilient."

Merryweather Farm hosts a variety of student and community groups interested in learning about sustainable farming practices. Each summer students in a University of Minnesota Philosophy Camp course visit Merryweather Farms to see Ruthchild's practices in action. For example, Ruthchild talks with students about how she harvests water vs. running a pipe down to ground water that would be used faster than it would be replenished, with implications for future life forms. "We talk about what sustainability really means, what adaptation really means, what responsibility really means," she said.

The art of sustainability

According to Ruthchild, working toward sustainability is an art form. In addition to community dialogue, she embraces public art as a means to reach people in a way that traverses fixed opinions. "We have to go outside of the way it's been done," she said.

Ruthchild is a strong proponent of using the arts to cross barriers to break existing environmental habits. "We are creatures of habit, and if we just continue on with our habits as the environment around us changes, we're not going to do well with that," she said. "You have to communicate with [people's] most elemental sensibilities. If you can do that, you're going to cross cultural and political group lines where right now we just can't talk to each other. ... When we receive art, it changes us for a little tiny bit."

The arts are intentionally incorporated into the work of SWRSDP's Resilient Communities and Tourism workgroup, which has named itself Southwest by Southwest (SWxSW). The group takes an interdisciplinary approach to engaging new members of the community in addressing sustainability issues, and makes sure every event incorporates "food, art, music, philosophy, and fun." According to Ruthchild, addressing complex issues such as climate change requires daring to try new ideas, and community newcomers as well as artists and creative-thinkers bring new and different ways of looking at issues.

"Food, art, philosophy, and music are commonly viewed as nurturing wellsprings and attract people's interest," said SWRSDP Executive Director David Fluegel. "The resulting SWxSW approach to revitalize rural communities in Southwest Minnesota by focusing on ideas and projects that enliven the way we gather and relate to each other has attracted new group members along the journey."

Ruthchild characterized SWxSW as a strongly collective effort. Core work group members include SWRSDP board members David Benson, DeeAnn Gieseke, and Sean Yang, as well as community members Darwin Dyce, Denise Fick, Greta Murray, Mike Murray, and David and Merrilee Strom. "Sunny's energetic and engaging leadership style is very welcomed and appreciated," Fluegel said. "She is helping foster new and lasting relationships among a wide mix of people and places in the region."

Rainwater storage capacity at Merryweather Farm.

In a project that is bringing additional community members into conversations about community resilience and sustainability, SWxSW is currently working with a group of Walnut Grove-area Hmong students known as Preserve Language Adolescence and Cultural Education (PLACE). SWRSDP has funded the group and connected them with a University of Minnesota art professor to develop a public art project that would honor the heritage of the Hmong community in southwest Minnesota and also incorporate elements of sustainability into the design, such as a solar receptor that would light the piece in the nighttime. The groups discussed ideas for the project over an initial meeting at Merryweather Farm, dining into sunset on homemade pizzas made with fresh farm ingredients and baked in an outdoor oven -- a scene that some described as magical, according to Fluegel.

In 2015, SWxSW hosted the first of several climate adaptation convenings supported by the U of M Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) around the state. The event focused on how farmers are adapting to climate change and drew more than 85 participants to the University's Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton. Ruthchild also reached out to Pioneer Public Television to broadcast the event.

According to RSDP Statewide Director Kathy Draeger, "Sunny took the lead in envisioning the full-day event, which they entitled Farmers Leading the Way: Where Climate Adaptation Intersects with Agriculture and Food Systems. Sunny put many hours and a great deal of thought into organizing this highly successful event. And she insisted that it not be 'preaching to the choir' or fostering divisiveness. As such she helped design a program that brought in voices from the community as well as University expertise, like Extension Climatologist Dr. Mark Seeley and Soil, Water, and Climate Professor Jeffrey Strock."

Climate Adaptation Award

In January, Ruthchild was honored for her environmental efforts with a 2015 Minnesota Climate Adaptation Award. Asked what the award meant to her, Ruthchild offered strong words of appreciation for the acknowledgement and, in typical fashion, pointed to the future.

"It's really nice to get a nod. It's really nice to have people say 'you're doing a good job, Sunny.' When you're acting as a person out of the fold, when you're doing something different from all your neighbors, it's really nice to get that nod. But the truth is I feel like I've just started," she said.

"Change happens constantly as the universe rolls along, but our human lives are so short in terms of geological changes that we don't typically notice changes in climate. So this is a whole new experience for us that we're going to see these changes coming so fast day to day and year to year, and it's not going to feel right to a lot of people."

According to Ruthchild, people feel confident in their ability to adapt and be resilient in the face of change when they feel empowered to take action. Even small actions such as using a solar receiver to run a pump or house lights are important adjustments, she said. "At least if you take action you can build some confidence and get some hope. That's a pretty good way to start."

And this is where art comes back in. "Adaptation is like a dance," she said. "It's dancing to unfamiliar music and figuring out how to do it with grace."

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